Thursday, July 17, 2014

Moving Public Opinion

I've had two interesting but conflicting ideas rattling around in my head recently.  The first comes from Michael Waldman, author of the new book The Second Amendment: A Biography, who observed in a recent podcast I listened to that the best way to accomplish lasting social change is by taking your case to the people and shaping public will.  He contrasted this against legislative or judicial initiatives that are long in the making and often vulnerable to revocation or revision if contrary to popular sentiment.

The second is from Martin Luther King, Jr.  I have finally finished Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, which has immediately found a place amongst my top ten favorite books.  MLK would not have cared for Mr. Waldman's methods:

"The time is always right to do what is right." - MLK

Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity.

"This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"

To explain the difference, as I see it, Waldman encourages us to plant seeds and tend the field, while King focused on action-driven performance.  If you were not acting, you were failing.

Even more than the interest in immediate action, what amazed me most in reading about King was the seemingly reciprocal faith he had in the power of government institutions.  He spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get President Kennedy to proclaim the "Second Emancipation Proclamation", which would have been a mostly symbolic gesture to show that the President supported desegregation.  Kennedy died before being able to sign (to the extent he ever would have).  Unlike most activists of our day, his faith was well placed.  Martin Luther King, Jr., created government action in ways we have not seen since and may never see again.

Waldman may reply that government institutions of the 1960's were more responsive to popular opinion than the more insular, corporate-driven chambers of today, making it all the more important to "prime the pump" and create inevitability before seeking change.  And his hypothesis plays out quite clearly when you think of the influence cable news and talk radio have on Congress.  I'm not talking about the influence these outlets have on their listeners - rather, I believe the opinions and positions held by talk-show pundits move the dial on what is important to certain caucuses of lawmakers.  Once these institutions build up a track record of influencing voters, those in pursuit of votes no longer wait to see what the public thinks.  They take their cue and act accordingly.

All of this is further complicated by what I refer to as the "bubble" or "echo chamber".  If you spend any more than 10 minutes knocking on random doors in your community, you will realize that your understanding regarding "what people think" is far from reality.  For a good proportion of our voting public, what people think is this:

"sandwich, juice box, shoe, she didn't put on her shoe, where's her shoe, there it is, let's get in the car, child seat buckled, door locked, forgot my phone, need to get my phone, drive to school, then work,  oh work, this will be a tough day, is that report due today or tomorrow..."

How, Mr. Waldman, do you influence that?  Furthermore, our interpretation of public opinion surveys must be through the prism of understanding that the voting electorate may not be representative of that opinion.  "...pick Sally back up, she has both shoes, that's good,  life is good, what will we have for dinner, there's frozen pizza, that's not very good for them, but its fast, pizza it is, what day is it?, voting day, no voting day is in November, is it November already?, I need to get gifts to put under the tree, what did she want again..."

There's a reason why candidates flood your think space with signs, mail, door-knocks, and calls.  We're trying to get through the fog.  For those already paying attention, this is very frustrating.  For those not paying attention, we will introduce ourselves to you for the first time about three times.

There's nothing easy about persuading public opinion, but I agree with Waldman on this point - it could be the only thing we have left.

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!  I look forward to seeing you all at tonight's Victory Celebration on Tonge Row in Ellicott City!  6 pm to 8 pm!  With over 70 RSVP's (and half of them prepaid) we are looking at having one of our biggest events yet!