The Natives Are Restless

John Tierney doesn’t understand voters.

You may have heard that American voters are disappointed. They are disappointed with Dennis Hastert and the rest of Congress. They are very disappointed with the war in Iraq. They are very, very disappointed with President Bush.

I share their unhappiness, but I must confess to one further regret. I am disappointed with the voters — or at least the ones who show up in public-opinion polls. They keep complaining that Washington doesn’t understand what they want, but who on earth could?

Since “voters” are hardly a monolithic group, you might assume that “voters” want many diverse and conflicting things. But if you keep reading Tierney’s column, you’ll notice that Tierney has a maddening tendency to confuse soft majorities for solid mandates and to discount the influence of reality.

For example:

Early in the Iraq war, Americans told pollsters they favored it and considered it a major part of the war on terrorism. Then they decided the war was a mistake and didn’t reduce the risk of terrorism. Yet as they got angrier and angrier at Republicans for making a mess of Iraq, they kept telling pollsters that they didn’t trust the Democrats to do a better job of dealing with terrorism.

Early in the Iraq war, Americans were beaten over the head with a steady barrage of propaganda from government and media that if they didn’t support the Iraq war they supported terrorists. Pollingreports shows us some polling taken before the invasion, and I postulate that the majorities simply reflect the messages coming out of Washington and media at the time. Before the war, there was no meaningful national debate on all sides of the issue. Pro-war claims — about Iraq’s alleged nuclear capabilities, for example — went unchallenged. And since most of the public only heard one side of the issue, it’s not a big surprise the public supported that side.

In March 2003, 79% of adults nationwide polled by ABC News said Iraq posed a threat to the United States. This reflects the hysterical shrieking coming from Washington and the VRWC about the diabolical Saddam Hussein and his mushroom clouds. The same poll showed 65% favoring military action against Iraq. One suspects the first result had something to do with the second.

Today, three years later, 53% say that invading Iraq was a mistake (Newsweek poll, October 5-6).

Tierney wants you to believe this change in opinion shows that voters are fickle. That claims about Iraq being a dire threat turned out to be false, and that the war turned out to be one of the biggest blunders in American history, are not meaningful factors in Tierney World.

In March 2003, 55% said the Iraq war would last “a few weeks” or “several months.” Another 16% thought it would drag on as long as a year. Could it be the fact that the war is now more than three years old, with no end in sight, had something to do with changing peoples’ minds? Might the fact that the situation in Iraq has been deteriorating for some time — the phrase “hell in a handbasket” comes to mind — also be a factor?

A close look at the polls from 2003 shows some ambivalence. The ABC poll simply dated March 2003 shows 56% of respondents believing support from the United Nations Security Council was “desirable, but not necessary” before launching an invasion. But a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll taken February 24-26, 2003, said that only 38% of respondents thought the U.S. should act without UN approval. A majority, 40%, though UN approval was necessary, and 19% said the U.S. should not send ground troops at all. I’m no expert, but this suggests to me that public opinion was both soft and volatile; opinions were not strongly held and could be swayed by subsequent events. Which they were.

Tierney stumbles ahead, complaining that voters “can’t break their old prejudices” while exhibiting plenty of old prejudices of his own. For example:

On the domestic front, voters still trust Democrats to deal with issues like education and Social Security even though the Democrats have run out of ideas. Their basic educational strategy is to spend more money and keep teachers’ unions happy. They have no plan to keep Social Security solvent, except “taxing the rich,” which won’t do the trick.

Tierney manages to pack so much bias and misinformation into three sentences that just thinking about flushing it all out makes me tired. Briefly: We hear once again that Dems have “no ideas,” while no one notices the Republicans haven’t had a new idea in at least 40 years (and those ideas have mostly been bad ideas). In these and other sentences in the column Tierney assumes that teachers’ unions have a deleterious effect on public education, and he seems to believe that busting teachers’ unions would all by itself improve public education. But he doesn’t explain why he believes this. And in fact many people who understand numbers better than I do say that raising the Social Security cap would go a long way toward keeping the system solvent. Certainly that would be a better solution than President Bush’s insane privatization scheme, and most voters were smart enough to figure that out in spite of the barrage of propaganda.

