John Sides at The Monkey Cage discusses a mindblowing new report on public opinion about torture. Here's the opening paragraph of the report:
Many journalists and politicians believe that during the Bush administration, a majority of Americans supported torture if they were assured that it would prevent a terrorist attack….But this view was a misperception…we show here that a majority of Americans were opposed to torture throughout the Bush presidency…even when respondents were asked about an imminent terrorist attack, even when enhanced interrogation techniques were not called torture, and even when Americans were assured that torture would work to get crucial information. Opposition to torture remained stable and consistent during the entire Bush presidency. Even soldiers serving in Iraq opposed the use of torture in these conditions…a public majority in favor of torture did not appear until, interestingly, six months into the Obama administration.
I love that last observation. It took the "liberal" validating it by using rhetorical tricks and refusing to hold anyone accountable for its use for a majority to finally decide that it must be ok. Some values we've got here.
But I think we've all learned that it pretty much doesn't matter what we actually believe, the narratives that are spun about such things by gasbags and politicians are seen as proxies for public opinion and we end up watching these atrocities unfold from afar with the sense that it's a trainwreck that nobody can stop from happening.
The public opinion data from 2001-2009 is pretty unequivocal. See the paper for the requisite tables and graphs. It’s also worth noting that majorities oppose most specific methods of torture or “enhanced interrogation” even when those techniques are not labeled “torture.”
So why would politicians and journalists misread public opinion? Gronke et al write:
A recent survey we commissioned helps shine a light on this question. Psychologists describe a process of misperception—“false consensus”—whereby an individual mistakenly believes that his or her viewpoint represents the public majority…Our survey shows that this false consensus pervades the opinions of those who support torture, leading them to significantly overestimate the proportion of the public that agrees with them. Those people opposed to torture, in contrast, have remarkably accurate perceptions of the rest of the public.
Indeed, the idea of false consensus is the entire theory of The Village --- a small group of elites who have convinced themselves that they are the living, breathing manifestation of the common man. If they and their friends all believe something, then other Real Americans must necessarily believe it too. (It's being documented right now on the deficit.) I suppose it happens throughout society, but this is the one case in which it ends up affecting policy and therefore the lives of every American. And because it is such a small group, it makes them extremely subject to propaganda. Hence the "center-right" nation that only exists inside the beltway.
If anyone needs a little reminder of what some of these "thought leaders" were saying about torture, this gem from Village scribe Jonathan Alter ought to take you right back.