In an earlier post, I supported the NFL “kneelers” protests as justified and appropriate. But I didn’t deal with a very important relevant issue: the political consequences of the protests. David Leonhardt took up that issue in his op-ed in yesterday’s NY Times. Leonhardt is supportive of the protesters’ intentions, but he clearly thinks that the protests, in the form they took, are politically inadvisable, because they alienate too many Americans who resent what they see as unpatriotic behavior.
From a moral standpoint this issue is clear. The athletes are right—and have every right to protest as they have. Trump is wrong….But righteousness does not automatically bring effectiveness….I’ve reluctantly become convinced that many athletes are making a tactical mistake.”
So, Leonhardt poses the question, ”Do Trump’s opponents want to oppose him in ways that are merely just and satisfying? Or do they want to beat him?”
That is an entirely valid question. It’s a question that always needs to be asked when undertaking a potentially controversial course of political action: will this actually help the cause, or will it be counterproductive?
There is enough opinion poll data by now to answer that question in this case with reasonable confidence. Yes, polls show that Americans—divided sharply along racial lines—mostly disapprove of the athletes’ behavior. But, depending on the poll and how the question is asked, somewhere between a plurality (48%-38%) and a large majority (60%) disapprove of Trump’s handling of the issue. No less significantly, Trump’s net popular disapproval has actually increased slightly since he first tweeted on the subject.
Leonhardt cites a poll showing that only 30% of Americans view the athletes’ actions as “appropriate,” but politically, the popular reaction to Trump’s behavior is much more significant than the popular reaction to the athletes’ behavior. There is no empirical support for Leonhardt’s apparent expectation that Trump would make political hay out of this issue. The athletes’ protests certainly haven’t hurt the anti-Trump cause; by provoking some characteristically offensive Trump misbehavior, they might actually have helped a bit.