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Issue No. 50 (December 2003) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Listen, politicians (and activists):
Public opinion is radical middle now

If you’re like me, you’ve spent years -- decades -- telling yourself you’ll probably never see the kind of society you want, because the American people would never go for it.

Well, it may be time to break that habit.

It’s not easy figuring out what “the people” want, of course. Most of us get our sense of public opinion from the one-eyed mainstream media. And most of the rest of us rely on the equally slanted alternative media, recently rechristened the “independent” media because it’s independent of corporate control.

(Psst: Between you and me, I loathe the whiny and self-promoting implication that mainstream reporters are corporate tools, and I can’t stomach the hypocrisy -- even Tinkerbell knows that most “independent” publications including all of the big ones are kept on life support by ideologically driven foundations).

If you trust your own perceptions, though, and regularly engage in conversation with people from many walks of life, something quite remarkable may have occurred to you:

Public opinion is trending radical middle now.

Increasingly, the public appears to be -- on many policy issues -- subtle AND imaginative, rational AND creative, sensible AND forward-looking, pragmatic AND visionary.

By contrast, most of our politicians (and, sadly, many of our activists) appear to be simplistic, unimaginative, and woodenly partisan.

Our Founders put limits on democracy to temper “the people’s” passions. But, increasingly, it’s “the people” who seem savvy AND constructive, and their elected (or self-chosen) representatives who seem drawn to partisan half-truths.

Real Pollsters Know

The airwaves are saturated with partisan “superstar pollsters” now, like the Republicans’ Frank Luntz and the Democrats’ Pat Caddell. But legitimate, nonpartisan polls bear out the public’s pragmatic AND imaginative bent.

You can see it in everyday polls from the likes of Gallup and USA Today. And you can see it even more tellingly in sophisticated, broader-gauge surveys from Andrew Kohut’s Pew Research Center (“Pew”), Steven Kull’s Center on Policy Attitudes / Program on International Policy Attitudes (“Kull”), Alan Wolfe and Maria Poarch’s Middle Class Morality Project (“Wolfe”), and the various polls and surveys reported on at Daniel Yankelovich’s Public Agenda Online (“PAO”).

If you’re surprised by the public’s increasingly thoughtful and creative approach to politics, join the club. Even the pollsters are a bit taken aback by their positive findings.

In his book The Magic of Dialogue (1999), Mr. Yankelovich admits to having spent “decades” doubting the wisdom of the American public -- now he can’t wait for us to engage in searching dialogues with one another. And in the book that describes the findings of the Middle Class Morality Project (One Nation, After All, 1997), Prof. Wolfe -- once your quintessential Baby Boomer radical -- slips in this confession:

“[A]s part of their rebellion against their upbringing, sociologists of my generation [produced] a deluge of sympathetic treatments of outcasts and condemnations of the wealthy, combined with an ignorance of, if not a disdain for, the hardworking, the child-rearing, and the religious believer.

“[By embarking on the Middle Class Morality Project], I was coming to terms with the rejection of middle-class suburbia that I, along with so many sociologists of my generation, opted for in the wisdom of my youth.”

The "reasonable majority"

What Prof. Wolfe found -- and what pollsters like Mr. Kohut, Mr. Kull, and Mr. Yankelovich are continuing to find -- is a public that’s much more thoughtful, much more creative, and much more appealing, than many of us thought possible.

It is not the public of the antiglobalists’ anticapitalist fantasies. But neither is it the public of the simplistic rhetoric of the Democrat and Republican parties.

Mr. Kohut calls it the “complex” public (in the Washington Post, 29 Sept. 2002). Mr. Kull and his colleague, I.M. Destler, call it the “rational public” (in Misreading the Public, 1999). Prof. Wolfe calls it the “reasonable majority” because it is, in fact, a statistical majority.

It is also a radical middle majority -- that is, it would appear to support many of the ideas we’ve discussed in this newsletter. Some quick examples:

Universal health care that’s not run by the government (issue #22): Two-thirds of us think health care is a right that should be guaranteed by the government (Kull). At the same time, though, 57% of us oppose national taxpayer-financed health care in which the government is the only insurer (PAO).

Great teachers (issue #23): When we’re asked what’s the “most important thing public schools need in order to help students learn,” the most common response by far is better teachers (PAO). And we mean it, too. A majority of us would raise teachers’ pay, and a staggering 89% of us would require all teachers to pass competency exams (PAO), a requirement many teachers and their unions oppose.

A little wealth sharing (#13): More of us want a “targeted tax cut to help middle to lower income families” than an across-the-board tax cut (PAO), and a whopping 87% of us would increase the minimum wage (Pew). At a deeper level, Prof. Wolfe has discovered that most of us think there can be such a thing as “too much [personal] wealth.”

