Party opinion usurps public opinion

May 21, 2013

We are witnessing the slow death of public opinion in this country.  It’s being displaced by party opinion.

These days, more and more Americans are inclined to judge issues from a partisan viewpoint.  In March, according to a Pew Research Center survey, twice as many Republicans (53 percent) as Democrats (27 percent) said the economy was poor.  Yet, from everything we know, Republicans are not suffering more economic deprivation than Democrats.

Elections today are less and less about persuasion and more and more about mobilization: You rally your supporters in order to beat back your opponents.  Republicans did that in 2004, when President George W. Bush got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote. Democrats did that in 2012, when President Barack Obama got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote.

Republicans today are all fired up over the controversies involving the Internal Revenue Service, the State Department and the Justice Department.  They see Watergate.

Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), for example, said the abuses confirm “our worst fears about our government,” namely, “that your government’s targeting you, your government’s spying on you and that your government’s lying to you.”

In a CNN poll last weekend, 62 percent of Republicans said they believe the White House ordered the IRS to target conservative groups.  Only 19 percent of Democrats believe that. Three-quarters of Republicans believe the Obama administration “intentionally misled” the public about the attack last September on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi.  Only one in five Democrats endorses that view.

“This town is turning on Obama,” a lead story in last week’s Politico declared. Maybe so, but the country is not.  Gallup and CNN polls taken at the end of last week show no decline in Obama’s job approval rating. Both moved up slightly – to 53 percent from 51 percent in the CNN poll and to 50 percent from 49 percent in the Gallup poll.

An odd thing about this president’s job ratings. They seldom move much higher or lower than 50 percent. Which suggests that a lot of Americans have fixed opinions of Obama. They love him or hate him.  Those views may intensify, but they rarely change.  The president’s support and opposition seem locked in.

It used to be that when a president got in trouble, he got in trouble with all Americans.  Public opinion turned against him.  He even lost support in his own party. For example:

  • When President Lyndon B. Johnson was deeply unpopular in August 1968 – at the time of the bloody Chicago Democratic National Convention – he was drawing only 48 percent approval from Democrats and 21 percent from Republicans, a 27-point difference.
  • Just before President Richard M. Nixon resigned in August 1974, he was drawing 13 percent support from Democrats and 50 percent from his fellow Republicans, a 37-point gap.
  • During the “malaise” crisis of 1979, President Jimmy Carter was getting only 41 percent support from his fellow Democrats and 19 percent from Republicans, a 22-point difference.

Things began to change with President Ronald Reagan.

  • When the Iran-contra scandal broke in 1986, Reagan was at 24 percent approval among Democrats. But Republicans stood by him, at 74 percent. The partisan gap had grown to 50 points.
  • When President Bill Clinton was at a low point in 1994, only 14 percent of Republicans approved of the way he was handling his job. But 75 percent of Democrats supported him. The difference was 61 points.
  • Just before Bush left office during the 2008 financial crash, his rating from Democrats was exactly 5 percent. But he kept 61 percent of his fellow Republicans – a 56-point difference.

Polarization has taken another huge leap under Obama. In last weekend’s CNN poll, Obama was getting 87 percent support from Democrats and 15 percent from Republicans – an unprecedented 72-point division.

Right now, Senate Democrats are preparing to launch “the nuclear option” to break the partisan gridlock in Congress. This would change Senate rules to allow presidential nominations be confirmed by majority vote.  A radical concept ‑ majority rule!  Democrats are enraged because Republicans are using the filibuster to block Obama’s nominations for Cabinet positions and federal judgeships.

In recent years, we’ve seen one issue where public opinion has changed dramatically: same-sex marriage. In 2004, the issue was so poisonous that it went down to defeat in elections across in 11 states and doomed John Kerry’s presidential campaign. But public opinion has moved with breathtaking speed, and it has happened across the board. Politicians like Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton have hardly led public opinion on same-sex marriage. Rather, they have been forced to catch up with it.

The change happened because of personal experiences. More Americans say they know someone who is openly gay. In the CBS News poll, 77 percent of Americans said they knew someone openly gay in 2010, up from 42 percent in 1992.

Call it the Dick Cheney effect: the impact of personal experience. (Cheney’s daughter is lesbian.) Personal experience – not persuasion – may be the only way to move public opinion in this intensely polarized environment.

Gilbert and Sullivan satirized this problem in their comic operetta Iolanthe (1882):

I often think it’s comical

How Nature always does contrive

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

That’s what happens in a world without public opinion.  Politics becomes social identity.


PHOTO (Top):Audience member, wearing a National Rifle Association (NRA) cap, waits at a GOP campaign rally for presidential nominee Mitt Romney and vice presidential nominee Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in Fishersville, Virginia, October 4, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

PHOTO (Insert): Members if the Michigan Tea Party group “RetakeOurGov” at a Tea Party gathering in Dewitt, Michigan, November 12, 2011. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook



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Brings to mind a line from an old rock song: “When two tribes go to war…”

Maybe these “tribes” (more than two, alas), that so hue to “party opinion” as to totally exclude that of the public that sent them to govern, ought to be shipped off to the proverbial desert island and left to have it out there – well beyond the ability to ever again cause harm to the public they never heeded.

