Sunday, August 20, 2006

Not as dumb as we think
We bloggers, as we unhealthily obsess on the news, often catch politicians and talking heads sagely announcing certain "truths" that are completely at odds with verifiable reality. We usually credit such statements as evidence of how much the inside the beltway crowd is out of touch. Such statements on our part include a not small amount of self-congratulation on being in touch ourselves. While we may deserve a certain amount of credit most of the time for paying attention, in many cases we are only noticing part of the story. Let me use an Atrios post as an example.

Atrios quotes John McCain on Meet the Press this morning saying the following: "Most Americans, when they're asked if they want to set a date for withdrawal [from Iraq], say no." Atrios pulls out the latest polls from the major national polling firms. CNN on 8/2-3/06 polled 57 percent in favor of setting a date for withdrawal. CBS polled 56 percent. Gallup for USA Today polled 51 percent. Fox News polled 58 percent. Atrios' only comment is a dry, "So much for the straight talk express." Atrios is not calling McCain stupid or out of touch; he's implying that McCain has some other game up his sleeve. What is that game?

McCain is trying to create conventional wisdom. People in the opinion business--as all politicians are--know that conventional wisdom is more valuable than measurable facts. A small amount of conventional wisdom can balance out and replace a far larger amount of truth.

In the mid-nineties, my Clever Wife observed a particularly graphic example of this principle in action. Downtown Seattle was undergoing a major round of urban renewal. Several major stores were moving to new locations, several new stores were coming into town, and the city was spending hundreds of millions to revitalize a corridor connecting two healthy areas. This was at the beginning of the tech boom in which Seattle was an especially vibrant player. Despite all of the evidence that downtown was on an upswing, the conventional wisdom was that downtown was dying and drastic action needed to be taken before it was too late.

One rather pleasant relic of the previous round of saving downtown from imminent doom was a medium sized pedestrian plaza, called Westlake Park, in front of the Nordstrom's department store. Just as the pieces of the new urban renewal project were falling into place, Nordstrom's announced that would quit the project and move out of downtown unless the city punched a street through the Westlake Park. They announced no good reason for this demand, a development which wouldn't even have a strong effect on Nordstrom’s since they were already scheduled to move into a new space a block off the park.

The city panicked. After all, everyone knew downtown was dying (despite the evidence of their own eyes to the contrary). Without Nordstrom's, all efforts to save downtown were surely doomed. The demand was put up to a vote with the city fully backing Nordstrom's. The Seattle suburbs--people who rarely come downtown, but can't imagine life without Nordstrom's--voted overwhelmingly to give Nordstrom's their street.*

A new conventional wisdom arose to help people justify getting rid of a park in the middle of a dense urban core. At that time, my Clever Wife worked on the edge of downtown, close enough that she and her co-workers could go to Westlake on their lunch breaks to shop or to eat. A few days before the election they were discussing the park. All agreed that they liked the park and that it would be a shame to have a street cut it in half. Having established their own personal experience of the park, one her co-workers added, "I've heard that only homeless people hang out there." They all agreed that they had heard that, too. The conventional wisdom that only unsavory people used the park and that, therefore, ruining the park would be no loss outweighed the fact that they all used the park and would miss it. What they had heard was more important than what they actually experienced.

This is clearly the game that McCain is playing. Even though most people want to get out of Iraq, most of them will acquiesce to staying if the makers of opinion can convince them that most other people want to stay. McCain obviously has a stake in wanting to form opinion in this direction. He is not a stupid man and probably knows exactly what he is doing. The question deserving of examination is why the talking heads of the news industry go along with his efforts to manufacture a conventional wisdom at odds with real public opinion. Some of them have their own stakes in this game. Some have their own reasons for supporting the war or supporting the war's supporters.

Of course, we shouldn't eliminate the possibility that some of them really are just as stupid as we always thought.

* Clever Wife and I have boycotted Nordstrom's ever since.

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