The birth of modern propaganda took place in World War I, where an extraordinarily well orchestrated campaign turned America from pacifist to ferociously anti-German in a mere eighteen months. When after the war, the public learned that its beliefs had been turned without their realizing it, some of the key actors. such as Eddie Bernays (often described as the father of the public relations industry) and journalist Walter Lippman defended this type of activity. Lippman, in his 1922 book Public Opinion, contended that most people did not have the time, inclination, or ability to take the time to analyze the relevant information and parse it. Thus, it was important for well informed people to take responsibility for this process, which Lippman called “the manufacture of consent.” This is, of course, an argument for the role of an elite, steering the masses who are less capable of coping with its complexities.
Americans in particular are leery of this sort of thinking; elitism has a very bad name here. Yet there has rarely been a time when the gap between the beliefs of those in the corridors of power and those of ordinary people has been so wide.
One of the reasons may be that the very needs of those at the top of the food chain to sell their messages is leading to distorted feedback. We saw a ham-handed effort earlier this year of a deliberate effort to generate “opinion” data that would support the agenda of a particular group, in this case, the Peterson Institute’s long-running campaign against Social Security and Medicare. But their “America Speaks” campaign backfired rather spectacularly.
An attentive reader pointed out a subtler and more widespread version of this problem, keying off a weekend article in Raw Story, “Poll: Vast majority opposes attack on Iran“:
Fewer than one in five Americans would support a US military strike on Iran if the Middle Eastern country continued to pursue its nuclear program in the face of international sanctions, a new poll indicates.
The poll, carried out in June for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, finds 18 percent would support a strike on Iran if the country failed to stop its enrichment of uranium. Forty-one percent would urge further economic sanctions against the country, and 33 percent would support further diplomatic engagement.
When asked what the UN should do, the answers were similar: 21 percent support military action, while 45 percent want more sanctions and 26 percent want negotiations.
“Americans are gravely con cerned about Iran’s nuclear program. Yet they are also quite concerned about the possible negative impact of a military strike to try and stop it,” the survey’s authors state. “Only a small minority favors the use of military force now, and if all efforts to stop Iran from develop ing nuclear weapons fail, Americans are essentially evenly divided over whether to conduct a strike.”
The survey (PDF) also finds an electorate that is far less certain of its support of Israel than US political leaders would suggest. By a narrow margin — 50 percent to 47 percent — Americans would oppose the US militarily defending Israel if it were the victim of an unprovoked attack.
If the attack against Israel were retaliation for Israeli military action, even more — 56 percent — would oppose US military intervention, while 38 percent would support it.
Our correspondent’s remarks:
To hear any kind of mainstream discussion, and even most discourse in the blogosphere, it’s taken as a given that Americans: a) by a vast majority will back Israel all the way in anything, b) want Iran bombed if they don’t grovel, and c) despise ‘those Islamic upstarts.’ In fact, this substantive poll with a large sample shows those positions to be false insofar as the public is concerned. Those statements are true only _of the Beltway elite_. In short, those at the top of the pile are running these policies, together with collaborative mass media, in direct opposition to public sentiment; not something one hears reported, unsurprisingly.
There are pols which show more hostile attitudes by the American public yes, but that’s where the plot thickens. It’s not generally well understood the extent to which the polling industry is, largely knowingly, producing ‘results’ which significantly overstate right-wing biases. This is done by the phrasing of the questions and the framing of alternatives. The issue has been discussed among others by George Lakoff, a linguist with considerable expertise in ‘framing’ (who as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal sold himself completely to the Democrats and now, I rather thinks, regrets his credulity in that regard.) The country _sounds_ more right-wing because the right wing media frames the issues and right-leaning language in polls elicits more right-leaning answers than a neutral remark would. I’m not being paranoid on this: it’s a major issue in US political discourse which I’ve only seen a few scattered discussions of in recent years, even on radical websites (whose membership largely prefers conspiracy theories even beyond REAL conspiracies such s the Koch brothers’ dealings).
I haven’t looked at this systematically, but some of my early work was in survey research, and anyone who has had any exposure knows that the results of questionnaires are quite sensitive to the wording of the questions. And I have noticed more than occasionally signs of bias in polling (unnecessarily value-laden phrases, strange either-or pairings that exclude other choices, leading question sequences). I generally take opinion polls when called out of curiosity but I can recall at least a couple of time aborting the call because the questions were very leading. So my hunch is that there is more that a little truth in this argument, even though it would take a fair bit of effort to prove it in a rigorous manner.