Exactly how malleable are our beliefs? It’s not so much a question of changing people’s political opinions. That seems to be very easy. In the past half century we’ve seen extraordinary, and extraordinarily rapid, changes in the population’s views on various political and social issues. Political positions that enjoyed almost no support at all a couple of decades ago (such as homosexual marriage) now enjoy majority support. And among the young, overwhelming support.
Immigration was very unpopular a few decades ago. Today it has sufficient support that immigration restrictionism has become a non-viable political position.
Political positions that were considered to be open to some debate, such as climate change, are no longer open to question. Among the young climate change is absolutely unquestioned.
But to what extent have beliefs really changed? Are people simply conforming to these dominant ideologies because they’re too scared to disagree? Or because it’s easier and more socially advantageous to conform outwardly? Have people’s core beliefs actually changed?
Perhaps we should look to history. In 1520 England was a Catholic country. A hundred years later the English were rabidly and hysterically anti-Catholic. Was this a sincere abandonment of one religious conviction for another? Was it, despite the anti-Catholic hysteria, mostly superficial? In fact was the hysteria a sign of over-compensation?
One interesting recent sign is the rabid Sinophobia that has emerged in Australia in the past few months. Anti-racism is the dominant ideology in Australia as it is throughout the Anglosphere but now that anti-Chinese racism is not merely socially acceptable but approved by the government and the media Australians seem to be enthusiastically embracing it.
So is anti-racism merely a superficial change in belief?
Is the widespread belief in open borders merely superficial? If the government and the media suddenly started pushing anti-immigration rhetoric would the population simply go along and become ardent immigration restrictionists? If the government and the media suddenly announced that climate change was nonsense would people become ardent climate change sceptics?
A couple of months ago hardly anyone in Australia was wearing masks. The government and the media had told them that masks don’t work. Now the government and the media are telling people that masks not only work, they’re essential. And suddenly Australians are willing to accept the idea of compulsory mask-wearing.
There’s also the popular belief on the Right that there are millions of secret Trump voters who are unwilling to admit to pollsters that they intend to vote for Trump. But, so the right-wing theory goes, despite trailing badly in the polls Trump is going to win easily. Is this theory correct? Are millions of people outwardly conforming to anti-Trumpism while being secret MAGA hat-wearers? In a few months we’ll know the answer to that question, which may provide some clues as to the answers to the other questions I’ve posed.
Is it possible that political opinions are so malleable that public opinion really can turn on a dime?
Is it also possible that most people don’t really have strong political opinions? That they merely outwardly conform to whatever beliefs make life easy?