Public Opinion on Syria
Senator Coburn, at a Muskegon, Oklahoma meeting with his constituents, ducks a question about impeaching the President by saying that the President has done troubling things that might make an impeachment proceeding ripe sometime down the line. Liberal commentators wonder how he could say anything that outrageous, contemplating the impeachment of the President, especially given that Coburn is regarded as one of the ‘sensible” Conservatives, full of his principles but not ornery in dealing with his Liberal opposition, including the President.
I have a different question. Why did he not say to his questioner that he too was troubled by some of the President’s actions, but that he would like the questioner to explain what it was in particular that the President had done that was impeachable? And if it was Obamacare that was the subject of concern, could the questioner explain why that was unconstitutional? There are a lot of questions about Obamacare out there and so it would be helpful for a senator to hear which one of them was of concern to this particular voter.
But that rarely happens. When McCain defended Obama by saying that he was not a Muslim but just a fine family man with whom he had political disagreements, it was treated as a very brave act that showed McCain a man of character—which is true enough. And this pandering to constituents happens on the Left as well. Every one of the candidates for Mayor in New York City is now backtracking on the issue of Stop and Frisk. Initially, most of them had seen some role for it, if it were carefully administered. Now they are all against it, arguing about who was against it first, while adding that a cleaned up version of Stop and Frisk might pass muster. So what has changed? The polls suggest that people have moved against Stop and Frisk since a Federal Judge said it was unconstitutional. The voter is sovereign; let the candidate beware.
No one questions the right of a voter to form any opinion the voter cares to. That is what voting in a democracy means. Even if you follow the advice of your Rebbe, you are still exercising your right to make up your own mind so long as you have not been bribed or otherwise coerced to vote the way he says. Voters are not legally answerable to any one for how they cast their ballots. But that does not mean that they are not answerable for their publicly stated opinions to the public to which they state them. What gave you the crazy idea that Obama was not born in this country?
There is a deeper social dynamic than even the right of free speech in a democracy that makes political opinion privileged. There are certain matters which are regarded as matters of personal preference and therefore not subject to either judgment or explanation. That applies not only to olives and tripe; it also applies to tastes in music (except for the musically knowledgeable), as well as to movies and all of the other things regarded as entertainment, where you do not have to explain a judgment, just make one: I liked that movie, and if you press me any further, I will just say the characters were interesting or the plot exciting. I will not analyze it, something no one does except those people who analyze movies.
Mind you, this rule applies to entertainment but not all other consumer products. Why did you buy a foreign car rather than an American made one? Are the better cars? Is that refrigerator or television better than that offered by the competition? People discuss whether it makes sense to buy top of the line or just short of that to get more value, and whether a fancy college is worth the cost. It may be that people hide their entertainment preferences, like which sit coms or television adventure shows they like, because it might lead them to seem uncultured and so judged by others, while people can acknowledge that there is just expertise, and not character, involved in knowing about one or another brand of refrigerator.
Some very import things, not just entertainment products, are also regarded as not subject to explanation. Only a very concerned friend will ask you to your face what you see in that girl. Only a very obnoxious person will ask you to explain why you believe in your religion. The same goes for politics. Everybody, under the guise of being entitled to do so, can offer a political opinion about anything, whether a war, or a policy of the Federal Reserve Bank, or a piece of legislation, or whether there is global warming, and not be asked to back that up—unless, that is, one or another party is willing to be identified as someone who picks political arguments. When climate change or stem cell research was simply a professional concern, those were not topics about which most people felt the need to have an opinion, but as soon as they became recognized as controversial, then anyone was free to chime in and be non-accountable in the sense of not required to explain the position, just acknowledge as having joined up with one side or another.
