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Mobocracy: How the Media's Obsession with Polling Twists the News, Alters Elections, and Undermines Democracy Hardcover – January 22, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Conservative fears of democracy as "mobocracy" and "undermining authority" are as old as democracy itself; political commentator Robinson updates these fears with a highly selective attack on media polling. He addresses serious concerns rising voter ignorance, apathy and alienation, conflict-based horse-race politics, and the increased breakdown of deliberative democracy but does so with little sense of the structural, historical and analytical approaches used by more progressive authors to approach these same problems. He claims inaccurately that voter participation peaked in 1960, rather than 1876, and he connects voter apathy with the welfare state, ignoring the high voter turnout figures in Europe's more robust welfare states. Robinson rightly identifies the methodological sloppiness riddling most media polls and criticizes the media for not discussing their data-gathering procedures, but he's guilty of the same crime he examines polls selected on no apparent basis beyond his agenda of conflating their faults with the media's alleged liberal bias (which he asserts but never tries to prove). By insisting that polls saved Clinton from "the rule of law," Robinson ignores substantive arguments against impeachment by hundreds of constitutional scholars, as well as media calls for impeachment or resignation that contradict his claim that media agendas drove the polls. True believers will find a comforting elaboration of cherished beliefs others will find much heat, but scant light.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Robinson, a radio and television commentator, probes the increasing media reliance on polls to measure the trajectory of public opinions and political careers. The author examines how political reporters, pundits, and handlers use polling data to suit their purposes, make their point, and support their spin. Results are often skewed by the wording of polling questions; typically, Americans favor ideas that sound good but will hesitate when the cost of implementing the good idea is mentioned. Robinson examines several polls taken by media outlets and how the results affected reporting. "Polling has become the high-octane fuel of American political debate," with pollsters gaining celebrity and press coverage of elections that increasingly are driven by polls rather than issues. Robinson cites evidence that polls, said to be objective measures of public sentiment, actually cut off political debate and undermine new ideas. Premature reporting on the 2000 presidential election results, based on polls, has fueled calls for change. Robinson includes some suggestions for reform in a book that will appeal to readers interested in media and politics. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Prima Lifestyles; 1st edition (January 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0761535829
  • ISBN-13: 978-0761535829
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,325,159 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 10, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I didn't read the book - rather I'm commenting on the sophomoric review by the anonymous Publishers Weekly reviewer. I had to rate the book to post this comment so forgive my choice of 5 stars based simply on the silliness of the review. I counted 7 criticisms and negative comments in the review of the book. I'll tackle just 2 of these:
The reviewer claims turnout in presidental elections peaked in 1876 rather than 1960. It is true that 82.6% voted in 1876 versus 65.4% in 1960, however, presumably the book's author was discussing the modern age of voting, following the advent of women's suffrage in 1920. For the reviewer not to even consider this huge distinction betrays an enormous prejudice. Modern academic papers discuss the reasons for the drop in turnout since 1960, despite increased SES, which tends to raise turnout. Therefore, the drop since 1960 is the center of a fairly brisk scholarly debate.
Secondly, the reviewer claims that the book is wrong to connect voter apathy with the welfare state since Europe has "more robust welfare states" and higher voter turnout. While I can't address the book's claim that welfare is responsible for low voter turnout, a decrease in social connectedness (less married, less church-going), which may be somewhat linked to welfare, is the strongest variable dampening U.S. voting (By the way, the above is not moralizing ... I don't go to church. It's based on scholarly analysis; for example, see Ruy A. Teixeira "The Disappearing American Voter").
Meanwhile, the reasons Europe has greater turnout are varied and not related to a robust welfare state as the reviewer insinuates. Proportional representation (such as in the Netherlands) or direct presidential voting (like in France), increases the benefits of voting.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Andrew S. Rogers VINE VOICE on April 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover
If, as certain types of people never tire of reminding us, 'the United States is a republic, not a democracy,' it's legitimate to ask just how much attention the shifting winds of 'public opinion' really deserve. In fact, the Founders devoted much time and ink to this question, and our Constitution was devised with a number of mechanisms for insulating government from fickle populism. As Matthew Robinson makes clear in this important book, though, things have changed tremendously. And not for the better.
As Robinson describes it, a number of mutually reinforcing factors are at work here. For one thing, the American people don't know their civics very well (to put it mildly). 'Almost six in ten Americans, 59 percent, think the president, not Congress, has the power to declare war. Thirty-five percent of Americans believe the president has the power to adjourn Congress at his will. Almost half, 49 percent, think he has the power to suspend the Constitution. And six in ten think the chief executive appoints judges to the federal courts without the approval of the Senate (p. 189-190).' Opportunistic politicians and a media obsessed with the short term exploit this ignorance to promote, Robinson argues, left-wing political agendas and demonize those people and ideas of whom they disapprove.
The classic example of this, he says, was the Clinton impeachment debate, in which the American people apparently were persuaded that removing a president for high crimes and misdemeanors would constitute a 'coup' 'overturning the election' (an argument the Clintonites reinforced because their own polling showed it was working) -- as though Bob Dole and not Al Gore would somehow become president. For craven politicians, the fact that Clinton still had 'high approval ratings' was enough to justify acquittal.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Verytired75 on January 29, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Matthew Robinson's "Mobocracy" is a new and fascinating analysis of the media's obsession with opinion polls, and on media bias and manipulation. Robinson demonstrates how the media effectively use polls as a tool of political persuasion. He details the methodology involved and surveys all the major literature in a scholarly--though engaging--fashion. Informed by an exhaustive understanding of our nation's Founders, Robinson insightfully analyzes and demonstrates the major threat that the media's use of polls fundamentally poses to our constitutional democracy, and to our liberty. This book is a must read for any serious student of American politics.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By D. Swager on September 17, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Robinson's Premise is that the use of polls is killing the deliberative debate envisioned by the founders. I have to agree, not only because Robinson makes a good argument, but I've experienced it in various business and community initiatives.
Robinson starts by examining errors common in polling methods and how these errors make it impossible to read actual public intentions. The book moves on to deal with specific issues of selecting an appropriate sample and wording problems.
It is the second half of the book that I find most interesting. It is here that Robinson discusses the unitended consequences of polling. Mainly that polling cuts off debates, sometimes before it starts. Additionally that wording variations and issue framing changes demonstrate that in most cases the "opinion" measured is very soft. It is unfortunate, but necessary, that Robinson uses the Clinton impeachment and compares and contrasts with the Nixon impeachment polls. In both cases, the people gave the president the benefit of the doubt. Slowly as more information became available opinion turned, but in both cases the public prefered that the president resign than have congress remove him. Finally, Robinson looks at how journalistic and idealogical biases are evident in what is polled, how, when and what numbers actually get reported.
One significant omission by Robinson is the misleading use of "margin of error". When sampling, one normally tests a number of items in a sample. Then to ensure that the sample is representative of the whole polulation, another sample of items would be tested. This leads to information about the two samples. One then could infer how representative the samples are to the whole popluation.
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