What moves public opinion?

I ask the question just now because we seem to be facing a considerable problem in coming to satisfying resolutions on a variety of matters, nationally and locally. And it appears to be largely an ideological divide that stands in the way. I do not propose a full answer here; I simply want to put the dimensions of the problem, and some hints toward possible answers, on the table.

What's at stake nationally is indicated by every recent opinion poll on national trends: Politically speaking, we are just as divided in 2004 as we were prior to the 2000 presidential election. A New York Times/CBS News Poll released two weeks ago split 47/45 on approval of the president's work in office, 48/46 on approval of his policies on Iraq, 42/45 on approval of Congress's work, 45/43 on a vote for a Republican or Democratic president (if the election were held now); support for the war in Iraq also splits heavily along party lines. As it does in relation to a dozen issues, according to the most recent national poll from the Pew Center for The People and the Press, similarly just two weeks old, the only agreement among Republicans and Democrats on issues to be ranked on a national priority list was on the space program (interestingly, just mid-level on the list); all the rest of the rankings were pretty much in reverse order, party to party. And voting for party is now, as in 2000, a vote for one of two quite different constellations of ideological alternatives on the scope of individual liberty and the scope of government and its services.

What's at stake locally could be described in relation to a number of issues, but came up last week in relation to one in particular, long with us but freshly prominent on the Phoenixville Borough Planning Commission's docket: the location of a new homeless shelter on the North Side. The Not In My Back Yard response to the proposal received by the commission was not surprising. But the lingering question was: how is a constituency developed around an issue, how is public opinion moved, in support of the issue the proposal addressed?

In relation to both matters, it's possible simply to say that Americans have a habit of just muddling through. But that perspective still leaves us, on the one hand, with a national election in which we are choosing Door Number One or Door Number Two, with starkly contrasting policy consequences, and on the other hand with an issue that, in postponement to muddle through, quite literally leaves some people out in the cold.

The issue was deepened for me last week by some reflections on changes in public opinion from Phoenixville's John Lukacs. He notes this, in the introduction to a volume of his correspondence with George Kennan: "In 1945 many Americans still regarded Soviet Russia as their nation's principal ally. Two years later both government leaders and the majority of public opinion saw in Soviet Russia the principal enemy of their country. The transformation [of 'opinions and sentiments'] from World War II to Cold War took [just] a year and a half." Now Kennan, you will remember, was the author of the 8,000-word telegram from his Moscow diplomatic post to the State Department proposing in outline a policy of "containment," a strategy that guided foreign policy for another 40 years. If Lukacs is awed by such a quick shift in public opinion, Kennan remained to his death even more surprised at how dependent the reception of his case was on its timing: "The effect produced in Washington...was nothing less than sensational...Six months earlier this message probably would have been received in the Department of State with raised eyebrows and lips pursed in disapproval...six months later, it probably would have sounded redundant, a sort of preaching to the convinced." This was true despite the fact that the realities it described were ones that had existed, substantially unchanged, for about a decade. (See Dr. Lukacs' George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment: the Kennan-Lukacs Correspondence, The University of Missouri Press, 1997).

It is clear that the government's own role in shaping that shift in public opinion from 1945 to 1947 built on already-developed, healthy suspicions on the part of the general public that, according to Kennan, "had already begun to make people wonder whether the Soviet regime was quite what they had been encouraged to believe it to be during wartime." Perhaps that's one element of hope out of the national stalemate: A healthy suspicion of what is heard from centers of power.

Perhaps we can find a second bit of hope in the unexpected outcome of the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Unexpected, because the press, steeped in the latest opinion polls with their underlying predict-the-vote-by-demographic-category assumptions, had written off the winner well before the caucuses were underway. What the entrance and exit polls said was that it was each candidate's "strength of stand" on issues - even on stands about which voters disagreed - that attracted them.

So, not ideology but specific issues may finally drive our politics. That will require concerted attention to the issues. And that attention needs to be vocal. What strikes me most about the national scene and the local one, all across the nation, is how politically quiet it seems. We should not be satisfied that citizens' opinion are sufficiently summarized by polls.

That leaves the Lukacs-Kennan mystery of timing. By virtue of what event, what prior readiness to hear a political judgment or proposal, can the ideological divide be bridged? We need to recognize that there is much that will remain a mystery here, much that cannot be directed. But in so far as we can attempt it, the bridge may be an event; our president believes that this war is, or should be, such an event that galvanizes a public. But that claim has not been made sufficiently plain, and we are still discovering its domestic consequences.

Perhaps a principle that bridges the divide and burrows through the ideologies might do it. Here's one: both sides of the ideological aisle have used language of "no (child) (person) left behind." It is common to both party platforms. It is a proposition that could gather all of us together, because it is about us. In relation to that principle, domestic policy would have clear first-level guidance. In which case, we know also what the future of 330 Dayton Street ought to be. (By the way, 330 Dayton is in my back yard).

G.E. "Skip" Lawrence is a resident of Phoenixville.

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