A Hall of Mirrors

I’ve always felt that a hall of mirrors is a wonderful metaphor for life in a hyper-reflected—if nowhere near as reflective—media age. Not because of some silly metaphysical-slash-ontological predicament the alleged affliction with which serves only to spin dissertations, Ph.D.s, and similar parlor games, like cobwebs in a dirty attic. But, because in American history, halls of mirrors are so closely associated with traveling carnivals (and therefore carnival barkers), bearded ladies, amphibious frog-boys, and the climax of Carol Reed’s film, The Third Man.

(Quick aside. Of course, no one needs to remind me that Reed’s film was produced in Britain.)

Two weeks from tomorrow, the Americans are staging one of their quadrennial presidential gigs. In anticipation of the grand event, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, along with the Program on International Policy Attitudes, broke with the CCFR’s traditional schedule for surveying American public opinion that dated all the way back to 1974 (and the last of which had been in 2002) to conduct a series of surveys in July of this year. Now released in two major reports—Global Views 2004 (Sept. 28) and The Hall of Mirrors (Oct. 1)—their findings were alike both in how important they were, and in how little attention they’ve received.

(Another quick aside. Actually, the findings of the Global Views 2004 project are spread out across no less than 12 lengthy PDFs—including the comparative data the CCFR-PIPA teams assembled from Mexico and South Korea. (See the Global Views 2004 homepage.) But I’m going to stick with the presentations made in the two documents named above.)

All of these polls presume two classes of opinion-holders: The general public and American “ leaders.” The former class is comprised simply of adult Americans; the latter, a mixture of members of Congress, congressional staffers, Bush Administration officials (not drawn from the top, of course), university figures, news media figures, and religious figures, executives drawn from Fortune 1000 firms, labor leaders, think-tankers and “special interest groups”—as long as each of them in some way or another performs work that is related to American foreign policy.

Throughout, the major theme of the findings is the disconnect or the disparity that exists between the demonstrably-held consensus opinions of the general public and even American “leaders” (sorry, but I just can’t seem to stop putting on a pair of quotation marks before handling this word), on the one hand, and two other variables of the political culture: (a) the degree of knowledge that American “leaders” possess about the public’s beliefs and attitudes; and (b) the actual voting records of the representatives of the American public in Congress.

To give you some examples: Both Global Views 2004 and The Hall of Mirrors report the opinions of both the public and their “leaders” across many different categories, and then report the percentage of the “leaders” in each case who were able correctly to state the expressed opinion of the public.

Thus, for example, when asked if they favor U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court, 76 percent of the public, and 70 percent of “leaders,” said yes, they favor it. But only 30 of these same “leaders” possessed the knowledge that a majority of the public actually held this belief—a remarkable level of ignorance for life in a state where the self-image claims to be the world’s leading democracy.

Similarly, asked if they favor U.S. participation in the Kyoto Treaty (and related protocols) to curb global warming, 71 percent of the public, and 72 percent of their “leaders,” said yes, they do. But when asked, only 38 percent of these “leaders” were able to state accurately that a majority of the public holds this belief.

And so on. And so on. And so on. Across pretty much every issue the CCFR-PIPA group surveyed, ignorance abounded. Asked whether they would favor the U.S. Government adopting a policy of neutrality (i.e., “not take either side”) in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, 74 of the public, and 77 of their “leaders,” said yes, of course they would. But only 32 of these “leaders” knew that a majority of the public would express this belief, when given the chance o be heard. Last, asked whether they would favor the U.S. Government accepting collective decisions within the rules of the United Nations, 66 of the public, and 78 of “leaders,” agreed. But only 26 of these same “leaders” knew that a majority of the public held this belief about the U.S. and the UN.

Consistently, over and over again, the leadership of the United States, as a class, is either woefully ignorant, woefully complaisant, or in fact does not give a damn, about the beliefs and attitudes of the American public on matters of no small importance to the contemporary world—and above all themselves.

“An especially prominent and recurring theme is that clear majorities of both the leaders and the public are supportive of policies and principles that involve stronger multilateral institutions or multilateral efforts for dealing with problems,” Global Views 2004 states as well as shows. “On most questions, leaders’ perceptions of the public’s views are clearly at odds with the actual attitudes of the general public.” Indeed. Most strikingly, even where the “actual attitudes of the public and the leaders are very consonant,” in almost all cases, the “leaders do not know this is the case” (p. 49).

