Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Controlling Politics, USA Style

Controlling Politics, USA Style
P. Schultz
April 3, 2013

            I am currently reading a book entitled An American Melodrama, which is about the 1968 presidential election written by three Brits. It is way too long and detailed for my tastes but it does have some interesting passages. One of these passages occurs in a section entitled “New Politics and Old Pols” and a chapter therein entitled “Two Cases Studies of Insurgency.”

            One of these “insurgencies” was that undertaken by Nelson Rockefeller as he tried, at the last minute, to take the Republican nomination away from Richard Nixon. While doing that, Rockefeller’s handlers took a poll in which they asked people to rank problems they were concerned about in order of intensity. The list ended up looking like this:

1.     Vietnam; 2. Crime and juvenile delinquency; 3. Keeping our military strong; 4. Rioting in our cities; 5. Preventing WW III; 6. Prices and the cost of living; 7: Drug addicts and narcotic drugs; 8. Maintaining respect for the US abroad; 9. Government spending; 10. Communist China; 11. Raising moral standards in the country; 12. The threat of international communism; 13. Keeping NATO and our alliances strong; 14. Relations with Russia; 15. Improving our educational system; 16. Reducing poverty; 17. Negro racial problems; 18. Ensuring lower income families have adequate medical care; 19. Air and water pollution; 20. Trend toward a more powerful federal government; 21. Rebuilding our cities.

As the authors write, “Clearly, this list reveals an extremely conservative set of priorities in the minds of voters.” Yes, that is one plausible and persuasive interpretation. Another would be that the choices presented to voters pretty much guaranteed that the outcomes would be as set of “extremely conservative priorities.” This was 1968 when the country was being torn apart by the war in Vietnam and by rioting in the cities, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Why would anyone think that “rebuilding our cities” or “reducing poverty” would elicit as intense a response as the war or riots?

Moreover, note that the most highly ranked “problems” are those, generally speaking, that lend themselves to being “solved” by action thereby creating the impression only an “energetic” politics, a forceful politics, or bold, aggressive, and “proactive” politics can “solve” them. The message is clear: A pervasively powerful government, headed by energetic and bold leaders, is needed in order to solve our social and political problems.

There is no indication, however, that it just might be that at the root of our less than satisfactory situation lies our pervasively powerful government, headed by energetic and bold leaders. Perhaps, for example, without such a government, the lead issue, Vietnam, would not exist at all. Or, to take another example, perhaps improving our educational system would be less pressing were our schools controlled locally rather than nationally or at the state level.

Anyway, this makes it crystal clear that one way to control the political discourse is through the allegedly “neutral” practice of public opinion polling. By means of such polling, the “priorities” of the voters are given a certain cast, here, a cast that favors “an extremely conservative set of priorities.” Of course, the result of polling might be to favor an extremely liberal set of priorities as well. The problem is not that polling favors either conservatives or liberals. Rather, it is that such polling excludes altogether certain issues and that these issues might well be more important than most of us could know.  

[An addendum to the above: Note how the "problems" are presented. For example, the leading issue is "Vietnam," not "imperialism." Number 17 is "Negro racial problems," but not "racism." Or not "white racial problems," apparently because whites don't have any such problems. Number 6 is "price and the cost of living" while number 16 is "reducing poverty," not "capitalism." 

It is as if these "problems" have arisen not because of the choices we have made but rather despite our choices. So, by implication, we don't have to change; we simply have to recognize the problems and undertake to "solve" them. This is, of course, a marvelous way to underwrite the status quo while appearing not to!]

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