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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Mr. Gallup would be sad

A Walmart sidewalk poll is very revealing-but only about the state of civil discourse

Issue: "2011 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2011

I've never pretended that the occasional Walmart sidewalk polls I've conducted through the years had any statistical significance. But the death of George Gallup Jr. in mid-November reminded me how long it had been since I'd done such a parking lot survey. Even if Gallup's team of professionals might not fully approve my sampling methodology, his experts would have to be fascinated with the nitty-gritty responses I've typically gotten from the Walmart shoppers.

So I grabbed my umbrella on this rainy Monday morning and headed out. Today, I thought, my question would be a model of simplicity and fairness: "Is there any particular message you'd like to send to the government in Washington?" And then I would listen and take notes. Who could second-guess so straightforward an inquiry?

Who? Just about everybody, I discovered. The anger and distrust that so many in the body politic have directed toward Washington sloshes over those of us in the media as well. Even if they've never heard of us-and only a few of those in my Walmart survey had heard of WORLD-they assume we're just part of the problem.

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"What are you selling?" Fully two-thirds of those I approached were suspicious of my motives. "No, honestly," I countered. "I just want your opinion." "Sure," one of them responded bluntly. "Just like all the other crooks in Congress." He wouldn't give me his name.

I'd learned to carry a bag of recent issues of WORLD, so that when someone doubted my legitimacy, I could show them that I really was going to translate this conversation into a magazine column. But just as soon as they saw the magazines, they were sure I was a salesman. I couldn't win.

Then things got worse. Mina Corbett (she was happy for me to know her name) asked suspiciously how she could be sure I would quote her accurately. "How do I know," she asked as I scribbled furiously, "that you aren't in this with all the rest of them? How do I know you're not here just to make me look foolish?" I promised her I would send her a finished copy of the magazine. But, overwhelmed now with caution, she was reluctant to give me either her address or her phone number.

How, in this muddle of belligerence and suspicion, are those of us in the media ever supposed to report accurately what people are thinking? I had what seemed to me a pretty non-threatening question-but after three or four attempts, I hadn't even gotten to a cordial, trusting exchange.

My thoughts went back to the Gallup organization. For many years, they've been the gold standard of a sophisticated scientific approach to discovering what the public thinks on a host of different topics. Are the Gallup people having the same trouble I'm having this morning? I wondered.

The fact is that they are having the same trouble. So is our whole society. George Gallup's death might even be seen as symbolic of the death of some pretty basic levels of civil discourse. Now it's not just that a number of topics (like religion and politics) are considered unseemly for personal discussion. It's that personal discussion of almost any sort has become suspect. It's too intrusive. How do I know I can trust you with such personal matters?

I'd done these Walmart surveys a number of times during the 1990s when Walmart was right next door to our offices. Then came the day, half a dozen years ago, when the manager of what had become a Super Walmart asked me to move on. "We don't want you upsetting our customers," he told me.

Indeed. So it's become upsetting now to ask a shopper very simply: "Is there any particular message you'd like to send to the government in Washington?" Until today, no shopper had ever suggested to me that I was being overly intrusive. Today, almost all of them seemed to think I was overly nosey.

So there's no Walmart sidewalk survey this week. I have to go refine my social skills. What I used to think was material for a civil but robust discussion now seems out of bounds. I hope this is a temporary diversion-or maybe just the rainy weather. But if it's something more, even George Gallup's experts are in for some real trouble.

Email: jbelz@worldmag.com

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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