A new poll is out this morning purporting to reveal that 71% of Republicans approve of Trump’s handling of Russia in Helsinki. This has the commentariat pulling out its collective hair, wondering despairingly what has happened to their father’s Republican Party. Now I bow to no one in my conviction that Republicans are the spawn of the devil [please, spare me the feverish insistence that so are Democrats – I know all that, but that is not the point of this post.] However, polls like the one referenced are no particular evidence of this truth. Three times before, in 2010, 2012, and 2015, I have written about this subject here. I am going to reprint what I said in 2015, because I am old enough and retro enough to imagine that if you have written something once, and still believe it, there is nothing to be gained by writing it differently a fourth time. Here is what I wrote:
“If news reports are to be believed, 54% of Republicans believe that President Obama is a Muslim [and 100% of them, I assume, consider being a Muslim an especially bad thing.] When I read reports like this, I despair for my fellow homo sapiens. The scores of millions of Americans presumably represented by the poll respondents hold critical jobs -- as traffic policemen, as bus drivers, as doctors, as lawyers, as chicken pluckers. If the polls are to be believed, a sizeable fraction of the cars approaching me here in North Carolina on Interstate 40 at a combined speed of 160 miles an hour are driven by motorists completely unhinged from reality. Is it safe for me to drive?
Thus troubled, I looked within for reassurance. Deep in the far recesses of my memory I found a faint trace of an article written almost seventy years ago by two of the great figures of mid-twentieth century American sociology, David Riesman and Nathan Glazer. I am sure those names are completely unknown to you, although you may be familiar with some of the terms they gave to our conversation about public affairs -- "other-directed, "inner-directed," "inside dopester."
With remarkably little effort, I located this essay by means of Google and a few key words: "The Meaning of Opinion," by David Riesman and Nathan Glazer, Public Opinion Quarterly, Volume 12, No. 4 [Winter 1948-49], pp. 633-648. Read it! It is so far superior to anything written by sociologists and public opinion pollsters today as to take one's breath away.
How can it be that 54% of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim? The answer -- not simple at all -- is that public opinion polling is a socio-psycho-dynamically complex interaction between the poll-taker and the respondent in which the manifest content of the question and answer are a very imperfect representation of the latent interactive processes taking place in the polling.
In the simplest terms possible, I suggest that the answer to my despairing question is this: When a pollster asks a respondent the manifest question "Is President Obama a Muslim?," the respondent at some level experiences this as the quite different latent question, "Do you like President Obama?" The respondent understands quite well, even if not consciously, that to give the patently true answer "No" to the manifest question would actually be to give the answer "Yes" to the latent question. So the respondent answers "Yes" to the manifest question, not wanting to be trapped into expressing any sort of support or sympathy for Obama. The poll taker dutifully records this as a "yes" to the manifest question rather than what it really is, a "No" to the latent question.
I am quite confident that if a polling organization were to ask a statistically representative sample of Republicans "Does President Obama have horns?," a significant percentage of respondents would say "Yes," even though all of them have seen Obama on television many times and know quite well that he has no horns.”
American voters, by and large, have no actual opinions about tariffs, Brexit, Russia, NATO, Putin, the rule of law, the balance of powers, the Constitution, or indeed about democracy. Most voters could not find Russia on an unlabeled world map and haven’t a clue what the letters NATO stand for, let alone what it is and does. They have plenty of opinions about their jobs, their families, their neighborhoods, their churches, their health insurance, and the successes and failures of their favorite sports teams, opinions that are, epistemologically speaking, factually well-grounded. But opinions about NATO, tariffs, Brexit, and Putin are, like tastes in soft drinks, coffees, movies, and clothing, status markers in our society, markers that are quite well understood by everyone. The support for Trump is, I am convinced, an expression of racial and status anxiety in a society in which a minority of adults get a huge majority of the rewards, all the while congratulating themselves publicly on having earned them, thereby telling the majority not only that they are screwed but that they deserve to be screwed and have only their own inferiority to blame. All of those condemning Trump on television, without exception, are, and can easily be seen to be, members of that privileged self-congratulatory minority. The pollsters may have thought they were asking, “Do you approve of Trump’s handling of Russia?” but everyone being polled heard “Are you with the privileged few or with the great unwashed?” Well, for a long time, they would try to suck up by answering “No” but now they offer the polltaker’s version of the middle finger and say “Yes.”
Joe Scarborough is shocked.