Neil Earle (1998) noted that we cannot easily demonstrate dispositive cause and effect linkage of public opinion to public policy, much less the more obscure linkage of public intellectual engagement to public policy. The best we can do is listen to the experts surmise and watch the circumstantial evidence. Very few policymakers will send out press releases thanking the public for pushing them to do the right thing, nor are we likely to learn of many smoking memos from policymakers that credit public opinion with having effect. Of course, ignoring public opinion for politicians is like ignoring gravity for all of us. It's an unseen but powerful force. No visible ropes and chains pull us to the Earth when we jump off a cliff, but the results are certainly predictable.
Earle cites the apoplexy Nixon experienced when he looked out the window to see even one demonstrator for peace in Lafayette Park, the frequent checks on public opinion on the Vietnam War done by Lyndon Johnson with his closest advisers, and the general pronouncements by insiders that, in fact, public opinion matters, even to lame ducks.
Earle's historical example of the force connections is now obscure, but enlightening. In the aftermath of World War I, a naval arms race in the Pacific was brewing amongst the US, Britain, France and Japan. The US and Japan were both on the rise and eager to outspend and outpower everyone in the region. Public opinion in the US was not nearly as opposed to this as were war-weary Europeans, whose youth had been mowed down by the millions for years before the US entered the war to effect victory. Into this picture a public peace intellectual, Frederick J. Libby, from Maine, waded with his Congregational ministerial credentials and a realistic sense of how to talk to his fellow Americans.
Peace activists are often weak at peace messaging. They sometimes sound woo-woo, all mystical and flower-infantile. Others sound stridently anti-American. Some use alienating religiosity, and many fail to acknowledge that Americans have legitimate security concerns. Libby led a realistic campaign that did not eliminate violence from American foreign policy, but it did delay a naval arms race in the Pacific by more than a decade, since it tapped into the zeitgeist and helped generate public pressure that resulted in the Washington Conference on the Limitation of Naval Armament (November 1921-February 1922), heralded then as a remarkable achievement for peace.
Obviously, one arms limitation treaty--even this one, billed as the first one in modern history--is a small step toward a nonviolent world. Failing to take all the rest of the 9,999 steps (as the Tao would call the journey) is how reform fails. Continuing to take the next step as quickly as possible is how the journey succeeds. Each one of use can take that step, and then the next. Just this morning, I got a powerfully written piece from Kathy Kelly, a woman who never stops stepping toward a nonviolent world, all about her part in the American contingent of the flotilla from Greece to Gaza. I sent her piece to more than 2,400 American editors. We'll see how many pick it up. One so far. Kathy has credibility and her innumerable steps are inspirational. May we all get Happy Feet toward nonviolence.
Earle, N. (1998). Public opinion for peace: Tactics of peace activists at the Washington Conference on Naval Armaments. Journal of Church & State, 40(1), 149. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.