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Great spirits fighting mediocre minds

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Humans are innately limited in their perceptions and consequential understanding of the world. Vernacular is confined to the regions we have been exposed to, and thus it is impossible to conceive that which we have not been yet exposed to.

Two schools of thought have emerged to qualify the extent to which these perceptions, also known as opinions, should influence an administration’s decision-making in a healthy, prosperous democracy. While on one hand a deficit of public opinion can lead to an autocratic government as explained by one former Canadian Prime Minister, the other school favors more limited intervention of public opinion. Nobel Prize in literature laureate Bertrand Russell contends in his book "The Conquest of Happiness," “One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny.”

Rhetoric allows for uncomplicated manipulation. A public limited in its understanding, thanks to bias in the media, misinformation and the ever-transcendent tendency to process new information in a way that conforms to previous assumptions, cannot be held to the same standard as officials elected to have those understandings. Importantly, a distinction must be made between public opinion and public discourse. Whereas public opinion is generally contingent on a plethora of factors, ranging from society’s perceived opinion, friends, family and personal experiences, public discourse refers to active conversations that engage ideas and arguments in the pursuit of something new. Christopher O. Tollefsen, professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and expert on public discourse, views civility as a critical virtue of public discourse.

It is “all about a competing class of claims which, to be well grounded and deserving of public consideration, must be backed by reasons and arguments.” Public discourse should, therefore, inform public opinion. In an active democracy, it is pivotal in holding elected officials to a standard only the electorate can set.

When looking to aggregated supposed consensus’ of the public, the role of the media is not to be understated. After all, both public and private networks have unparalleled carte blanche over the cultural guidelines and public discourse they set and begin. Media bias, from careful omission, particular selection of sources to palpable spins of a reporter’s subjective interpretation of objective facts, all play a role in distorting reality for the unsuspecting.

Research from the University of Michigan suggests opinions are based on beliefs; even when presented with contradictory facts, individuals are inclined to resort to their previously held beliefs with even greater fervor. This phenomenon, coined a “backfire,” explains what James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign called in 2000 the, “I know I’m right syndrome.”

Unregulated news sources can therefore make for reinforced unfounded opinions. When confronting such audiences, politicians are thus inclined to pander—professing views for the sake of positive public appeal. President-elect Donald Trump’s escapade with the intelligence community over Russia is not the first time in American history whereby skewed public discourse informed ill-advised “opinions.”

Not long ago, American public opinion was a powerful battleground for the Vietnam War. In 1954 after a stunning upset at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, French colonialists conceded to a communist north—a fact the U.S. would attempt to overturn in supporting a Western-friendly South Vietnamese government. Thanks to an investigation pursued by a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, Sam A. Adams, we know now that General Westmoreland, the World War II veteran who led much of U.S. military strategy during the time, among others, underestimated the number of Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army troops who were pursuing a unified communist state.

Eventually, the war of attrition—concerned with inflicting the greatest number of enemy casualties—proved unsustainable and eventually in 1973, the U.S. withdrew, leaving the South Vietnamese powerless and unsupported against communist aggressors receiving funding and material support from China and the Soviets. Throughout this time, perceived voices for truth offered a sharply pessimistic narrative for which the American public could conceive opinions on the war effort.

Journalists, with the most prominent being the remarkably trusted Walter Cronkite, played an unparalleled role in shaping public opinion, and consequently military strategy, during the War. The 93 percent of Americans who owned a television in 1966 were startled by incorrect reports of a communist occupation of the U.S embassy in 1968. Whereas the aggressors did not at any point enter the embassy building, let alone occupy parts of the building for six hours as reported by the Associated Press, Cronkite fed the public a misguided narrative.

The true travesty, however, is the way in which public opinion affected morale and the strategies employed by American policy-makers and army officers. After the string of coordinated 1968 attacks throughout Vietnam, known as the Tet Offensive, Johnson’s favorability plummeted as he decided not to run for a second term.

Even the U.S. State Department Bureau of Public Affairs can acknowledge the role the Tet Offensive played in weakening domestic support for the Johnson Administration. The “U.S. media made clear to the American public that an overall victory in Vietnam was not imminent,” irrespective of the reality on the ground. Again, dubious stakeholders influencing dominant perception played on the distrusts of unsuspecting Americans.

In retrospect, the Johnson administration should not have cared as much about public opinion when deciding American grand strategy during the war. After all, without the foresight, scope and institutional knowledge of the office of the commander-in-chief, how is a citizen to be an effective judge? When informed by journalists with their own individual political motives, exemplified by Cronkite when he pleaded for Robert Kennedy to run for president with prospects of becoming vice-president, public opinion can be tragically misguided.

The media heavily influences public opinion, and public opinion heavily influences public administration. Within this intricate dynamic, discernible conflicts of interest between policymakers and the public they are allegedly protecting the interests of, highlight a common problem of traditional politics.

From the perspective of economists approaching policy-making, voter approval is a confounding variable. This median voter theorem, as described by Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, states, “Any politician who strays too far from voters at the philosophical center will soon be out of office.” Within this framework, we see politicians responding quickly to public opinion polls in search of appeasing the masses and thus getting re-elected.

Sadly, this self-interested behavior, though important in keeping politicians accountable to “the middle,” can outweigh the importance of decisions in the best interest of the society as a whole. Politicians themselves are to be the judge of that, and as seen with the Vietnam War, a genuine desire to prevent the spread of communism globally may have been sidelined by a sequence of presidents seeking to preserve a positive legacy of sorts.

Napoleon Bonaparte once wrote, “Public opinion is the thermometer a monarch should constantly consult.” During the Vietnam War, American government officials went further, in fact allowing—to an extent—public opinion to serve as the steering wheel in their pursuit of high favorability ratings and re-election. As the 2016 U.S. presidential elections illustrated, a perceived tendency to overly rely on public opinion as a metric for policy advocacy contributed to the stunning defeat of Hillary Clinton. Public opinion is as much a thermometer as it is a visceral weapon against an individual’s values.

Military leaders and presidents alike are not the only ones who stand to gain from a sophisticated understanding of the role public opinion should play in decision-making. Just as the placebo effect teaches us that believing can be just enough, within social contexts with many individuals motivated by their own personal vested interests, believing that public affirmation isn’t everything can do just the same.

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds,” Albert Einstein once wrote in support of Bertrand Russell. “The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.”

In a system obsessed with public opinion, an effective leader risks tarnishing their image for the sake of public interest. Swapping an obsession for public validation with a blissful spirit of ease and self-confidence in one’s own ideals, will go a long in promoting critical-analysis and decision-making skills. To obsess over everyone else’s perceptions is to sacrifice a bit of one’s own. Effective political leadership, and human well-being generally, relies on a degree of self-respect we can all strive to harness. Great spirits, challenging the status-quo of an image-crazed society, will continue to define the future of public discourse and our own individual pursuits of self-actualization.

Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. 


Sabriyya Pate

Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.

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