On the Importance of Public Opinion

Matt Yglesias on mistakes that journalists and activists make:

I think there’s often a tendency to systematically underrate the extent to which it’s possible to change minds over time….None of that is to deny that there’s a place in the world for concessions to political reality and for practical-minded people. But I think that as a society we’re actually under-invested in discussions of impractical schemes and public efforts to remediate widespread intellectual errors.

The course of the future is very uncertain. Three years ago, I would have agreed with the consensus that a cap-and-trade bill with side-deals was much more likely than a carbon tax. Today that now looks wrong to me and carbon tax as part of a long-term deficit reduction bill seems like the most likely (albeit not very likely) path to meaningful carbon pricing. In retrospect, we can see that George Allen’s “macaca moment” led to a massive overhaul of American health care policy. Under the circumstances, the best thing for people knowledgeable about policy-relevant subject matter to do is to share what they know with as many people as possible and worry less about pre-trimming ideas to conform to guesstimates about what’s possible/relevant/effective.

I’m not so sure about the “impractical schemes” part of this, since discussions of impractical schemes really are just flights of fancy most of the time: fun, perhaps, but not really the path to a better world.

Still, I basically agree with this. But at its core, it’s an argument that we should spend more time trying to change public opinion, and when I’ve talked about this in the past I’ve found that most people (including Matt, I think) aren’t really very persuaded, preferring to argue that institutional or demographic or economic forces are really all that matter. And they do matter, of course. But in the end, long-term public opinion is pretty important too, and we liberals ought to pay more attention to it. We’ve done a good job over the past decades moving public opinion on social issues, but not so good a job on anything else. That really needs to change.