Mellman: How does an activist think?

"Defund the Police" written in yellow on road
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You know what activists think. They tell you. Often and loudly.  

That’s what makes them activists.  

Those active for good causes play a vital role. Without them, the pace of positive change would slow to a crawl.  

But activists’ attitudes don’t always reflect the views of the majority, or even the views of the communities from which they emerge. 

Republicans across the country were cowed by activists strongly opposed to mask mandates. Sensing they were under immense public pressure, some elected officials are risking their constituents’ health and lives by lifting mask mandates, even though most voters support keeping them in place. 

A Harris poll found that Americans support a mask requirement on planes and public transportation by 60 percent to 40 percent.  

Republicans were different—they split evenly, 50-50—but that’s a far cry from the sense of strong, unanimous GOP opposition that activists sought to portray.   

An Associated Press-NORC poll pegged support for requiring passengers on planes, trains and public transportation to wear masks at a slightly lower 56 percent overall, but also found just 24 percent opposed and another 20 percent who said they neither favor, nor oppose a mandate. Among Republicans, 55 percent either favored the mandate (33 percent) or had no particular view (22 percent).  

Republicans aren’t the only ones sometimes misled by activists. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, many Democrats thought voters wanted to “defund the police.” In fact, they didn’t.  

Never has a bad slogan done so much harm to a good cause.  

A USAToday-IPSOS poll last year found only 18 percent supported the movement known as “defund the police,” while 58 percent opposed it. Only 28 percent of Black Americans and 34 percent of Democrats identified as supporters.  

Pew found just 26 percent wanted to decrease spending on police in their area in 2020, a number which declined to 15 percent in 2021. At no point in the Pew data did majorities of Black, Hispanic, or Asian Americans support reduced funding for policing.  

Where it appeared on the ballot, as in deep blue Minneapolis, defunding the police also failed — there by a dozen points. 

That is not to say Americans do not want police reform (the good cause) — they do, and they have repeatedly voted for it. But voters do not want to defund the police, despite the pressures activists may bring to bear. 

The point here is simple: activists are different. They have different views, and no one should blithely assume activists’ attitudes reflect those of the communities they claim to represent. 

I learned this lesson early in my career, doing the first ever political survey in a South American country long ruled by a military junta which had banned political polls. 

We first interviewed newly elected officials who were convinced two issues dominated the public agenda: what to do with the human rights violators from the military regime; and what to do about a cross erected on public property to celebrate Mass during a papal visit.  

When we polled the public for the first time, we found very few citizens animated by those concerns.  

However, there was a thin layer of activists — people deeply involved in politics — for whom those matters were central.   

Those activists differed dramatically from the public at large. 

The activist is, by definition, different. The 5 percent of Americans who volunteered for a campaign are different from the 95 percent who did not. The 1.5 percent who donate more than $200 to federal candidates are different from the 98.5 percent who do not. The 6 percent who attended a political rally in 2020 are different from the 94 percent who didn’t.  

Activists also have a job, which they often do well: to pressure decisionmakers; to convince those with power that the activists’ view is the mass view, to which resistance is futile.  

In truth, though, some activists represent the views and values of their communities well, while others adhere to views and values out of sync with the majority. 

Decisionmakers should work to discern the difference.   

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.   

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