Making Sense of Public Opinion
by E.C. Gach
Last winter I was struck by a Jacob Weisberg piece over at Slate. The thrust of the article was the following: all of our political troubles are the result of…well…ourselves! People just don’t understand themselves or what they want, his claim went, so how can we expect our politics to reflect some form of cohesion when we ourselves don’t seem to exhibit any?
In fact, just the weekend before last, President Obama made a similar comment, only to be curmudgeoned for his partisan arrogance here at the league (by Lisa Kramer) and elsewhere. Speaking at a fundraiser the President explained, “…Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared, and they have good reason to be.”
Those who shot back at the President included Michael Gerson, with who Lisa Kramer was in partial agreement, as well as Rich Lowry and others. Gerson interpreted the Obama’s words to mean, “His critics rely on their lizard brains — the location of reptilian ritual and aggression. Some, presumably Democrats, rise above their evolutionary hard-wiring in times of social stress; others, sadly, do not. Though there is plenty of competition, these are some of the most arrogant words ever uttered by an American president.”
Lowry was offended as well, asking “Is that really what he thinks of us? We’re driven into the arms of his opponents as a matter of sociobiology? Obama can’t bring himself to take the American people on their own terms. He has now explained religiosity, gun ownership, and opposition to his policies (or as he puts it, “facts and science”) all as the products of economic deprivation and fear.”
Allowing some settling of the dust, I think it makes sense to split the difference and say, yes, on the one hand, such statements were ridiculously foolhardy of the President to make. They were “tone deaf,” as the political chatter loves to report. They were elitist, snobbish, and so on. But after admitting that point, how much less accurate does that make them? Yes, the remarks were widely unpopular and considered both hurtful and tactless. But what does that mean for their accuracy or relevance?
People do not always think rationally when scared, in fact, they rarely do (are people disagreeing with that part of the statement?). So if one disagrees with Obama’s characterization of the public, one would either have to claim that people are not scared right now, or that they are, but this is one of the times when they are scared but still thinking rationally (and by rationally, I mean reasoning from empirical evidence and facts using some simple rules of logic, i.e. non-contradiction, etc.). The President’s suggestion is that people are scared and acting irrationally as a result. While this sounds like a reasonable analysis to me, perhaps it sounds like nonsense to most.
And in fact, there is an argument to be had on that point. On the one hand, I watch a horror movie and get spooked by shadows afterward; state of fright leads to irrationally thinking someone snuck into my house and is lurking in the shadows. On the other, some guy cuts me off on the highway, I panic, presumably out of fright, and immediately go into instinct mode and adjust my driving to compensate. In the one case it seems fear has led me to be irrational, while in the other, heightened anxiety has led me to act rationally to the point of making logical split-second decisions to secure my safety.
Still, no matter where you land on the question of the anxiety/rationality relationship we can still explore the sentiment being expressed, however crudely, by the President.
This sentiment, which I think echoes that of Weisberg’s February piece, is the following: a portion of the American public, bigger or smaller depending on how you interpret the data, is confused. No matter how you skin it, there is some level of cognitive disorder occurring in many people’s minds, at least, when they answer polls.
And not to be taken condescendingly, by confused I mean inconsistent. We are all inconsistent at some time or another, and often this inconsistency is unconscious and unintentional. When brought to our attention, we usually acknowledge it and then seek to rectify the situation. That happens either by demonstrating that there is in fact, no inconsistency between our beliefs and new information, or by modifying our beliefs to account for the new information. For instance, my neighbor goes on vacation and I believe he’s traveling outside the country. But then I see him mowing his lawn next door. Either he didn’t go on vacation, in which case I have to modify my belief that he did, or he did go on vacation, and that man mowing the lawn is not him. Either way, something has to give, in one direction or another.
Now why would anyone think that there are large swathes of the American public who are confused/inconsistent with regard to their beliefs?
For one, many people feel that public education is going down the tubes, but many are increasingly satisfied with their school (public or private).
Congress has horrible approval ratings, but most people like their Congress person. Plus, most Americans feel that it’s individual members of Congress that are the problem rather than our political system as a whole. Congress is broken, but the system is fine, it’s the individuals who are broken, but not my individual.
Many people feel that Social Security will not be there for them when they retire and are worried about it, but equal majorities both do not want to raise tax revenue to pay for it, or cut benefits to make it solvent.
I would add that most people want government spending to decrease, but don’t want individual government programs cut. Most people liked stimulus, now dislike it, but wanted unemployment insurance to continue, but didn’t want government deficits to go up, but don’t want other non-discretionary spending cut.
My question is: how do you square this convoluted and seemingly irreconcilable circle?
And let’s face it, when sizable portions of the population think the President is an illegal immigrant, and, or, a Muslim, it is hard to claim that the great mass of our country’s citizenry is well informed, involved in reasoned discourse, and willing to ferret out falsehoods, fallacies, and internal inconsistencies. There is mounting evidence to show that we as a nation are not all that well informed, and that much of the public courted by politicians has just enough time to weigh in on a poll or survey (or vote), but not enough time to do their homework, and that it is not at all unusual to find someone maintaining two contradictory propositions without so much as a furrowed brow.
And this is not a partisan attack. I hope it is not interpreted as such. Conservatives as well as Liberals, Socialists as well as Libertarians, should all be equally concerned about raising the level at which facts, scientific evidence, and logical reasoning are valued in discourse. Gerson should be as concerned about this inconsistency and conceptual disorder as Weisberg. And in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if those on the right, so quick to defend the intellectual idiosyncrasies of the public today, don’t find themselves criticizing those same eccentricities when left to govern tomorrow.
My own theory is that this political Schizophrenia/cognitive inconsistency is either, (a) actually just an illusion, and my own biases won’t allow me to see the underlying order, or, (b) a reflection of the actual amount of time most people are able/wiling to spend getting their political beliefs in more orderly alignment.
Hailing from the state of Pennsylvania, I watched the first of two televised debates last week between Senatorial candidates Joe Sestak (D) and Pat Toomey (R). At one point, both candidates had apparently spent so much time over their 60 seconds allocated for responses that the moderator asked them to agree to 45 second responses and 15 second rebuttals for the remainder of the debate. This was, I presume, so that the debate questions could be ceremoniously and superficially gone through before the start of ABC’s Wednesday night line-up starting at 8:00 PM.
So the question I leave to you is, are Americans driven to crappy prime time sitcoms to escape the mess that is our national politics, or is our national politics a mess because Americans cannot spare a night of crappy sitcoms to deal, even superficially, with the political issues facing them?