Legend has it there was a time in the history of the United States Congress when great statesmen debated the issues of the day.
19th Century Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster is considered by historians to be one of the greatest statesmen in the history of the United States Congress.
Today we have another Daniel Webster in Congress. Congressman Daniel Webster currently represents the 8th District of Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Unforunately, today’s Daniel Webster is no statesman. I could say harsher words, but that would be ungentlemanly.
Here is the definition of “statesman” (fittingly, from Webster’s Dictionary online).
Statesman: noun \ˈstāts-mən\
1. One versed in the principles or art of government; especially : one actively engaged in conducting the business of a government or in shaping its policies.
2. A wise, skillful, and respected political leader.
Technically, by the first definition, Congressman Webster fits the bill. However, he falls far short of the mark by the second definition.
What has Congressman Webster done do draw my ire?
He messed with my data.
Actually, he didn’t just mess with my data. He messed with your data. He messed with our data – data used by social scientists, economists and businesspeople to the benefit of our society.
But it goes even deeper than that. He messed with the very idea of the rightness of collecting and analyzing information for society’s benefit.
Specifically, Rep. Webster sponsored a successful amendment to a congressional funding bill to prohibit any funds from being spent on the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The ACS is the annual survey which collects a vast amount of information about American society; it is the legacy of the former decennial census “long form.”
You see, there are two pernicious movements in American politics:
- one which casts aspersions on anything that has to do with knowledge, books, learning or education. These ideas are considered somehow the purview of elite bureaucrats and academics who care little about the common man.
- another which presupposes that the federal government is an Orwellian “big brother” trying to find out intrusive information about average people in order to bring about some sort of dystopian future.
I’m afraid Rep. Webster is trying to cash in politically on these movements. You see, he’s presumably an intelligent man. Surely he understands the importance of collecting data on our society.
Yet he is willing to sacrifice the data which benefit America and the world for political expediency.
For the political pollsters out there, I say it is incumbent on you to defend the ACS and other federal statistical surveys to your clients in Congress and the federal government, particularly if they are like-minded with Rep. Webster.
Here are a few things regular people can do:
Second, make noise. Add your voices to mine, and speak out when you see powerful people disparaging data.
Third, take action. Americans, contact your government leaders to let them know you support the American Community Survey. Citizens of other countries, be on the lookout for similar political phenomena.
We should aspire to act like statesmen, even when our leaders do not.
Have a look at Rep. Webster’s statement as he introduced the amendment last week.