Monday, September 18, 2006

48 Million Strong

Kevin Drum refers to the 16% of American adults who "speculate that secretly planted explosives, not burning passenger jets, were the real reason the massive twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed" as a "fringe group". It seems to me that 16% is rather larger than a fringe.

Ross Perot garnered less than 19% of the national vote in 1992, Firefox has 15% of the internet browser market in the U.S., and Apple laptops represent 12% of America's portable computer market. I don't think I'd describe Perot, Firefox, or Apple as "fringe" elements in their respective spheres. I'd say instead that they represent small, but still significant, minorities.


Tommaso Sciortino said...

I think maybe "political insignifigant" is a better word.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

With the exception of Firefox users (who tend to be intelligent and devastatingly sexy), all the other minorities you mentioned are crazy in the head. I mean seriously, planted explosives?

And Admiral Stockdale?

Aaron said...

I love my Powerbook, otherwise, what they said.

Paul said...

No, I mean that I think "fringe" is the wrong word precisely because it downplays the significance of the group in question.

African-Americans constitute only 12% of the population that's eligible to vote, but would we describe them as "politically insignificant"?

Or is there something about the conspiracy theorists that makes them politically insignificant despite their fairly large numbers?

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Exactly. An interest group needs at least the veneer of respectability otherwise they cannot form politically advantageous alliances.

Paul said...

I think there's a certain amount of wishful thinking going on here. Certainly, when I think a belief is absurd, I also want to think that people who hold that belief must lack even a "veneer of respectability", but I doubt that sort of respectability is all that important.

Political alliances are more opportunistic than intellectually idealistic. I suspect this is why you hear some rhetoric on the left that tends to blur the line between charging that Bush was negligent and charging that he was complicit - it's an attempt by somewhat less-extreme administration critics to suggest some common ground between themselves and the "fringe". In any event, that's a perfectly ordinary mechanism of political alliance building, and I don't see that it wouldn't operate here the same as anywhere else.

I also think there's a temptation to downplay the importance of these so-called "fringe elements" as a means of defending against guilt-by-association arguments. I think it's an unnecessary defense, but I think people feel the need to make it nonetheless.

Paul said...

To put it more clearly, maybe, I assume that if 16% of all adults believe in that particular conspiracy theory, a significantly larger proportion of anti-war adults believe it. I think it's in that context - in the anti-war alliance, informal as it might be - that you're likely to have the influence of this group come out. A group of 16% might not hold that much sway over the national picture directly, but I find it improbable that they're not influencing things at lower levels and within smaller groups that they dominate more numerically.

Aaron said...

One theoretical question: is it possible to be in a political majority and still hold beliefs that many might consider to be "fringe"? Not to go straight to Godwin's Law, but Naziism was a movement with a great deal of popular support at the time... don't the degree of reaction/radicalism of a set of political beliefs and their popularity get measured on different axes?

Tommaso Sciortino said...

We can get easily side-tracked by a discussion about which definition of "fringe" is the best. I'm adopting the definition I believe Paul originally meant which is something along the lines of "politically unimportant" rather than "extremist".

I would say that I think Paul isn't accounting for the full range of public opinion here. Let's say 16% of Americans believe X. Whether they can form political aliances depends on a lot of other factors like:

What percentage of the politically active believe X.

Of those who don't hold X, how many are willing to "agree to disagree" with those who do.

That's just two but there are many others.

Again, for me, a "fringe" position is defined as being on the fringe of the politically possible. If you define "fringe" as being for radical /reaction policies or beliefs than this analysis doesn't really apply.

Bret said...

I think a group may be called "fringe" when it is worth more money or votes to spurn them than it is to court them.

The Nazis, under this definition, would be "fringe" on the world stage; a nation would actually lose more by making alliance with them.

9-11 conspiracy theorists also seem to fit this bill. Whether this is fortunate or unfortunate, I'm not qualified to say.

Paul said...

See, Tom, I think you're not taking into account the extent to which people are willing to tolerate cognitive dissonance. People form alliances based much more on what they agree on than what they disagree on.

And sure, there are lots of other factors - in fact, I mentioned one earlier in suggesting that that sort of conspiracy theorist would be more likely than another random person to be anti-war - but the question is, in which direction do those factors break?

Do you think someone who believes that conspiracy theory is likely to be less politically active? Maybe, maybe not, but even if we assume that conspiracy theorists vote at about the same rate as people who have graduated high school but not attended college - a low 50% or so in presidential elections - we're still not left with numbers so small they don't become significant within the confines of an allied subset of the electorate.

Do you think members of the anti-war movement are more or less likely than the general population to believe that sort of conspiracy theory? I think significantly more likely.

And while it might be difficult to discern the influence of the 16% of adults at the highest levels of description, that's no reason to assume it doesn't exist and isn't more obvious at lower levels.

Paul said...

I should emphasize that I don't think that these sorts of conspiracy theorists are extremely influential, just that I find it hard to believe they are of no political consequence.