October 21, 2016

WEISSMANN | Taking America’s Pulse

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I recently read a piece of advice that asked writers to pinpoint the topic, issue or event they would least like to write about, and then go write about it. Mine wasn’t a difficult answer: the all-consuming political hellhole that is the current election. So, here goes.

Wait! Do not stop reading. I know that the political opinion of a twentysomething college co-ed is not one you’re eager to hear. But I will not, in the following article, discuss any of the following: the electoral college, the preferred civic duties of a voter, the supposedly rigged media, policy or the dead squirrel that Donald Trump calls hair. Instead I’m going to talk about a class I’m enrolled in here called Taking America’s Pulse. The premise of the course is simple: each student in the class submits a survey question on a topic of their choice — anything from climate change to politics to racially charged issues to whether full body contact should be eliminated in youth sports. The survey is then compiled and coded and carried out at Cornell’s Survey Research Institute. All this to say that I’ve been spending a few nights a week at a polling center with a phone to my ear, trying to swindle people across the continental U.S. into taking a 15 minute poll using coercion and a dose of good cheer. (If you take the survey, we’ll stop calling you, we really will.)

In class, we dabble with the polling data and analyze survey ethics, the moral of the course being that most if not all statistical data is at the very least imperfect. Outside class, I am calling America, and America usually hangs up on me. The call list is randomized throughout the Continental U.S., and when a Southern state area codes pop up, I prepare for the possibility of being cursed out – or prayed for. Florida is typically a grab bag; the elderly population makes for willing but hard of hearing participants. With states further west, you can usually count on fairly liberal opinions and people who are shocked to learn that they still in fact own a landline. It’s exhausting — my status as a non-telemarketer is frequently questioned, I am leaving overly chipper messages on answering machines that will never be returned and there is a stiff crick in my neck developing from holding a phone to my ear. But the best thing that has come of conducting a national poll has by far been the few people who jump at my pitch and agree to take the survey, agree to have their voices heard, no matter what opinions they hold.

I spoke to a middle-aged man who refused to answer the gender question, noting that gender is non-binary. I chatted with a college student who supported the Black Lives Matter movement with palpable emotion. I talked to a young man in his early 20s who elaborated at length as to why people of different racial backgrounds should not date (and, in a testament to my willpower, I did not lose it). I’ve spoken to people who think that too many immigrants enter our country; I’ve spoken to people who think that the opposite. I administered the survey to a woman who thought that public high schools should make condoms available to their students but also championed abstinence-only education. (What, like the kids are just going to make balloon animals?) I’ve talked to Hillary voters and Trump voters and people who don’t think voting is important. On the phone, I cannot chime in, cannot take sides or nudge anyone towards an answer. The ability to groan or reprimand some of the (to me, abhorrent) viewpoints I’ve been privy to is not an available option. But I don’t mind. I had forgotten what a privilege we have in the country in being granted our individual opinions.

This election sometimes feels like the last season of a television show where the writers have given up on a believable plot. In the polling calls I find humor and occasionally horror, but I also find sincerity. These are people large and small, of different ages and incomes and raised under different beliefs, who care enough about the litany of problems facing our country to take a stance. They remind me that I am not the only person on the planet who believes she has a valid, logical, researched perspective on the issues — something I think we all get caught thinking during an election year as we preach our own personal dogma to the depths of the internet. After all, the opposing side believes you to be just as irrational as you believe them to be. In the past months I was beginning to believe that America as we know it was in the midst of a slow death. But I’ve been spending my nights taking America’s pulse, and in a way, we’re far from needing life support.

Ruth Weissmann is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. A Word to the Weiss appears alternate Fridays this semester.