I love this part:

Republicans fought to improve schools at the local level by giving more choices and power to students, parents and principals. These reforms (like vouchers and charter schools) were popular in places where Republicans overcame the resistance of Democrats and teachers’ unions, but in national polls, voters preferred Democrats to deal with education.

So President Bush abandoned the party’s principles and made a deal with Ted Kennedy to enact the No Child Left Behind law, a centralized Democratic-style plan that gave the Republicans a brief boost in the polls. Like previous Democratic plans for reviving education with regulations from Washington, it was an expensive flop, but voters still tell pollsters they trust the Democrats to fix the schools.

Get that? “No Child Left Behind” is an expensive Democratic flop. It’s Ted Kennedy’s fault, because he allowed himself to be suckered into a demonstration of bipartisanship to support President Bush’s initiative. Wow.

Tierney continues to believe that voters “overwhelmingly trust Republicans on Iraq, terrorism and other foreign policy issues,” even though most current polls say otherwise. Keep up, dude.

But the biggest flaw in Tierney’s thinking is not that he has replaced his cerebral cortex with a Republican talking points microchip, or that he discounts the influence of empiricism on voter opinion. I think his biggest problem is that he misunderstands what polls are for. He assumes that polls are taken to see how voters think. Not so; polls are taken to understand how the propaganda is working — how “the message” is sinking in. They are taken to give the propagandists some feedback so they can better fine tune the message. They are taken as part of the propaganda campaign — if a poll can be skewed to show that a majority favors X, then proponents of X can use that poll to create a bandwagon effect for X (everybody else likes X; why don’t you?). Polls can also be used to reinforce messages that have taken hold. For example, if news consumers are perpetually being told that polls say people don’t trust Democrats on national security, it reinforces the propaganda that Democrats can’t be trusted on national security.

Since the dawn of the Mass Media Age — sometime in the 1950s — the people at the top of the power pyramid have been using mass media to tell voters what to think. This has been doubly true since the 1980s, after the Fairness Doctrine was eliminated, and after the packaging of news as entertainment rather than, you know, news, became standard practice. And most of all, since the Right Wing media infrascruture came to dominate everything we hear and everything we read about politics and government. The Big Shots tell us what they want us to think, and they take polls to be sure that’s what we’re thinking. That’s how the system works.

If in spite of the system most Americans can, eventually, figure out when they’re being baboozled, then there’s hope for us all .

Getting back to Tierney’s original question — what do voters want? — polls essentially are a reflection of what Washington insiders expect and desire voters to want. Outside the Web, voters are rarely able to articulate what they might, truly, deep down, want. And they’re restless, Tierney, not fickle.

Update: On the other hand

Update update: See also Greg Sargent.

11 thoughts on “The Natives Are Restless

  1. Here’s one I flushed out…..Still trust, followed by an, even though is to imply that the trust is misplaced.

  2. My dear, whatever makes you think the Republicans have had a new idea in the last century?

    They’ve got new PR – the most important of which is lying – but as far as programs, the only thing they ever had was to try to undo every bit of American progress and return to a time when people had fewer/no rights unless they had lots and lots of money.

    Who needs new ideas when the old ones work? Eliminating the middle class is good for the filthy rich. They’ve got their old idea and they’ve been sticking to it for centuries.

    Liberals are the only people with new ideas – the US Constitution, the New Deal, the Great Society. It’s not our fault that the royalists hated those ideas.

    It’s the biggest lie of all to claim that Republicans are the ones with “new ideas”.

  3. My recollection of the pre-war polls was that they showed solid majorities favoring invasion if the UN authorized it, and narrow majorities opposing it if it was just us. I remember being hugely frustrated by the mis-perception of these polls as showing overwhelming support for invasion without qualification. (Of course, once it was a fait accompli the whole public opinion equation changed; that’s why they knew they could go ahead and do it even without the public support they claimed they already had.)

