Crazy Polls and Public Ignorance

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At his NYT blog, Ross Douthat discusses a new poll that shows 24% of Americans don’t think President Obama was born in the United States. Ross says he never takes very seriously the results from this sort of shock polling which suggests that a sizeable portion of Americans believe some insane thing or other. I’ve written about crazy poll results before, and I tend to agree with Ross that it’s best to be very skeptical of these sorts of things, because there’s a lot going on when people decide to say outlandish things to pollsters. 

There are two factors at work in these nutty polls. The first is simple historical or political ignorance. For instance, 18% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth. And 19% weren’t sure which country America fought in its war for independence. This is just good old scientific and historical illiteracy, and we can’t draw any larger points from it other than some people are dumb.

The other type of crazy poll response may or may not have an empirical answer, but in the midst of a perceived public controversy, people are merely using their response to express some general political affiliation, or register some resentment or opposition to the subject of the question. Like the 63% of registered Republicans who believe Barack Obama is a socialist. I think this is nothing more than a crude syllogism: I don’t like Barack Obama. I don’t like socialists. Barack Obama is a socialist. It’s got nothing to do with the dispensation of the means of production. You could substitute any reviled sub-group and probably get a similiar answer.

I think the same visceral opposition is at play when 24% of Republicans say they believe Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win. This is a twofer; it expresses some sort of vague disagreement with his foreign policy, and it separates him as some feared "other". Just as saying that he wasn’t born in the U.S. undercuts his legitimacy to govern, which is just an easier path to opposition than actually marshalling sound arguments against his policy preferences. We saw it all the time with President Bush as well. They’re fascists and socialists and Nazis and terrorists; and if that’s not enough, Obama’s not American and Bush was never even elected! Here’s former Senator Rick Santorum just last week, showing us how the pros do it:

Obama is detached from the American experience. He just doesn’t identify with the average American because of his own background. Indonesia and Hawaii. His view is from the viewpoint of academics and the halls of the Ivy league schools that he went to and it’s not a love of this country and an understanding of the basic values and wants and desires of it’s people. And as a result of that, he doesn’t connect with people at that level.

So is Obama detached because he’s from Hawaii and Indonesia, or because he went to Ivy League schools? Or maybe Santorum just thinks Ivies are full of Indonesians and Hawaiians.

Santorum reminds us, expertly, that sometimes it’s both factors in tandem: ignorance mixed with some kind of visceral nativist opposition. If you look deeper into the Birther numbers, you see that around 10% of Americans think Obama was indeed born in Hawaii, but they either didn’t think Hawaii was part of the U.S., or just weren’t sure. I’d like to poll Santorum on why exactly he thinks Hawaiians are detached from the American experience.

Basically I think what’s going on in these political polls is people asking themselves, "Is this guy one of us or one of them?" where "us" and "them" can be any narcissistic tribal identity or trait. And once they identify you as being in the dreaded enemy camp, they’ll agree to most any proposition put to them that accentuates that difference, as long as it serves to highlight your odiousness and their comparative virtue.

UPDATE: Rick Santorum’s nightmare just got a little closer. Daniel Inouye, who is presumably also detached from the American experience and has no love of his country because he is from Hawaii, is now third in the line of succession to the presidency. He was sworn in as President pro tempore of the Senate yesterday, replacing Robert Byrd.

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