Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Spiral of Speech: Cindy, Katrina & Harriet

Speak up or shut up – that is the question. Cindy Sheehan Hurricane Katrina,and Harriet Miers have a lot in common. They were all the focal point of situations that have given a voice to critics of the Bush administration.

Starting with Cindy Sheehan, she didn’t just voice opposition to the war. Her example gave others a voice to express their opposition to the war – without being unpatriotic or opposing the troops. Whether she ever occupies the public stage again, she accomplished the signal task opening a channel for progressives to speak out against the war.

Hurricane Katrina did for conservatives what Sheehan did for progressives. Plenty of conservatives had reservations about the war in Iraq from the beginning. But they elected their guy to office, so they shut up. They’ve watched the budget deficits grow with increasing dismay. But Bush is their guy, so they shut up.

In the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina came the administration’s fumble and FEMA’s public stumble. Criticism came from everywhere, from all sides of the political spectrum. But nowhere was it harsher than from conservative media sources: Joe Scarborough and Tucker Carlson on MSNBC, Sheppard Smith, Bill O’Reilly, and Geraldo Rivera on Fox News – to a man, they were angry at and disdainful of what they saw as shortcomings in the administration’s response. As the story unfolded, Michael Brown’s appointment as head of FEMA made him a poster boy for cronyism.

Okay, so the media never really shut up, but Hurricane Katrina presented the nation with the picture of intense criticism by conservative-leaning networks, anchors, and reporters, speaking straight from the gut. There were few of the usual limits of polite discourse or camera-induced media-speak.

Now the internecine controversy about Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court finds many prominent voices in the conservative movement in full cry.

It’s the Spiral of Speech at work.

Remember Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence? She was a social scientist who studied the formation and transformation of public opinion, focusing on the expression of political and social beliefs. She established the Allensbach Institute, an influential German polling organization that conducted political and social research for decades. In 1984, she published her brilliant Spiral of Silence theory. She argued that people fear social isolation, so they monitor the environment carefully to make sure that their speech is socially acceptable in that environment. If they perceive that an opinion they hold will be unpopular, they shut up. The opposite also holds: If they see that their opinion will be warmly received, they speak up.

Before Katrina, conservatives could criticize Bush only in whispers – after all, he’s their president. They’ve held their noses and kept their mouths closed over the bloated federal budget. And many religious conservatives managed to hold their fire when John Roberts was nominated – is that corporate-looking smoothie really their kind of conservative?

Now, released from verbal bondage first by the hurricane and finally by Harriet Miers, they’ve gone public. And loud.

So maybe the conservative caterwauling it isn’t about Harriet Miers at all. (The poor woman hasn’t even had a chance to speak a word on her own behalf.) Maybe this is the first chance conservatives have had a chance to voice a longer-standing displeasure over Bush’s actions, and she is merely the recipient of the high pressure, high decibel level granted by Katrina.

Noelle-Neumann believed that people are sensitive barometers of the political climate. It might be too early to foretell the midterm elections, and maybe the spiral of speech will spin yet another direction before then. But at the moment, Noelle-Neumann might well have predicted that Republicans will be in trouble in ’06. If the spiral of speech continues, the conservative, grass-roots base might not work very hard to put back in office the Bush politicos who are likely to put Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you developed an excellent thesis -- that the Republicans are finding themselves on the other side of the "silent majority" and that majority may not be silent much longer. One can only hope.

7:36 PM  

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