How Different Are We?

· 2004 Election

“…a poll taken just before the elections showed that 75 percent of Mr. Bush’s supporters believe Iraq either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11.” (NYT 11/04/04.) Not only that, according to the original report, they also thought this was the belief of “experts” in the field. We’ve all seen similar numbers, both before and after the election. What to make of it?
The politics of Kerry voters were generally that the war in Afghanistan was a proper response, but the war in Iraq was unjustified. Why was Afghanistan justified? Roughly because Afghanistan “either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11.” If that had been true of Iraq, we would have felt differently. So Kerry’s half of the vote, plus three-quarters of Bush’s half were in “substantive” or “political,” agreement. That’s 87% of the total vote, a very nice majority.
Does that change who’s in the White House? No. But it might change something.
Aristotle distinguished (very roughly, it’s been a while for me!) two kinds of acting from ignorance:
–I run over your leg and break it, because I didn’t know your leg was there. Negligent perhaps, and therefore culpable, depending on the circumstances. We find a way to make sure that next time they see the leg.
–I run over your leg and break it, because I don’t think that is wrong to do. That kind of ignorance is what is called being a bad person.
So let’s say only 13% of all voters fell potentially into the later group. (I understand many of the 87% would have favored the war, even with the facts. And this arithmetic overall is fundamentally absurd. This is just–hopefully–perspective, not science.)
So one thing it might change is we don’t have to feel perpetually, unbridgeably isolated from a politically incomprehensible 53% of the nation. Indeed, in many respects, even the voters’ differences over “moral values” look quite different when broken down and examined in this way. But that is a longer story (maybe later).
Meanwhile, for the sake of imagination, it would be very interesting to see a media study comparable to the “outcomes” studies done in medical procedures. In reality, the news directors at the major networks and newspapers, when pinned down, were were never all that far apart on the facts. They could, in principle, be brought to a negotiated consensus-statement of what the facts were about the relationship between 9-11/Al Qaeda and Iraq/Hussein.
Then, using this consensus-statement, a public-opinion survey could be done of how people’s beliefs on this subject (and others) match up with what the consensus has stipulated to be true. Finally, the results could be correlated with each respondent’s major source of news.
So you’d get a kind of Consumer Reports rating of how competent the truth-telling institutions in American life have been. We could even have an Academy of Media Award for Best Achievement in Competence and Truth.