Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Friday, July 20, 2018


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.


Howie said...

I think all you say is obvious and common sense- though some of us need a refresher from time to time

marcel proust said...

Suppose the polltakers began the series of questions on Obama/Trump by starting with the latent question before turning to the manifest question. How would this change the reliability of the poll overall? Would it be more likely then to get an accurate answer (i.e., what the respondent actually believes)?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Marcel Proust [hem, hem] raises a very interesting question. There is a good deal of evidence from many experiments that expressed opinions on all manner of things can be markedly influenced by such apparently irrelevant factors as a previous question or some seemingly unrelated information. I don't know the answer, but it would be fascinating to put it to the test.

Javier said...

Professor Wolff, you wrote "All those condemning Trump on television . . . are . . . members of that privileged self-congratulatory minority." Did you, perhaps, mean those supporting Trump?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

no, no! I mean Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough and Jake Tapper and on and on.

LFC said...

I don't watch TV, so how does Jake Tapper, to take one example, convey his message of self-congratulation? Is it a matter of subtext, of latent content (to appropriate your word), of body language, or what? Clearly Tapper cannot possibly come right out and say: "I deserve my position in the socioeconomic and prestige hierarchy while an unemployed resident of a small town in W Virginia has only himself to blame for his plight because of the choices he has made." J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy arguably does say something like that in certain sections, but on TV one cannot be so direct, even if -- for the sake of argument -- Jake Tapper does indeed have this self-congratulatory (in the specified sense) mentality. So my question is: How does he convey it?

s. wallerstein said...


I don't watch TV either, but the whole idea of meritocracy, which is generally endorsed by those on top, implies a certain self-congratulation.

Now I have known a few successful people, my father among them, who believed that society is as unjust and exploitative as Marx described it (although I doubt that he ever bothered to read Marx) and that if there were going to be winners and losers, he was going to among the winners, even if he had to punch below the belt from time to time. In fact, he once explicitly asked me why I preferred the wormeye's view of the golf course.

As the Bible says, "I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor battle to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding nor favor to men of skill."

Still, that point of view is, in my experience, very rare among the winners of this world who almost uniformly congratulate themselves on having won a fair race because of their superior merits, which generally they do not see as just traits (I was born with stronger legs than you), but as moral virtues.

LFC said...

@s. wallerstein

yes, but the issue I'm raising is, assuming person X (a member of "the privileged minority") does indeed have the attitude that his/her success is wholly a result of 'merit' (and not of something more arbitrary), how does X convey that attitude to others? Wolff's post, if you re-read the passage in question, says that members of the privileged minority congratulate themselves publicly on having earned their rewards.

That may be true in some cases. I was asking for more specifics, that's all, not doubting that in some cases successful (in an economic etc. sense) people do give off or exude a feeling of self-congratulation. (And others don't; it varies.)

So to repeat, the issue is not whether the idea of a meritocracy implies self-congratulation but, to the extent that it does, how that implication gets put into operation "on the ground" such that the less successful are made to feel that they are viewed as inferior (or whatever). Some of that is conveyed through somewhat subtle cultural cues, some of it may be conveyed unconsciously. In any case I think it's a subject or a proposition that might deserve some further exploration rather than simply being asserted.

s. wallerstein said...


But if the idea of meritocracy (in the mouths of the winners) implies self-congratulation, as you agree, then the losers, if they are normally intelligent, would tend to perceive that in the discourse of the winners who spout ideas of meritocracy.

That is especially true in the case of TV pundits (which is the case here), who are communicating ideas. No subtle cultural cues are required for the losers to see the implications of the discourse about meritocracy.

In fact, I would say that those who communicate with the public about current events in positions considered "successful" should out of basic intellectual honesty explain to their listeners their cultural background, that they always or almost always come from families where ideas are discussed, where books are read, where reading is encouraged, where their parents express themselves well and with a large vocabulary, etc. That is even more true today when economic and social inequality has become and, I'd wager, will increasingly become a subject for pressing public concern and when demagogues such as Trump play on the resentment produced by that inequality.

Maybe the road to socialism begins with a bit of truthfulness from all of us.

Charles Pigden said...

I recommend the work of the Canadian/American social psychologist Bob Altemeyer, conveniently popularized in his own little book The Authoritarians (which you can download for free) and in John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience. Basically there are a lot of people who, in the US tend to be concentrated on the political right (though people with the same personality type might have different political leanings in different societies), with the following characteristics:

1) a high degree of submission to these established leaders in their societies,
2) high levels of aggression in the name of those authorities
3) a high level of conventionalism.

That’s on page 8 of Altemeyer’s book. But what is really interesting is what emerges later. Once they accept somebody as a leader, these authoritarian types are strongly inclined to give those leaders a free pass when they violate the conventions to which they are otherwise aggressively attached. Furthermore they have a strong tendency to compartmentalized thinking and to what Orwell called ‘doublethink’. They are unusually good at maintaining mutually inconsistent beliefs., and are relatively unworried by cognitive dissonance. Thus their ideologies are relatively immune to criticism or revision because they are highly tolerant of inconsistency. So once they have accepted Trump as their savior they will continue to approve even as he conspicuously violates the codes that they would otherwise zealously enforce. In particular they will be a lot less worried than consistency-freaks and truth-freaks (to adapt Feyerabend’s terminology) by Trump’s frequent lies and self-contradictions. It’s only if you are not very good at compartmentalizing your thinking that it bothers you if the President says X on Day I and not-X on Day 2. Trump supporters are not like that. Furthermore, although these right-wing authoritarians are precisely the kind of people who would be appalled by another President’s cozying up to Russia, if their guy does it automatically becomes OK.