Thus, across a very broad range of truly cosmopolitan issues, including the role of multilateralism and international institutions as mediating factors in the relations among states, the observance of international norms and the legitimate use of force, and, not insignificantly, multilateral institutions for the management of economic relations and rivalries, majorities of the American public and their leadership class come down firmly in favor of (you guessed it!) multilateralism—in favor, that is, of rules and norms and checks on the sheer fiat of the powerful to do as they please. Beginning right at home. With their own state. With themselves.

But not only does the American leadership class, by and large, not understand that this in fact expresses the will of the people. The people themselves are afforded scant opportunity to see and hear their beliefs reflected back to them, and to watch their beliefs take shape in the practices of their state. Or even to learn about the fact that such beliefs are widely shared with other people. All across the country. (Beyond it. Too.)

Scrolling up and down The Hall of Mirrors, the other CCFR-PIPA report, what we find reported over and over again are sizeable majorities of the American public and the political leadership expressing reasonable positions on any number of issues pertaining to the role of the United States in the world. Thus, 87 percent of the public believes that the U.S. should observe the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (i.e., “the treaty that would prohibit nuclear tests worldwide,” as the questionnaire described it), and 85 percent of the foreign policy leadership agrees. Another 80 percent of the public believes the U.S. should observe the Ottawa Convention on Land Mines (i.e., “the treaty that bans all use of land mines”), as does 80 percent of the foreign policy leadership. (Rather abhorrently, 44 percent of the public wants to keep defense spending at the same level (another 29 percent would raise it further), as does 48 percent of the foreign policy leadership—and this from the already-astronomical current levels. Presumably, the phrasing of the question, i.e., defense, rather than something more accurate for a state that maintains more than 700 military bases abroad, clouds the issue. I can think of a lot better words.)

What findings such as these show us is that not only the American public, but an impressive majority of its foreign policy elite, hold reasonable positions on any number of categories of concern whereby the United States interacts with the rest of the world. But these beliefs are seldom acted upon. Evidently, the policy elite find themselves entrapped by the institutions of the American state and corporate sectors. While the American public remains marginal to the decision-making process. At best.

How else to explain a situation in which 65 percent of the public favored a war with Iraq only on the condition that their Government gained U.S. Security Council approval first (this was the CCFR’s finding in 2002, note well), 76 percent favors American participation in the International Court of Justice, 62 percent opposes the development of a missile defense system, 71 percent favors participation on the Kyoto Treaty, 81 percent participation in the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, another 80 percent in the Ottawa Convention on Land Mines, and 74 percent neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and it doesn’t matter one damn bit?

Postscript. The joint Chicago Council on Foreign Relations-Program on International Policy Attitudes’ Global Views 2004 project has produced some massive documentation, totaling around 600 pages, spread across no less than 12 different presentations of the findings.

But for beginner’s sake, we might stick to three snapshot presentations of these findings, by the main Global Views 2004 report: Figure 5-1 (p. 50) and Figure 5-2 (p. 51), and in The Hall of Mirrors report, Sect. 3, “Public Perceptions of Congress Overall,” pp. 19-21, esp. the chart “Congressional Actions: Public Preferences, Actual Votes, Public Perceptions,” p. 21.

Beyond these, there are 36 very helpful charts (“Figures,” the report calls them) embedded throughout Global Views 2004—as good a place as any to start. Also, as always, the brief Media Release that PIPA distributed on Oct. 1 to accompany the publication of The Hall of Mirrors is very helpful.

The other two major components of these surveys of the American public and the foreign policy elite—U.S. Pubic Topline Report and U.S. Leaders Topline Report—cannot be so easily digested. One simply has to work with them as they are.

The public release of these reports on September 28 and October 1 received very little coverage in the American media—hardly surprising for a country in which the dominant state and corporate sectors not only survive on condition of remaining ignorant of what the public really believes about the world, but thrive by keeping the public just as ignorant about its own beliefs and the beliefs of the people on the other side of town (not to mention the other side of the world), and by disregarding these beliefs, regularly with contempt.