  4. Those who use the phrase ‘blame America first’ are actually the ones who have neither the courage nor maturity to examine whether American foreign policies have ignored or, worse yet, helped create terrors suffered by millions folks of other nations.
    I am talking about terrors like not having the basic needs of life; safety, shelter, water, food and jobs. With sanctions and then the Iraq war, we have been increasing the plight of millions of Iraqi…….but the ideologues cannot tolerate looking at a truthful big picture. So ideologues, who limit themselves to ‘us vs them’ self-justifications for their own evil contributions to human distress, then attack any who speak of such a big picture truth, which, to me, means they attack those who continue to humanly care about people whatever their nationality or race.

  5. I had a conversation this weekend with an elementary school teacher who does not really follow politics. Conclusion: No Child Left Behind is killing education, and it’s got Bush/Cheney written all over it. And if Republican numbers when up when it passed, NCLB gave Republicans the boost. So I don’t know what crack Tierney’s smoking. The big Republican idea seems to be “kill all social programs” …I guess social security doesn’t have a solvency problem if it no longer exists, eh?

  6. …Tierney has a maddening tendency to confuse soft majorities for solid mandates and to discount the influence of reality.

    hey, who needs reality when we have pundits to tells us what’s best for us, and occasionally scold us so we behave? Reality just gets people upset.

  7. You can usually tel what a pitcher will throw by the grip in the ball. In this case, it was pretty obvious from the openeing paragraph what the spin was going to be.

    “Confusing” made me laugh. Once I saw a lawyer throw word out repeatedly in the closing arguement to a jury, with a lot of dust in an attempt to obscure what was obviously true. His client was a crook. The jury came back with a HUGE award against his client; I think it added insult to injury, that the shyster suggested – however indirectly – that the jury was too stupid to recognize an obvious fact.

    We need to keep asking – “How STUPID do they think we are?” married to the facts that the voters know – to cement a Dem victory.

    And right after that we need to hold Dem feet to the fire, or they will slide DIRECTLY into the habits that lost the Republicans favor.

  8. I am talking about terrors like not having the basic needs of life; safety, shelter, water, food and jobs.

    There are plenty or reasons to doubt the claim that poverty is a major cause of terrorism.

  9. I tend to think that manipulation of polls to achieve a bandwagon effect is overstated. Maybe I’m just not a bandwagon kind of guy.

    I think its probably cognative dissonance. We all have “abstract stereotypes” in our mind that we can override with rationality – if the conditions are right. The abstract stereotype sees Republicans as “tougher” than Dems, but in the actual world, if they think about it, they recognise the current batch as a bunch of schmucks. How the poll is phrased can determine whether the respondent goes with a response from the subconscious “abstract reality” or if they base their answer on the current situation.

  10. There are plenty or reasons to doubt the claim that poverty is a major cause of terrorism.

    Actually, let me qualify this….

    While watching “The Power of Nightmares” on the Internet I was struck by the repeated use of the term “vanguard” to describe OBL and his associated networks of Islamists terrorists – how they saw themselves as the elite core of a future mass revolution that they would inspire.

    It occured to me that the “vanguard” mentality seems to have particular patholigcal attributes that crop up in those kinds of movements, and could explain why some people see the current batch of Islamic terrorists as “successors to the fascists and the communists”. “Vanguard Terrorism” usually has little or nothing to do with poverty and suffering and is almost always perpetrated by dissaffected elites motivated by idealogical absolutism.

    It might also prove a good ground for differentiating between different groups of (Islamic) terrorists – which seems to be a point made by those who dislike most of the currently popular terms. For instance, I’m no expert but Hezb. seems not be be much of a “vanguard” movement, compared to “Al Queda” etc. Those who want to make this point might profit by drawing attention to the difference between the more “popular” organizations and the small, elitist organizations of dedicated professional revolutionaries, like many of the groups that compose “Al Queda” seem to be.

Comments are closed.