A recent poll reveals that 71% of Alabama Republicans do not believe the many women who have accused Roy Moore of molesting them when they were girls. This has been taken by cable news commentators as a sign of (1) excessive tribalism (2) inside the bubble thinking or (3) sheer stupidity. I should like to offer an alternative explanation for this and many other instances of seemingly incomprehensible opinion poll results.
I begin by assuming that people generally are neither so stupid nor so ignorant as to be unable to negotiate everyday life. Most Americans may not know quite where Syria is or what the nuclear triad is or what the difference is between a Sunni Muslim and a Shi’a Muslim, but they do know how to find their way to the grocery store and they may even be able to make spot repairs on an automotive vehicle.
So what is up? Well, here is my thought. It is not strictly true that 71% of Alabama Republicans think Roy Moore’s accusers are lying. What is true is that 71% of the Alabama Republicans who agreed to respond to a pollster answered “no” when asked whether they believe Roy Moore’s accusers. So what is the difference? you ask. Quite a bit, I suggest. [I am here drawing on a very interesting journal article written sixty years ago or more by David Riesman at the dawn of public opinion polling.] When a Roy Moore supporter is asked that question by a pollster, he or she understands immediately and intuitively that what is really being asked is “Whom do you support? Moore or Jones?” If, as is quite possible, that person believes the women but supports Moore anyway, he or she will be perfectly well aware that saying so opens the way to accusations of sexism, immorality, a failure of religious faith, or – worst of all – being a backwoods know-nothing Southern yahoo. The answer that springs most immediately to mind in that situation is f**k you! But being polite, as Southerners tend to be, he or she just says “no.”
Just a thought.