Walter Russell Mead continues to demolish a view that no one of any consequence in America holds:
But whatever happens in the Washington policy wars, one thing should be clear. This is not a battle between ‘the Jews’ and the rest of the United States over our policy in the Middle East. It is a battle between opposing conceptions of America’s interests in the Middle East, and gentiles and Jews can be found on both sides.
Mead manages to mar what was otherwise a reasonably good reflection on changing American public attitudes towards Israel with yet another attack against a claim that no one makes. He continues to discuss public opinion about Israel as if it were not being shaped on a regular basis by the public statements of politicians and government officials and media portrayals of Israel’s conflicts. According to Mead, U.S. Israel policy simply emerges from the will of the voters. I know of no other area of foreign policy about which Mead or anyone else would make such a far-fetched claim.
Public sympathy for Israel derives in significant part from the constant affirmations of U.S.-Israel ties by elected representatives and members of every presidential administration for at least the last forty years. This is also shaped in no small part by the relatively more favorable media coverage that Israel receives here in the U.S. compared to everywhere else in the world. Given the near-constant and lopsided nature of coverage and commentary on the subject, what is more remarkable is that sympathy for Israel is as low as it is. Considering that the question is a comparative one and asks respondents to choose between two sides that they have been used to perceiving in dramatically different ways, it is a little amazing that there is any sympathy for the Palestinians at all.
As I have said before, however, sympathy is not what creates policy, and for most voters U.S. policy towards Israel is not a major issue one way or the other. Except for a relatively small portion of the electorate that bases its voting almost entirely on national security and foreign policy, and except during exceptional periods when national security and foreign policy are foremost in the minds of voters (e.g., 2002 or 2006), the substance of foreign policy positions does not matter very much to most voters. To the extent that policy substance does matter, it is usually for the signal it sends or the attitude it conveys. For example, I doubt that most voters gave much thought to Obama’s actual proposal to negotiate with authoritarian governments, and for the purposes of winning over voters the proposal was mostly symbolic. It was meant to convey the message that Obama was reasonable and not a reflexive hard-liner. Voters disenchanted with the previous administration’s aggressive, confrontational approach were likely to find this attractive.
Meanwhile, public opinion towards Iran has been getting progressively more negative, and it seems undeniable that this is a product of government statements and media coverage. Even in the midst of the quarrel over the settlement announcement, we see pundits, bloggers, politicians and reporters all intoning gravely about how the quarrel might adversely affect cooperation against the supposedly dire Iranian threat. Small wonder that a majority of the public accepts the ridiculous idea that Iran is a great threat. If claims are repeated often enough by trusted public figures, large percentages of the population accept these quite readily. Even when claims are false and shown to be false, public acceptance of them outlives their debunking for some time. Even after no WMDs were found in Iraq, the conservative media cocoon was able to repeat the lie often enough and maintain the fiction that they had been found. They managed to convince perhaps as much as 50% of the public that this was true years after everyone should have known that it was not.
Sympathy also does not tell us what the public wants the government to do. Neither does it tell us what the majority thinks about specific Israeli actions. According to a Rasmussen poll taken at the beginning of the Gaza operation, just 44% of respondents supported the military action, but approximately 99% of elected representatives in Congress were in favor of it. Only 31% of Democrats supported the action, but one would never have known that from watching the Democratic majorities in Congress or the Democratic President-elect.
If that WPO poll is to be believed, just 21% of Americans actually want the U.S. to take Israel’s side in the conflict with the Palestinians. Our actual policy is not in line with the preferences of a vast majority of Americans. No doubt Mead’s “Jacksonian Zionists” are overrepresented in this 21%. So there are obviously very engaged, activist groups that take great interest in this policy, and they will tend to have an outsized impact on the content of the policy. That’s no surprise. That’s part of how interest group politics works. Smaller, highly mobilized constituencies that make one issue or set of issues their primary focus are usually going to be able to bring more pressure to bear on politicians than unmotivated, disorganized and less intense people who might take a different view. They pay more attention, they spend more time working to advance their preferred policies, and they keep track of how representatives vote and are prepared to remind voters of this at election time. The less attentive, less engaged people do not have much to offer a politician in a competitive race: they cannot mobilize voter turnout, and they cannot effectively penalize a politician for going against them. This tends to reward relatively extreme groups that can nonetheless claim to represent a broad cross-section of the public. When there are no countervailing, opposing groups that can compete effectively, that makes an interest group’s task that much easier.
Generic surveys of sympathy for other countries are very much like generic size of government questions or that poorly-designed Pew survey on foreign policy everyone is so fond of citing. They are not nearly as meaningful as some people would like them to be. If a majority says that it wants a smaller government with fewer services rather than a larger one with more services, that is as much a statement about how the respondents want to see themselves as it is a statement of their political preferences. When we look at other polling, we find that on almost every specific budget item there is no real constituency for spending cuts. The Pew survey report blared that “isolationist” sentiment was at an all-time high, and yet in the same survey found roughly two-thirds of respondents in favor of attacking Iran if it acquired a nuclear weapon. So much for minding our own business! My guess is that the majority’s sympathy for Israel works in a similar fashion. Given a choice between Israelis and Palestinians, the Israelis are going to win overwhelmingly every time because Americans identify much more easily with them and Americans have been told constantly that they are on our side, but that still does not necessarily or automatically translate into majority support for the “total, absolute and unvarnished” commitment to Israel that Biden affirmed during his trip.
As I have been trying to make clear with the examples offered here, public opinion is changeable and malleable. Public opinion is pushed in one direction or another far more often that it does any pushing of its own. This is probably more true of foreign policy topics, where most of the public is less informed, less interested and less attentive. So it falls to the activists and interest groups to influence policy and shape public opinion in the hopes of creating a political consensus in Washington in favor of their preferred policies. Despite the near-certainty that they are wildly unrepresentative of majority opinion on their main issues, the activists and interest groups will then pretend that they speak for the majority of the public.