Thursday, February 1, 2007

Public Opinion: Demonstrations and Polls

As people who've been paying attention already know, public opinion polls have been showing more than 50% of the American people in favor of impeachment articles being drawn up for quite some time now. Despite this fact, of course, the political leadership of this country and the mass media continue to treat impeachment as something that the Constitution includes, but that should only be used in the most extreme case: when the president gets a blow job!

When polls appear to show support for government policies or plans, we hear about them all the time. When they don't conform to policy-makers and opinion-leaders' wishes, then now the leaders must do "what's right" regardless of "what's popular." Or so they say.

It's interesting to consider in this light the matter of the other expression of public sentiment: rallies, demonstrations, letter-writing and so on. From my dissertation "Crime Scares and Coverage Waves: the 1960s to the 1990s:"

"[A] notable argument made by Ginsberg (1986) worth detailing here is that the emergence and increasingly widespread use of polls has taken away an advantage that left-wing movements and the trade union movement have historically enjoyed over the state and social elites. That is, the left has traditionally had the edge in terms of actually having close contact with, and superior knowledge about, the conditions and attitudes of the working and lower classes. Polls have been employed in ways that not only have allowed pollsters and elites to get better and more extensive information about public attitudes than they had access to previously, but given them license to assert that their polls show what public attitudes 'really are' as opposed to the organizing efforts (lobbying, protests, letter-writing, and so on) of the left, trade union movements and grassroots organizations."

What matters ultimately in the policy-making arena is not what public opinion actually is, but what opinion comes to be seen as the majority sentiment. Thus, the battle comes down to who sets the terms. In the 1960s Nixon and Agnew tried to make the "law and order" issue the primary one. What prevented them from doing this was the power of the social movements of the day that argued instead that the primary issue was "social justice."

We are in a crucial period now where the matter must be decided in the streets (writ large) over what is the primary issue - the so-called "war on terrorism" or repudiating war crimes and tyranny by our very own government.

[Ginsberg, Benjamin. 1986. The Captive Public: How Mass Opinion Promotes State Power, New York: Basic Books].

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