Saturday, December 05, 2009

An Ode to Public Opinion

Just in case you wanted evidence that media furor over an issue can lead to a drastically distorted public opinion:
Pew Research has just conducted a new poll, and it seems that China is the world's greatest economic power...

"44% of the public now says China is the world's leading economic power, while just 27% name the United States. In February 2008, 41% said the U.S. was the top economic power while 30% said China."

If this poll were from 2030, it might not be disturbing. In 2009, however, it is surprising that anyone thinks China is economically bigger than the U.S. Compare GDP, for example: China 3.38 billion, U.S. 13.75 billion. Not even close. The result seems objectively absurd unless you take into account the media blitz about U.S. decline and China's rise. Unfortunately, providing context apparently doesn't make riveting news.

On the upside, "Somewhat fewer people now say China is the top economic power than named Japan as the leading economic power in the late 1980s (58% in 1989)." We have been more wrong about our economic strength, during the last period of U.S. decline scare-mongering. Maybe there's a lesson here about fearing China's "inevitable" overtaking of the U.S. Way, way back in the 70's, 80's and part of the 90's, we thought Japan and West Germany were "destined" to overtake us. The U.S. was falling apart and could not keep up with the rising, more efficient and high-tech powers. Except we did. Conventional wisdom is not always very wise.

Something else to think about:

"The new survey finds that 41% of the public says the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader today than it did 10 years ago -- the highest percentage ever in a Pew Research survey."

A lot of people believe in U.S. decline. At what point does belief become reality? If people in the U.S. don't have confidence in our role in the world, will we lose our power to inspire others, and seek isolationism? (By the way, the percentage of people who think the U.S. should "mind its own business" was 49%. Drum roll, please... another Pew record.)

At the same time, 44% surveyed felt that the U.S. was the most powerful nation and should pursue a unilateralist course in foreign policy (you guessed it, another record...). At the same time, 78% feel that we should "take into account the views of" our close allies in foreign policy matters.

What does this mean for public support for U.S. foreign policy? Will it be isolationism, unilateralism, or something else? Maybe what it really says is that public opinion is complex, fickle and really hard to measure.

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