The Rob Portman effect and proximate casualties


Polling last week revealed increasing public support for same-sex marriage.  CNN affixed a sleek label, the “Rob Portman effect,” to the positive correlation between 1) personally knowing someone close who is gay or lesbian, and 2) support for same sex marriage.

This explanation reminds me once again of my days studying political science.  One class I took, under Dr. Scott Gartner, featured the professor’s own research on American public opinion during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  Popular memory attributes Walter Cronkite’s post-Tet offensive commentary as having soured opinion against the latter war.  President Lyndon Johnson lamented at the time, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”  This sound bite helped fueled the notion that television coverage decisively turned the public against the war.

But Gartner’s research unearths a sturdier explanation of changing opinions on Vietnam.  His multivariate analysis of wartime opinion polls shows “proximate casualty” as bearing the strongest positive correlation to opposing the war.  That is, opposition is most likely when the respondent knows someone from nearby who died in the war relatively recently.  Sound familiar?  Regardless of era, the public assesses policy not with the brain but with the gut.  Then and now, feelings trump facts.

English-speaking students of the Spanish language never forget the two forms of the verb “to know,” conocer and saber.  The first applies to people, and the second applies to facts.  Just as there is a distinction between knowing someone personally and knowing a fact logically, there is a distinction between the person proper and the circumstances pertaining to him.  When we think of our loved ones, it’s natural to want peace and equality to be the prevailing and rightful state of affairs.  But there’s tremendous value to acknowledging the uncomfortable truth that, in many respects, they are not.  The sooner we stop deceiving ourselves about reality as it relates to the ones we love, the sooner we can turn the corner and work for the kind of peace and equality that we can actually attain.

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