Swans Commentary » swans.com October 10, 2005  



Moral Suasion Or Racism At Work


by Milo Clark





". . . the universe, by definition, is a single gorgeous celebratory event."
—Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, p. 5


(Swans - October 10, 2005)  Daniel Yankelovich may be the old gray beard of polling now. Over 40 years ago, he was the hot radical on the field. He made a specialty and career out of asking different questions: I might call them Mandelbrotian "What ifs." He developed polling methods that minimalized poll designs to yield an expected output. He risked respondents saying their truths.

His Public Agenda organization fielded the new Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index (CFPI). Between June 1 and 13, 2005, a sample of 1,004 Americans responded. Reporting in the September/October Foreign Affairs, Yankelovich found the expected polarities, most Republicans approve and most Democrats don't. "More surprisingly, perhaps, this polarization seems to track the public's religiosity: the more often American attend religious services, the more likely they are to be content with current U.S. Foreign policy." (P. 2)

The polarities along party lines are no surprise. The cleavage within those who attend religious services (any denomination) was less anticipated. "The convergence of opinions is so clear, in fact, that on some issues, frequent attendance at religious services has become a proxy for support of U.S. Foreign Policy. (P. 8) Why?

People who attend religious services tend also to be Republicans, ". . . almost two-thirds (63 percent) of voters who regularly attend religious service voted for President Bush. To some extent, this convergence is the result of a relatively recent phenomenon: the clustering of white religious Protestants into the Republican Party." (P. 8)

"(The Gallup Organization estimates that 42 percent of all Republicans are white evangelical Protestants, whereas only 26 percent of all Americans are.)" (P. 8)

When Lyndon Johnson, on succeeding the assassinated John F. Kennedy, decided to form his Great Society on the foundation of civil rights reform, the white, evangelical Protestants of the South, previously staunch Democrats, lurched as one body to the Republican Party. "Today, churchgoing white evangelical Protestants (who make up 38 percent of the South's population) vote Republican and hold Republican ideals by a margin of two to one." (P. 9)

Yankelovich's conclusion is critical. "Thus, the widening spread of opinion on key foreign policy issues may be more a measure of the fact that like-minded southern evangelical Protestants have changed their party affiliation than a sign that Americans are growing polarized along religious lines." P. 10) Then he poses a conundrum challenging credibility.

If, as many assert, the correlation between switching parties was related to civil rights reform, then it may be said that southern evangelical Protestants are united more by opposition to civil rights reform than Christian fervor.

American foreign relations policies, as Yankelovich notes, continuously struggle to achieve balance between ". . . pragmatism and moral idealism." (P. 10) Henry Kissinger is usually considered to be driven by pragmatism almost exclusively. Jimmy Carter, as president, spoke as a moral idealist and made decisions rooted in pragmatism. Decisions which, he suggests, haunt him to this day.

Yankelovich speculates, based on his research, that born-again George Bush seized the moral high ground post 9/11, at least in terms comfortable to white evangelical Protestants, by calling terrorists "evil." He draped himself in trappings of a moral mission. He thereby cemented ". . . A powerful dialogue with white evangelical Protestants." (P. 10)

"This relationship is less a matter of policy than of character and language. In the minds of white evangelical Protestants, the nation is faced with an apocalyptic threat. This constituency sees the president as a man of strong character: honest, simple, straight-talking, determined, non-nonsense, God-fearing. He is the kind of leader religious folk would like to have under the circumstances: he inoculates them against weakness, faltering and realpolitik. . . . Their sentiments echo the traditional theme of American exceptionalism: Americans are a people chosen for a special mission in the world and especially blessed by God." (P. 10)

Yankelovich further speculates that this sense of bond is ". . . so personal it may not be transferable to another president. The connection is also susceptible to the results of US foreign policy. If the Bush administration succeeds in bringing peace and democracy to the Middle East, the White House's moral authority might grow stronger in the eyes of Bush's religious supporters. But if its policies prove ineffective, Washington might return to a traditional 'realist' outlook that is less moralistic and absolute, and less attractive to the religious set." (P. 11)

When does public opinion affect foreign policy? Yankelovich is aware that policy is largely determined by wonks buried in the bowels of Washington officialdom. Secretaries of State front for them and assert that public opinion does make a difference in foreign policy formulations. A key word may be "successful."

When "it" works, public opinion is dissipated, diluted and debatable. Writing before hurricane season, Yankelovich evokes the Vietnam experiences and invokes the currently popular theory of Tipping Points. In short, if enough goes against the grain of policy, it may change.

Enter the hurricanes: Katrina and Rita and names yet to be engraved on public consciousness. Mandelbrotian chance or chaotic accumulations may be in process of adding just enough weight to bring even the ideologues of the Bush camp to attention.

Pre-Katrina/Rita, Yankelovich sees three issues as nearing tipping points. The war in Iraq (casualties, insurrection, near civil war, shaky starts on reconstruction, democracy); illegal immigration (insecurity is not irrational, fear sells); and US relations with other states, especially Muslim countries (unilateral actions, rush to war, diplomatic arrogances).

"In my view, these [CFPI] results suggest that the American public is beginning to feel that Washington has put too much emphasis on military responses to the foreign policy challenges it faces and that the diplomatic, economic, political and intelligence capabilities of the United States have neither received the attention they deserve nor been deployed skillfully. Unless Washington makes tangible progress on these fronts, we should expect the next few readings of the CFPI to show mounting public demand for change in US foreign policies." (P. 16)

What Yankelovich doesn't say, although he may be pointing the way, centers on the swing of southern white evangelical Protestants to the Republican Party and their strong identity with Bush. He tells us that the swing coincided with the Johnson moves on civil rights. The glue involved may be racial as well as religious, if religious at all.

The Katrina wildcard raised to awareness (yet again) race as a possible determinant of slack federal responses. Karl Rove, rightly or wrongly as there is no available confirmation of his remarks, when talking about the low priorities assigned to certain events in the Katrina aftermath, suggested that the people affected were nothing but dumb niggers and white trash. That alleged comment may strongly resonate with the white evangelical Protestants of the south whose moral identity historically fails to include non-whites.

Meanwhile, Rita heads directly into God's soft underbelly as I write. Apocalypse?

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Internal Resources

America the 'beautiful'

Patterns which Connect on Swans


About the Author

Milo Clark on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published October 10, 2005