Some of the People, All of the Time

Via Brendan Nyhan, a great Janet Elder article on public misconceptions about Iraq and the manipulation of people's false beliefs for political purposes:

Some conservative political groups, seeking to continue the policies of the Bush Administration, are capitalizing on the murky understanding of some voters about who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and why the United States went to war in Iraq.

One such group, Freedom's Watch, which has ties to the White House, ran television ads in the Philadelphia market and others around the sixth anniversary of the attack — when Gen. David H. Petraeus was also delivering his report to Congress on the progress of the war — suggesting a connection between the war in Iraq and the terrorist attacks. [. . .]

One of the most striking poll findings is the number of people who continue to think Saddam Hussein was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Depending on how it is asked, more than a third of Americans say Saddam Hussein was personally involved in those attacks. In a New York Times/CBS News Poll in September, 33 percent of the respondents said Saddam Hussein was “personally” involved. In June, when Princeton Survey Research, polling for Newsweek, asked if “Saddam Hussein’s regime was directly involved in planning, financing or carrying out the terrorist attacks,” 41 percent said yes.

There was a time, though, when a majority of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. In a Times/CBS News poll in April 2003, just after the war began, 53 percent of Americans said Saddam Hussein was personally involved. That wide perception didn’t last. By September of that year, 43 percent said Saddam Hussein was involved.

This is a big structural failing of the American elite. It reflects in part the fact that conservative elites have refused to play the role of honest brokers, the preference of the right's main institutions to propagandize their audience rather than seeking to inform them with an honest, factually accurate presentation of the hawkish view of Middle East policy. It also reflects a large failure of our non-ideological institutions, a completely inability of "the establishment" to succeed in setting national discourse on an even keel. And last it reflects the fact that for several years the main opposition institutions in the United States -- most of all the Democratic Party -- failed for years to aggressively push back. For the year months or so after 9/11, "respectable" folks were expected to spend more time and energy worrying about marginal leftists than about the dangerous radicals peddling made-up facts who just so happened to control the institutions of government.