Do your opinions matter?

Published online 27 March 2011.

Well of course they matter to you!  They’re part of your personality and all.  But do they matter in terms of history, or in terms of events in the political world?  This diary is an exploration of the extent to which your opinions matter in the political world.

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Welcome to Sanctimonious Sunday, a collaborative series published by members of the following groups: The Amateur Left, Team DFH and Frustrati.  Feel free to get your sanctimonious on.  It’s welcome here.

OK, so you have people lining up for and against this and that.  You have “Obama supporters” and “Obama critics,” people for and against the current “intervention” in Libya, and so on.

But what of all this opinionating is of any consequence?  I suppose I don’t think that very much of it matters in the bigger scheme of things, and so I can’t take it all that seriously.

Let’s start with some reflections from the Bush administration, as authored by now-famous journalist Ron Suskind:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

“We’re history’s actors.”  This translates here as “our opinions matter.”

Now, in the sense in which George W. Bush was a Commander In Chief, and Ron Suskind was a mere journalist, Bush’s opinions “mattered” more than Suskind’s.  Bush was in a position to be one of “history’s actors,” and will doubtless be remembered as such in a way in which Suskind won’t.

In her theories of the “public sphere,” philosopher Nancy Fraser suggests that there are two different types of “public sphere”: Fraser argues that, under the conditions of capitalist society, there are two types of publics: there are weak publics, “publics whose deliberative practice consists exclusively in opinion formation and does not also encompass decision making,” and strong publics, “publics whose discourse encompasses both opinion formation and decision making” (see page 134 of her piece “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” Habermas and the Public Sphere ed. Craig Calhoun).

So a weak public is constructed of ordinary people, we might imagine, whereas a strong public is the political class (and its assorted intellectual hangers-on) — legislators, judiciaries, executive staff, and so on.  The opinions of the strong public matter, whereas those of the weak public are merely opinions, and can be safely ignored (or manipulated, using the delicate art of demographics) unless some sort of public revolt or election defeat disrupts the overall arrangement.

You can also see a reflection of this division in the rhetoric of the Bush administration: Bush called himself “the Decider,” meaning of course that since he was at the center of the “strong public,” he got to decide as well as merely having opinions.  We only get to have opinions.  Only, that is, if we play along.

So let’s go back to this matter of “Obama supporters” and “Obama critics.”  The debate between these two groups appears at some points to have some of the characteristics of a sporting event or something of that sort.  Are any of you, from either camp, really going to turn the election one way or another by writing diaries critical of, or in praise of, Obama, and thus changing America’s voting pattern?  Not likely.  First off, to be an important factor in an election, a vote has to be a swing vote in a swing state.  Since I live in California, my vote is very unlikely to decide anything as regards the 2012 Presidential Election.  So there are really only a few votes which “decide” the election.  And then there is the matter of how votes are decided — for the most part, elections hinge on what is called the “public mood” — and none of us is likely to affect that significantly enough to make a difference.  I don’t think you and I have the money to buy up a media conglomerate or bankroll a Presidential candidate or anything of that sort.

A footnote about the phenomenon of war is in order here.  A number of the commenters on my last diary seemed to have reacted sharply to my opinions about the recent set of wars in which the US has been involved, while missing the central point of that diary:

it should be clear at this point that the ideal of peace will not be possible through a series of ad hoc responses every time some President declares war and justifies it as “necessary” and deserving of the backing of the already-mobilized military industrial complex despite all of the death that will ensue.  Those responses might be the popular responses to war, but we’re not going to get peace that way.

We can have all of the opinions about the latest war we want, then, but none of these opinions really matter unless we are committed to ending war, and doing that will take some commitment to the foundations of world peace.  In that diary I attempted, in a preliminary way, to spell out those foundations.

So why am I telling you this, if my opinion does “not matter”?  Firstly, I’m a writer, and so I write for its own sake — I’m interested in the effectiveness of my messages.  Secondly, I’m not interested in playing the game the way it’s typically played.  In the current system I might elect a City Council member if I were twenty times more organized than I am now.  Thirdly, there’s something structurally wrong with world-society as a whole.  We need a new model, and I’m here to raise consciousness about that so that I can get something going.  I think it can amount to something with an uprising or two.  For thirty years, now, the progressive contribution to politics has been to vote for the “lesser of two evils” candidates.  We have a chance in this time of incipient disaster to do something different.  Lastly, all bets are off if there is some significant change — the system thrives on normalcy because the art of demographic prediction depends upon it.

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