Voyou has a great post up about liberals who express concern about the effects of property damage during protests:
Liberals complain about property damage during the various marches and actions, but they’re quick to add that it is not they themselves who are disturbed or offended; rather, they are concerned about the effect this property damage will have on others, particularly the cops who will react violently and the media who will focus on images of destruction to the exclusion of whatever else the demonstration achieved. The liberal’s position here is perverse in the Lacanian sense: it expresses itself not as an actual desire, but as a desire to be the instrument of the desire of some fantasized other. Part of what supports this disavowed desire is that the objection to property damage can present itself as neutral, even expert, strategic advice. It’s bad strategic advice, though, and I think in a revealing way.
I recommend reading the whole thing, but I’d like to take this in another direction. If liberals are so good at anticipating and manipulating public opinion, why have they been so massively unsuccessful for the last thirty years? If liberals are such experts at persuasion, why is seemingly no one persuaded?
I think the answer is that this kind of “concern trolling” presupposes that persuasion is impossible. People supposedly have certain immutable reactions to given actions — for instance, the media will inevitably focus on property damage, and the police will inevitably crack down — and those are just brute facts that we have to deal with. The question of how these seemingly instinctive reactions came about is just as unasked as the question of how we might try to move people away from them. Making the case that the media should be focused on more important things or that the police shouldn’t vastly overreact — neither is on the agenda for these liberals.
The result is that every election becomes a kind of “heist,” where we just barely pull together enough ideas to get X% of the soccer moms, etc., etc. Then, in the rare cases where liberals actually gain power, every policy debate is characterized by the infamous Obama-style “preemptive compromise” — again, since the opponents’ preferences are hard-wired, there’s no need to have any actual debate. The entire debate can happen in the mind of the liberal, and the opponent will “have to” sign on for the carefully crafted compromise that takes all the opponent’s preferences into account. In the same way, if liberals preemptively reject policies that typically prompt conservative criticism, their conservative opponents “have to” refrain from attacking them on said issue. And the consistent lack of success of this strategy only shows that liberals aren’t doing it hard enough.
This view of how the world works is a vertiginous mix of wild optimism and brutal cynicism. On the one hand, it seems to presuppose that the general public is fully informed and fully convinced on every issue. Public opinion polls — at least those that support conventional wisdom of what public opinion should be — are treated as authoritative snapshots of immutable views. On the other hand, it assumes that persuasion always comes too late — people are radically stuck in their views, which were formed in some mysterious way that we somehow can’t influence.
In real life, however, the general public doesn’t really know or care what they’re talking about. You might as well cite an online “Which Friends character are you?” quiz showing that Joey is most representative of the majority of Americans and build your policy agenda around that (“Naked Thursdays!”).
In fact, it appears that poll results are usually a trailing indicator. If you’d asked people in June 2001 whether we should invade Iraq, I doubt you’d get much support. When there was bipartisan agreement that we should, suddenly everyone was on board! Similarly, I’m pretty confident that one would find a reliable correlation between how many people claim the deficit is an important issue and how much time politicians are spending debating the deficit.
This makes sense when we realize that most people don’t really have the time or inclination to delve into the weeds of policy debates and, when asked about such issues, most often want to say what they should say. Hence it’s possible that regular reporting of public opinion actually generates a kind of feedback loop where people hear what they supposedly think and then assume they’d better think it because it’s what “everyone” thinks.
I don’t know how to wrap up this post, so I’ll just stop here.