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Good God! There go the approval ratings

Posted Aug. 02, 2011, at 6:41 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 02, 2011, at 7:12 p.m.

“Every effect that one produces gives one an enemy. To be popular one must be a mediocrity.”

So Oscar Wilde wrote in “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” And if you don’t believe Oscar, read a recent Public Policy Polling survey, which found that 33 percent of people approved of the job congressional Republicans were doing — 55 percent disapproved — while 33 percent approved of Democrats (54 percent disapproved).

This, we can agree, is standard fare. More telling was the question tacked on after the Congress queries:

If you believe in God, how do you feel about the job (God) is doing?

It turns out that about as many people, percentagewise, approve of God as disapprove of Rupert Murdoch (52 percent vs. 49).

Agnostics weren’t sure. Atheists were not included in the sample. But just 52 percent? This is people who believe in God! “I’m sure I believe,” they say. “But I don’t know that I approve. This is, oddly enough, the converse of my stance on homosexuality.”

Who are these people who believe in God but presumably think they would do a better job?

“Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine scheme of Creation?” asks a character in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” It’s a fair point, I suppose, at least from the perspective of those being surveyed. Perhaps they’re not really sold on humpback whales. Or they wonder what’s up with the dinosaur bones buried everywhere. Or they’ve noticed that bad things keep happening to good people while bad people have benefits showered on them, such as being elected to office and given responsibility for resolving the debt crisis.

But this is the trouble with approval ratings. A camel is not a horse designed by committee. A camel is a horse if whoever responsible was fixated on the poll numbers. Said responsible person would probably send news releases pointing out: “We’ve added a lot of great features without losing any of the classic horselike elements you fell in love with.” If God were to behave anything like the present Congress or administration, God would probably be in panic mode, redesigning all the giraffes; making cuter, more innocuous bears; and canceling all the currently scheduled natural disasters.

And if this teaches us anything, it might be that approval ratings are meaningless. “Lord,” we say, “assuming You exist and wish to be capitalized, we have a few suggestions. We think only good things should happen to everyone all the time. Also, disasters are terrible and poll badly with the youth. Twice as many young people in the coveted 18-to-29 demographic disapprove of the way you’ve handled them.”

President Obama endures dark nights of the soul when he fails to maintain an approval rating above 46. But even among people who believe, God rates no higher than a 52. Meanwhile, only 71 percent of respondents approved of God’s job of creating the universe. (Five percent disapprove, leading one to believe that they were just messing with the pollster. “Cuttlefish,” say the other 24 percent. “C’mon.”)

After a certain point, this is ridiculous. “Look, if you want to do big things,” thunders a voice from the heavens, “you have to stop trying to please everyone. You can’t please all the people all the time. You can’t even fool all the people all the time. The polls are a big proponent of having and eating your cake at the same time. This, in the real world, is not possible.”

“Unless you have two cakes,” we say.

“Shut up,” saith the Lord.

Sure, the polls say that the American people want compromise, but scratch the surface and it turns out that we want the kind of compromise that involves no actual concessions from anyone. Compromise away, we say, and make balanced cuts. Just don’t raise taxes or shrink entitlements! It’s the two-cake problem — and we may soon run out of cake entirely. How about cutting foreign aid, federal pensions and welfare, the public asks. What about the other 85 percent of the budget, everyone responds.

Perhaps a miracle is in order. But miracles seem in rather short supply lately. So perhaps it was good that God was ranked. It puts things in perspective. If the entity ultimately responsible for getting us into this mess can’t pull better than a 52, we ought to cut ourselves some slack. As Wilde points out, any effect — even a humpback whale — produces some degree of unpopularity. God can’t poll above a 52? If Congress can, maybe it’s doing something wrong.

Alexandra Petri is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial page staff.

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