Viva, Vox Pop

Polls get all the attention because we are a numbers-obsessed culture. But there's another conduit for America's moods

There's one thing we can predict with absolute certainty: In the waning hours of Tuesday evening, some journalist somewhere will report that "the American people have spoken." Yet if you've been following this election, you know that the people have already spoken—over and over and over, through news outlets and their incessant polls.

Polls get all the attention because we are a numbers-obsessed culture. But there's another conduit for America's moods that plays a major role in the way reporters frame a big election, although it's rarely analyzed or even discussed.

I'm talking about the Man (or Woman) on the Street—the supposedly representative citizen who appears in so many news stories as a proxy for the public at large. These people offer no special expertise or inside knowledge; their chief value is their seeming ordinariness.

Earlier this week, in a story datelined Asheville, N.C., The New York Times reported on congressional races featuring relatively conservative Democrats, including former Washington Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler: "Mr. Shuler grew up in a Democratic family, the son of a mailman in Bryson City, N.C. He has set out to bring Democrats who have voted Republican, like Brenda Davis, back into the fold. From behind the counter at the Spud & Deb's hunting and pet supply store in Enka, N.C., Ms. Davis, 41, said she voted Republican in the last election because of her religious beliefs, but this time is supporting Mr. Shuler. 'Considering my son is a marine and he's done two tours in Iraq,' Ms. Davis said, 'I'm with the Democrats.' "

In Britain, they call this a vox pop, from the Latin "vox populi," or "voice of the people." It's a nice phrase, in that it captures both the grandiose pretensions of the device and its actual function as a crude shortcut. Think about it: A single individual, encountered in apparently random fashion, serves as a stand-in for thousands, even millions, of others. The particular becomes the general, all in a matter of a few easy lines.

It's reductive, yet if done with a certain level of craft, oddly effective. The above example works not just on the strength of the quotation, but thanks to that one daub of rustic color. Spud & Deb's is the ur-Mayberry detail that gives the vox its pop. Had the woman been encountered in, say, Wal-Mart, it would have spoiled everything.

These last few weeks have been high season for vox pops, which have been turning up everywhere. As always, in the most laughable ones nameless folk materialize out of nowhere and efficiently spit out exactly the inane nugget the pat story line needs. Thus, ABC News aired a story last weekend about how some well-known American corporations—Home Depot, Target, Starbucks, Domino's Pizza, etc.—make political donations, and it scarily suggested that consumers who buy products and services from those companies are effectively supporting their political choices.

Two vox pops were in the story, both women. The first, a stern schoolmarmy type, was all plain-spun dudgeon: "There's better ways they can use this money than supporting politicians." The second, further down in the story, struck a more resigned tone, thus setting up the denouement: "I'm not too happy, but then at the same time there's not very much I can do besides vote."

And your vote means everything, dear.

But let's not be churlish. Vox pops are a treasure. In a political culture ruled by demography, anecdotal particularity becomes an act of subversion. Yes, they're contrived and not half as random/serendipitous as they pretend to be. The canny reporter trolls far and wide for good vox pops and selects only the best. The vox speaks for the people to the extent that it serves that reporter's crass needs, and not a syllable more. These are narrative instruments.

But as long as they are truly speaking their minds, and we quote them accurately, who cares? The magic of vox pops is the way they are simultaneously singular and representative: In voicing their own views they become something larger than themselves. And what's more American, finally: today's Zogby numbers or the latest poop from Spud & Deb's?