Occupy Wall Street aims to sway public opinion by projecting the false illusion of a “collective belief” against free markets. Likewise, most leftwing agendas depend on building a fake sense of public opinion support, especially when the agenda cannot withstand prolonged scrutiny or debate.
But the success of leftist activism depends to a great degree on the everyday silence of millions of conservative individuals. The matrix of political correctness built by leftist elites is probably most effective in applying widespread social pressure on conservatives as individuals.
It thereby isolates and discourages many conservatives from exposing their views to co-workers, neighbors, clients, classmates, and anyone else who might be effectively engaged in day-to-day life.
Consider this scenario: The phone rings while Rush Limbaugh is audible in the background. The covert conservative turns off the radio out of dread of being exposed as a listener.
Or this scene: A conservative nods politely while a neighbor pontificates leftist views. He does not correct his neighbor’s mistaken assumption that he shares such views.
Or this: A co-worker expresses disgust for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Without even questioning the premise, the conservative simply changes the subject.
Such reticence to engage contributes to a dangerous reverse bandwagon effect. To understand the mechanics, we might look up the theory of “preference falsification,” a term coined by the scholar Timur Kuran in his 1995 book Private Truths, Public Lies. He defines it as “the act of misrepresenting one’s wants under perceived social pressures.”
Public opinion is actually “a determinant of people’s willingness to reveal their innermost selves,” observes Kuran.
When we falsify our core beliefs in our daily lives the effect is “the regulation of others’ perceptions.”
This happens in many ways, but when you avoid speaking up truthfully or at all, as the occasion presents itself, you deprive others of your knowledge and lose the opportunity to influence how others think.
The opposing view then takes root more deeply because you’ve also made it harder for those who might agree with you to speak up.
According to Kuran, individuals’ preference falsification has an extremely powerful ripple effect that influences both the shape of public opinion and the political process.
An interesting sidelight is that President Obama’s current regulatory czar Cass Sunstein has studied this phenomenon in some depth. Sunstein and Kuran co-authored a 1999 Stanford Law Review article on a related theory, the “availability cascade” which they define as “a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation whereby an expressed perception triggers reactions that make that perception seem increasingly plausible through its rising availability in public discourse.”
It involves two mechanisms: “information cascades” in which uninformed people “base their own beliefs on the apparent beliefs of others;” and “reputational cascades,” in which earning social approval or avoiding social disapproval affect how personal opinions are expressed or withheld. Sound familiar?
The process can be very fragile, according to the authors. But it can trigger huge and unpredicted shifts in public opinion. What this means is that no conservative can afford to sit back and expect talk radio or conservative think tanks to save the day.
A more positive shift in public opinion will gain enduring traction only when thousands more conservatives -- and, following their lead, millions more -- refuse to falsify their preferences to those they meet in day to day life.
By being friendly, engaging first with those who like and trust them, many conservatives who take the risk of defying political correctness report the pleasant surprise of discovering like thinkers waiting to be emboldened.
Even if this doesn’t happen, breaking out of isolation is essential to discrediting the leftist caricature of conservatives and presenting more and more people with the human face of conservatism.
Conservative leaders would do well to encourage and guide their many discreet followers to expose their views in day to day life. We need to generate information cascades of our own.
Stella Morabito is a Maryland freelance writer who focuses on issues of society, culture and education.