Affirmative action for the truly disadvantaged -- of every race (#21): Although we reject racial preferences 52% to 35%, we support replacing such policies with preferences for the “poor” by 53% to 37% (New York Times). Most of us believe in what Prof. Wolfe terms “benign multiculturalism” -- “informal rather than official . . . and assimilationist in its objectives.”

New Age corporations (#20): Over 90% of us support corporate reform (PAO), but we’re by no means anti-corporate. Prof. Wolfe found we believe in what he terms “balanced capitalism,” in which “[e]xtremely high salaries and unjustifiable perks violate a moral as well as an economic ideal.”

Beyond oil (#25): Shortly before 9/11, a plurality of us identified energy as the nation’s top concern (Pew). Three-quarters of us favor setting higher emissions standards for automobiles (PAO), and 74% of us say we’d pay more for environmentally friendly cars and appliances (PAO).

U.S. political reform (#15): Although 85% of us say the campaign finance system needs sweeping changes, 58% of us oppose public financing of political campaigns (PAO). More of us support changes in the campaign and political process -- e.g., 63% would limit the amount of money people can contribute to political parties (PAO).

Planetary governance (#17): We are not isolationist! From 1980-2001, only 30-41% of us agreed that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” (Pew). An extraordinary 78% of us agree that “the U.S. should participate in U.N. efforts to maintain peace, protect human rights, and promote economic development” (Kull).

Free trade -- with a conscience (#6): We are not antiglobalist! On a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being completely positive, 53% of us rate economic globalization above five, and 15% below five (Kull). Even more tellingly, 61% of us think free trade will benefit our children (Kull). At the same time, 88% of us want free trade to be “balanced with other goals, such as protecting workers, the environment, and human rights” (Kull).

Biotech -- with adult supervision (#10): We are not anti-biotech! Only about one-third of us believe that using “scientific techniques to do things like enhance the flavor and nutrients, or prolong the freshness” of food is wrong (Kull). Most of us disapprove of the cloning of a human being, but 59% of us favor the cloning of human organs or body parts that can then be used in medical transplants (PAO).

Humanitarian armed intervention (#5): A heart-warming 77% of us think that in principle “there are some times when other countries have the right to intervene to protect people from their own government” (Kull). Most of us support the continued deployment of U.S. forces in the Balkans, and most of us would back military intervention to prevent another African genocide (Pew).

Tough on terrorism -- and tough on the causes of terrorism (#19): Over 90% of us favor using military force -- not just legal tribunals, etc. -- against the terrorist groups behind 9/11 (Kull). At the same time, overwhelming majorities of us would address root causes of terrorism -- e.g., by “helping poor countries develop their economies” (79%) and “putting pressure on [Arab governments] to be more open [and] democratic” (76%) (Kull).

Bring back the draft (#15): Even in this era when the concept of mutual obligation seems to be lost, a proposal requiring all 18-year-olds to provide two years of military OR community service was opposed by only 57% of adults (Rasmussen Research). And that’s without responders being told that privileged kids couldn’t “Clinton” their way out of the draft.

Where are the politicians?

Why aren’t politicians and policy analysts rushing to support these sensible, visionary, AND MAJORITARIAN views? Isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work?

For a first cut at the answer, you can’t solicit a better group than the pollsters themselves. It’s a question that haunts them too.

According to Prof. Wolfe, people who traffick in ideas (such as politicians and policy analysts) tend to exaggerate the importance of often subtle differences, whereas ordinary people’s first impulse is to try to bridge differences.

The upshot: The Washington, D.C. crowd literally cannot see the emerging radical middle consensus that the pollsters have revealed.

Mr. Yankelovich is also convinced that the policy elites think differently.

The elites reach their conclusions by means of facts and logical analyses, he says, whereas most people reach their conclusions by blending facts with feelings and moral values through a process of ongoing informal dialogue with family, friends, and neighbors.

Facts and analyses alone may propel you to the left or right, but moral-feelingful dialogue with a diverse cast of opinionated folks from everyday life will likely bring you to the (radical) center.

Mr. Kull and Mr. Destler -- based here in D.C. -- have come up with three harder-edged answers.

The power of activist groups keeps many politicians in thrall to the traditional left or right, they say.

Policymakers have a tendency to confuse the loudest voices (the “vocal public”) with the majority.

Above all, perhaps, policymakers tend to underestimate the public because it enhances their own sense of self-worth and self-importance to imagine that the general public is childish and shallow. It’s so lonely up here (sigh).

Thus it is that the Washington political establishment does not “get” that we hold the nuanced, thoughtful, and imaginative political views documented above.

An organized group would help, Destler adds suggestively.


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