Now, this fact of social life preceded opinion polling, which is the culprit identified by Bourdieu and other sociologists as the cause of the problem in that polling questions do indeed set up or impose alternatives where it is easy enough for a respondent to select from a list of possible opinions which one they care to say is theirs, that only sometimes preceded or followed up by questions of how aware the person is of the issue. More likely, opinion as a political preference that was beyond dispute emerged in the nineteenth century when public opinion was identified by Dicey and Bryce as features of a democratic society, or a society finding its way to a more general suffrage. Prior than that, the public was activated and understood best as voicing its interests, and so reflecting the structural situation of the group rather than of a particular individual in the group or the aggregate of the opinions of the people in a group. That was the Marxist view that was supplanted by Lazarsfeld, when he invented polling as a replacement for demographic analysis, however much he himself thought people voted their interests (as well as their identifications). You can move voters, one by one, millions by millions, from one election to another.
This is not to say that polling does not enhance the power of the taboo against asking people to explain their political opinions. People are asked their opinions and so make them up so as to satisfy the request for an opinion. People do not feel the need to be reticent about holding opinions, maybe because it costs nothing to say you have an opinion, which is different from having an opinion constructed carefully enough so that you might defend it, even though people don’t ask you to, and so you become regarded in your circle as an “influential”, a person consulted on political matters. Most people just announce an opinion and so therefore are part of political discourse, have weighed in on a matter.
There was a recent poll that showed people were split on whether to blame Katrina on Bush or Obama. The smart set heckled the public for being so stupid as to think Obama could possibly be responsible in that Katrina had occurred before he became President. That is to miss the logic of the question asked and the question answered. If there were a list of people from which the person polled was to select the culprit, then the presence of Obama on the list would suggest that it was at least possible for him to be responsible. Surely, George Washington wasn’t on the list. And because some people believe Obama is responsible for everything bad that has happened in recent history, then people will say Obama did it. I use this poll as evidence that people want to make their opinions known and so will claim to have one about something they know very little about and so form an opinion for some very tortuous reasons.
That gets us to one of the issues of the moment. The issue of what to do about Syria is largely a matter of sentiment, as is most of foreign policy. Edward R. Morrow’s broadcasts from London during the Blitz made Americans sympathetic for the Britishers, as had King George’s visit to Hyde Park. The American people were being won over to going to war before Pearl Harbor happened, but it would still have taken a little while before FDR could have gone to Congress and asked for a Declaration of War. That gradual acclimatization to the idea of war was precisely what had happened during World War I. Well, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made war unpopular in this country, at least in the short run. So the American people are not fond of the idea of fighting in Syria or, for that matter, in Iran or Egypt. Obama understands that and knows that he cannot be an aggressive foreign policy President, even should he want to, and there is no reason to think he wants to, given that he was always against the invasion of Iraq, and that he prefers to use drones, quite successfully so far, to carry the war against terrorism to its perpetrators.
Some people though, and not just his opponents, want him to be aggressive in Syria and maybe in Egypt, where the cauldrons burn, and many people are being killed and displaced. Why? Because people form opinions based on what they see on television and it is cheap to hold those opinions without having to think through what would be the consequences of action. Like an answer to an opinion poll, everyone can agree, if asked, that they want the killing to stop, that children not be gassed, that Copts and Muslims live in a society where they at least tolerate one another even if they don’t respect one another. And how deeply held are these opinions? They might evaporate as soon as the first American soldier is killed. That is pretty much what happened in Somalia when our helicopter went down. So talk show hosts pander to opinion expressed as righteous anger and do not ask how the interests of the United States as a nation come into play. And that includes correspondents on the scene, such as Richard Engel, who knows the facts, but postures during his reports on NBC news, offering op ed pieces rather than front page coverage. You can be as categorical as you like in declaring that this or that line in the sand having been crossed, the United States is obliged to respond rather than look weak. Next week you will be just as categorical in declaring that the objective was a bridge too far. And to whom do you have to explain your change of heart? Nobody. And so Obama will probably order some kind of missile strike on Syria just to get public opinion out of his hair.