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?

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12 thoughts on “Making Sense of Public Opinion

  1. I don’t want to sound like an elitist, but influential participation in democratic discourse was the province of the elite and well-informed when our democracy was formulated. Incoherence is and always has been a natural by-product of democracy, and I think information technologies, more than informing us, make us aware of how uninformed we really are.

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  2. Excellent post. I’d add this phenomenon isn’t at all unique to America. Cognitive polyphasia is how one pollster described public opinion prior to the elections in the UK. Voters desire public policy that reconciles the irreconcilable. The examples the pollster used were the British public’s wanting Swedish level public services on American levels of taxation, local control over public services without the postcode lottery, and more fellow citizens to participate in local governance without personally volunteering for the task. The rational ignorance explanation you outline seems reasonable to me. Not sure if there are any satisfactory solutions. More education, compulsory voting, better campaign ad limits, a new fairness doctrine? Brecht’s poem comes to mind, dissolve the people and elect another.

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  3. I like this post, but you’re missing something:

    “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.”

    You missed the third, actually most common response: people rationalize away the inconsistency, while retaining their belief system. There’s *loads* of evidence on this score; not just anecdotal cultural references, but neuropsychology studies.

    So, they don’t reconcile their belief system with the new evidence. They either discard the evidence as insufficient, irrelevant, or biased, and continue along their merry way with the belief system.

    This is nonpartisan. Liberals do it, so do conservatives.

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    • @Pat Cahalan, I definitely agree with your third option, and it is probably the most prolific outcome.

      The only reason I don’t acknowledge it as a third option is because it doesn’t objectively resolve the inconsistency. That is, while it “resolves” it through rationalizing on the part of the individual, an outside audience would still note that an inconsistency exists. What I was getting at was that, if you want to correctly address and inconsistency, you only have those two options.

      Of course, the evidence indicates that in fact people are more likely to shove the discrepancy under a rug than resolve it, in the manner that you suggest.

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    • @Pat Cahalan, quite true! This is one of those reasons that visceral issues are so important. Disdain for people that believe things you don’t or live lifestyles you consider ugly. I was about to say “social issues” but that’s not entirely accurate. Resentment of the wealthy or the education, contempt for the poor or the uneducated. These things are stronger than facts.

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  4. The main problem with Obama’s comments is the implication that voters behave irrationally and out of bad instincts when they go the other way. I think what he says is true, but it’s true in the same way that Obama’s middle name actually is Hussein. It’s the context in which you bring it up that’s the problem. This is one of those things that easily becomes a tool of partisanship.

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    • @Trumwill, Right, he might have saved himself from that implication had he offered examples of where he thinks his opponents disagree on rational grounds to demonstrate he’s not saying disagreement is prima facia irrational.

      Of course, to my knowledge, he didn’t modify his remark, so it is entirely possible that the implication is accurate.

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  5. Something else that’s interesting, is the double standard both sides use to approach methods of reasoning and standards of morality. Where as the left often wants to subscribe to strict rules of argument and reasoning, they call foul when the Right wants to do that same thing in acknowledging strict rules of morality. The one side is predisposed towards moral relativism while the other is as predisposed towards some form of reason relativity.

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    • @E.C. Gach, Aren’t the standards of reason and debate ethical rules, though? I’m pretty sure the emotion I feel while listening to Sarah Palin is moral outrage, and there’s a definite priggish tone to liberal admonishments of conservatives for failing respect the rules of discourse.

      The difference of opinion on ethics between liberals and conservatives is far deeper that liberals are relativists and conservatives are absolutists. My pet theory is that liberals believe that man is perfectible, whereas conservatives believe man is inherently flawed. Everything else pretty much follows from that.

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      • @Simon K, why do you need to believe that? What part of the liberal agenda even suggests it?

        You can boil almost all left-right questions in this country to difference in whether personal welfare is itself a basic concern of justice. If it is, then you have a nascent duty to protect personal welfare as extended over the entire universe of discourse (some people might extend it to animals or even groups, for example).

        If you don’t believe that personal welfare is a question of justice, then you are under no such duty whatever and attempts to advance it violates principles most everyone agrees on.

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        • @Hyena, I don’t need to believe it – I just think its an interesting idea, since the debate over whether man is inherently flawed or not goes back to at least Augustine and Pelagius and the liberal/conservative distinction occurs in all political cultures, implying that its somehow very fundamental. I am, incidentally, far more a liberal than a conservative in this and most other respects.

          To pick an example that’s not too emotive, take drug laws. Conservatives favor them, because they believe that man is flawed, and his natural inclination to get high needs to be controlled, either for the good of society or because god wants it that way or whatever. Liberals generally oppose them, or at least favor them only in so far as they reduce harm to the vulnerable, because they believe that man is quite capable of controlling himself to whatever extent is necessary, and that if individual men are not, that constitutes a personal flaw that can be remedied with therapy or confession or whatever, because man can be perfected, or at least improved. See how that works? I just think its an interesting way to look at it.

          Liberals certainly do tend to see personal welfare as a concern of the state and conservative tend not to, but this doesn’t explain why conservatives tend to favour laws to enforce morality and liberals tend not to. But I do think concern about welfare in the abstract follows from one’s view of whether man is perfectible or not. If man is perfectible, then the fact that someone is suffering preventably is clear evidence that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. If man is inherently flawed, his suffering may well simply be a consequence of his flaws or flaws in society and not evidence of anything much, and furthermore not fixable at all.

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