Public opinion is a harsh mistress. Political careers live and die by a two-point swing, once vaunted movements crumble under their own weight, and the public heroes of yesterday are the new villains of today. It should come as no surprise, but, like a pendulum on its backswing, the shibboleths are facing a war of attrition, and those who were cast out seem to be making a comeback.
With the full force of the Fourth Estate behind them, the notables of 2019 and 2020 had a meteoric rise insulated from criticism and scrutiny. Backed by leading politicians, they were secure in the knowledge that their place in history would be preserved and inviolate. Or so they thought.
As the face of the COVID-19 response, Dr. Anthony Fauci has been a regular fixture on news programs and one of the most lauded figures for his handling of briefings and dealings with the media. Yet, it seems that the American public is beginning to lose faith in “the nation’s doctor.”
Contrary to First Lady Jill Biden’s comments that “I think every American loves Dr. Fauci,” recent polling suggests she may have overestimated his support. A recent Trafalgar Group poll showed that 42% of respondents felt their confidence in Fauci had either “decreased” or “decreased significantly.” While the confidence drop was most prominent among Republicans (66%), this was not a wholly partisan result: 20% of Democrats also felt their sympathies wane.
The Trafalgar Group has often been accused of being more right-leaning than other pollsters; however, a similar lack of faith in the doctor was echoed in a YouGov and Yahoo poll that found only 46% of respondents thought Fauci has “helped.”
BLM Bows Out
If you were to ask about the level of support across the country for the Black Lives Matter organization in 2020, it may surprise you to learn that it was only a little over 20% even at its height. That the group was bolstered by the media and many leading politicians certainly added to its overall presence. Yet, it seems the wave that captivated the nation is fast receding to its 2019 levels.
In an essay published by The New York Times, academics Jennifer Chudy and Hakeem Jefferson noted that attitudes regarding the group are on a downward trend, back to the roughly 5% positive support it experienced in 2019.
The authors concluded that the drop in support comes from white Americans and exposed that the much-touted story of a “racial reckoning” did not, in fact, happen:
“Though there is, in the data, reason for some optimism, the more general picture contradicts the idea that the country underwent a racial reckoning. Last summer, as Black Americans turned their sorrow into action, attitudes — especially white attitudes — shifted from tacit support to outright opposition, a pattern familiar in American history. Whereas support for Black Lives Matter remains relatively high among racial and ethnic minorities, support among white Americans has proved both fickle and volatile.”
The authors blamed the lack of stable public backing on the “increased politicization of the issue” by elites. Yet, they failed to ask whether the riots, burnings, lootings, and increased violence could have turned off patrons.
Are Americans Fickle?
When support for an issue or a person swells and then recedes, it is worth asking what role the media have played. For almost the whole of 2020, activist media outlets were dominated by three topics: BLM, Fauci’s response to COVID, and bringing down President Donald Trump. When the Fourth Estate pulls away its focus, the support also seems to drop. Fauci on the outs, BLM backing down to 2019 levels, and Trump – banned from all major social media platforms and denigrated on legacy news – has also seen a slight drop in popularity when compared to the Republican Party as a whole.
When people discuss media manipulation, they often intend to highlight sins of omission or outright falsehoods. But it is the very act of putting a narrative front and center that creates the greatest sea change in public opinion. As Oscar Wilde once quipped, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Read more from Mark Angelides.