The Dead End That Is Public Opinion

As the effort to enact new gun legislation hobbles along, liberals have noted over and over that in polls, 90 percent or so of the public favors universal background checks. In speaking about this yesterday, President Obama said, "Nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change." Then Jonathan Bernstein explained that opinion doesn't get political results, what gets results is action. I'd take this one step farther: what gets results is not action per se, but action that produces fear. I'll explain in a moment, but here's part of Bernstein's argument:

See, the problem here is equating "90 percent in the polls" with "calling for change." Sure, 90 percent of citizens, or registered voters, or whoever it is will answer in the affirmative if they're asked by a pollster about this policy. But that's not at all the same as "calling for change." It's more like...well, it is receiving a call. Not calling.

Those people who have been pushing for marriage equality? They were calling for change. And marching for it, demanding it, donating money to get it, running for office to achieve it and supporting candidates who would vote for it, filing lawsuits to make it legal. In many cases, they based their entire political identity around it.

Action works. "Public opinion" is barely real; most of the time, on most issues, change the wording of the question and you'll get entirely different answers. At best, "public opinion" as such is passive. And in politics, passive doesn't get results.

Politicians are constantly assessing public opinion in ways both formal (polls) and informal (talking to folks, reading the paper, etc.). From their perspective, opinion is complex and multi-dimensional. It has a direction, an intensity, and a relationship to action. It can't be reduced to one number. And the most important question for them is when opinion can turn into something that threatens them. Right now, that 90 percent figure doesn't seem to be making too many politicians scared.

If you're an interest group or a voting bloc, it's far, far better to be feared than loved. If a politician loves you, he'll say, "Hey guys, you know I love you, but you're just going to have to wait on this priority of yours. I promise we'll get around to addressing it next year." If a politician fears you, he'll say, "OK! OK! I'll do what you want, just don't hurt me!" The NRA has understood this well, which is why it has spent years working to convince everyone that it can destroy any politician it chooses (as you know, I've argued at length that that image is a myth, but the myth's existence is undeniable). It spends far less time convincing politicians that being in line with the NRA produces wonderful benefits. It's basically a protection racket; when the local mobster comes into your shop and says, "Nice place you've got here. Shame if someone were to burn it down," the shop owner doesn't say, "At last! I'm so glad you came to keep me safe!" He isn't happy about it, but he pays up.

So action works best when it actually makes politicians afraid. It's a way of getting politicians' attention, and convincing them that if they don't go along, they might be risking their jobs. Right now, for instance, politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties are becoming afraid to be on the wrong side on marriage equality. It isn't just because of poll results showing a majority of the public in favor; that's just a number, albeit a significant one. The reason they're afraid is that they understand this is going to become a culturally defining issue that before long will have the power to end people's careers. They fear that their position on marriage equality could come to define their entire identity, carrying with it a whole set of judgments people will make about them. You're seeing all this movement now—Democrats coming out in favor of marriage equality, Republicans stumbling around without a clue as to where they should position themselves—because there's a collective realization that this is a key moment. And they're afraid. There's no question that in the wake of Newtown, members of Congress are less afraid of the NRA than they have been in the past. But the real question is whether they're afraid of not passing something like background checks. And the answer so far is, not yet they aren't.

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