Jim Lobe, the superb contributor to the Inter Press Service, reported the release of the CCFR-PIPA findings the very first day they came out (“Poll Finds A Nation Chastened by War,” Sept. 28), as did Diego Cevallos (“Mexicans, U.S. Citizens Do Not See Eye to Eye,” Sept. 28). Short articles by Agence France Presse (“U.S. public anxiety over terror threats abate: survey,” Sept. 28) and UPI (“Poll shows U.S. leaders, citizens at odds,” Sept. 28) also circulated, as did a longer report by Reuters (“U.S. Perception of Terror Threat Down—Survey,” Sept. 28). London’s Financial Times did run an important article the same day (Edward Alden, “Survey shows gap between public’s views and political elite’s,” Sept. 28). The U.S.-based Cox News Service (Bob Deans, “Candidates To Finally Face Off on Central Election Focus: Iraq,” Sept. 29) and Knight Ridder (Frank Davies, “Americans prefer U.N. force against terror,” Sept. 29) also reported the polls—though these reports saw the polls’ reflection back off the distorted mirrors of the American presidential race, and therefore missed what was of fundamental importance about them.

Some of the other non-U.S. media that mentioned the polls were the Jerusalem Post (Janine Zacharia, “Two-thirds of Americans favor Mideast evenhandedness, poll says,” Sept. 29), the Glasgow Herald (Ian Bruce, “Al Qaeda agent smuggles people into the states,” Sept. 29), the Straits Times (Singapore—“Only 33%of Americans support sending troops to help Taiwan; Restrained use of force a result of Iraq war, says survey,” Sept. 30), and The Guardian (London—Simon Tisdall, “Ganging up on the global policeman,” Oct. 1). I’ve also been able to find mentions of these polls in the Denver Post (Ved P. Nanda, “Support for U.N. Crucial,” Oct. 3), and Newsweek (Fareed Zakaria, “Americans Eat Cheese, Too,” Oct. 11). Doubtless, there have been other reports that I’ve missed. But my general impression is that these polls and the enormously important story they have to tell the American public about the contempt in which their national political culture holds them went over like the proverbial lead balloon. As always, the American public will have to resort to alternative sources of information to learn more.

A former Managing Editor of the journal Foreign Affairs (the Council on Foreign Relations’ flagship publication) and a former Harvard professor of international affairs,
Zakaria’s commentary was doubly interesting because Zakaria himself falls within the “opinion leaders” or “foreign policy elite” technical design of the CCFR-PIPA survey. Noting that the CCFR-PIPA survey just reported that American public opinion is heavily multilateralist, even when principles of this kind might work against the U.S. position on contested issues, Zakaria added that the Democratic candidate John Kerry “would not dare propose any one of these positions” in the presidential campaign, out of the fear that proposing it would be political suicide. The foreign policy debate within the American political culture has become one “where no one dare propose cooperation [with multilateral institutions such as the UN], even though such approaches are solidly popular among the public at large.”

In short, many of the expressed beliefs of majorities of the American public are strictly off the agenda of the national political culture—one of the striking features of the 2004 campaign.

And here we are, just two weeks plus one day shy of the election.

A hall of mirrors indeed. Whether in the sewers of Vienna. Or the sewers of the American political culture.

Global Views 2004: American Public Opinion and Foreign Policy (and the accompanying Introduction), Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the Program on International Policy Attitudes, September 28, 2004

U.S. Leaders Topline Report, CCFR-PIPA, September, 2004
U.S. Pubic Topline Report, CCFR-PIPA, September, 2004

The Hall of Mirrors: Perceptions and Misperceptions in the Congressional Foreign Policy Process (and the accompanying CCFR comments as well as PIPA’s Media Release), Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the Program on International Policy Attitudes October 1, 2004

Poll Finds A Nation Chastened by War,” Jim Lobe, Inter Press Service, September 28, 2004
U.S. Perception of Terror Threat Down—Survey,” Reuters, September 28, 2004
“Survey shows gap between public’s views and political elites,” Edward Alden, Financial Times, September 28, 2004
Americans prefer U.N. force against terror,” Frank Davies, Knight Ridder, September 29, 2004
Americans Eat Cheese, Too,” Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek, October 11, 2004

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