Monday, November 7, 2011

Post #53 - The Will of the People

Just when I think that the state of our body politic is truly lamentable for its narrow-minded insularity, something happens to balance my impression. The Aspen Institute's Global Interdependence Initiative sponsored research during 2005 and 2006 that produced these findings about public attitudes:

  • The American public is not isolationist. Polls, focus groups and other research all indicate that the public has consistently supported an active role for the United States in the world. This support predates the September 11 attacks by many years.
  • Americans are more likely to talk about core values and beliefs than to express opinions and policy preferences grounded in specific knowledge. The public may lack facts about global issues, but its values provide fairly consistent guidance across varied policy challenges and situations.
  • Policy makers view members of the public as naive, uninterested and uninformed. …policy elites often view public participation in foreign policy debates as meddlesome because it might limit diplomatic options.
  • Policy makers tend to view international issues in terms of balance of power, self-interest of the actors on the world scene, and sources of instability in the system. The public thinks more in terms of metaphors that relate to interpersonal and community relations and in terms of what the fair share of American responsibility ought to be. The public, of course, is concerned with security and the reality of war. But the public assigns a higher priority to global poverty, health, education, and environmental concerns than do the media, business or Congressional leaders. Since September 11, polls show that the public recognizes that a military response, which it has supported until recently, will not by itself provide long-term safety…the public welcomes cooperative efforts to improve international living standards and human rights.
  • Despite the chaotic impression often created by television's presentation of other countries, the public continues to hold positive international views and to support policies of engagement. As one researcher has said, "The good news is that, as superficial and episodic as this coverage is, its toll on core American beliefs is not as corrosive as one might expect."
  • The media and the policy elite tend to leave the public out of the discussion. The policy elite look to the media as a reflection of public opinion; the media look to the elite for sound bites and expert opinion. The case of "compassion fatigue," attributed to the public by media and experts alike a few years ago, illustrates a belief about the state of public opinion that was found to have no basis in public surveys. The American public does not suffer from "compassion fatigue."
  • Congress is surprisingly unaware of the public's actual views about global issues. A combination of safe seats and the lack of salience of foreign affairs [this poll was taken prior to the mid-term elections] allows Members and their staff to ignore public opinion polls and adhere to set views. As one research study concluded, "Because the political market does not punish those who misread the public [on foreign affairs], myths about public attitudes can persist." 

I know -- since the time this poll was done, we have the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.  But aren't they both saying to governmental officials and politicians, "You just don't get it -- you're not listening!"?  Perhaps the answer is more and better communication, by the people, with those who presume to represent us, to ensure that the leadership we get is “as good and as decent as the American people themselves,“ as Jimmy Carter used to say. Another president, Dwight Eisenhower, said: "I think that people want peace so much, maybe one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it."

"The first day or so we all pointed to our countries.  The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents.                      By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth."  ~ Sultan Bin Salmanal-Saud, astronaut.

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