Posted by thoughtfulbear | Report as abusive

This article enlightens me. It tells me that political propaganda is very effective in America. This contradicts my understanding and experience with America’s high education which is more heuristic than indoctrinating compare with ours. I don’t know what’s wrong.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive

The trend cannot continue. At some point something has to snap: The Republicans and Democrats have seemingly failed Americans. My proposed solution: Start a new party who: 1. Makes lobbying illegal. 2. Outlaws campaign contributions in excess of a thousand dollars. 3. Regulates banks properly (mortgage backed securities only). 4. Allows treatment of highly divisive issues to be determined at a local level (i.e. city or country level)- abortion, guns, gays and immegrants – make it a local debate. 5. Vow to stop the everlasting ‘cold war’ (now called the war on terror). 6. Has a 100% estate tax for any amounts over R10 million dollars (ask Bill Gates – over a certain amount money does not matter). 7. regrains from economic manipulation (no more fractional reserving, controlling interest rates, manipulating currencies, subsidizing land purchases). 8. Stays out of cultural activities – sport, religion – hands off please! 9. Have a policy of complete transparancy on every decision made. 10. Have a 50/50 policy on economic vs. ecological and a 50/50 policy on jobs vs. cheap imports. Ok – I understand that most people are too lazy to change the way they think and the elephant and the donkey are here to stay – but I for one support a third way.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Oh. And fractional reserving regulated at 2:1 or something similar. Fiat money must be limited in supply constituionally.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Capitalism has replaced what’s left of our representative government. Elections are down to the two main brands and a few small ones. The winning of elections has really come down to advertizing, marketing, and building a brand for the lion’s share of the voters.

It’s sad that we as a nation for so many are too buzy, preoccupied, or whatever to pick the best people for the jobs and just opt for party affiliation.

I still feel that it’s my civic responsibility to vote for each office individually. Even if that does end up as one party over the other for most or all offices, it wasn’t done on that criteria alone.

Posted by mikemm | Report as abusive

What’s wrong should be obvious. As Walt Kelly said in his Pogo comic stripyears ago, “We has met the enemy and he is us”.

“We, the people” have become too lazy or unwilling to think for ourselves. We shirk our responsibility to be an informed voter, and so allow ourselves to be led. Unfortunately, all who would lead us have their own “agenda” and it is seldom to their benefit or that of the average taxpayer.

Neither the elephant nor the donkey have a monopoly on clear thinking, or even good faith debate and negotiation. The “magic solution” to America’s problems, every one of them, is consensus. There is a “minimum level” of consensus below which our form of government cannot function. That line has been crossed.

In war consensus is imposed from the top down. Those deemed of appropriate ability and experience put forth their ideas, there is give and take, and major goals are adopted which all then support and plans to achieve them are formulated and implemented. The sense of urgency and uncertainty makes the process quick of necessity.

Periods of debate are structured and limited. Legitimate concerns are voiced, considered, and included as appropriate or eliminated. Thereafter available time and resources are prioritized and everyone moves forward as one team pulling in the same direction.

In peace we fall victim to two illusions that are absolutely false. The first is that there is no urgency. Because none have time without limit or an unlimited “attention span” it should not be an option to accomplish nothing, and yet nothing is probably the most common outcome of meetings.

The second is the popular but fraudulent illusion that every one of us is equal. That ideal has never been true. We all know those we believe smarter and dumber than ourselves. We see those more beautiful or handsome and less. We see those who earn more or less. So we absolutely know that “equality” is an illusion.

And yet in pursuit of such abstract ideals we allow ignorant people to interrupt and divert our concentration. Such has become an effective tactic to delay necessary decisions and related implementation.

In war separating the mental “wheat from the chaff” and the heat from the light is pretty much a matter of are we “on course” and “on schedule”, and, if not, why? In civilian government one person’s needs are another’s wants, and vice versa. Few admit that “our” representatives’ highest priority is NOT to serve “we, the people”. It is instead to be reelected again and again.

“We, the people” were originally represented by “citizen-legislators”. Each had to be prosperous to afford to travel to their capitol to serve one or two terms, largely at their own expense. They tended to of the landed elite, but relatively selfless and intelligent individuals; each intimately concerned with the well being of their country.

Today those “representing” us are “political professionals”. These climb the greasy pole to higher office only by attracting the support of wealthy donors, and the medium of exchange for such support is influence. Since the influence of each “representative” is finite, that which they bargain away to win nomination and election is the very same influence they are supposed to wield on behalf of “we, the people”. So today “we, the people” again face “taxation without representation” because “our representatives” are wholly beholden to others. Is it any wonder that again and again we find ourselves increasingly victimized by our own government?

At some point in some manner there must be honest good faith debate between liberals and conservatives as to what kind of society we want THAT WE AN AFFORD. What we have is agreed by one and all to be fiscally unsustainable, and yet Congress continues to spend without budget and without limit believing “if the spend it we must pay”. Each side of the aisle blames the other, and gets reelected again and again. We continue to do the exact same thing and expect different results.

It is long past time to stop the merry-go-round and get off. It is time to reach consensus as to our greatest needs, and to prioritize available funding to achieve them as best possible. Without agreement as to the amount of government we need and what it must accomplish, there is no limit to the eventual size of our government or the funding it will demand from our economy. Failure is not an option.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Thank you, OneOfTheSheep.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive