The Propagandistic Power of Hasty Generalizations: How Regime Change Is Often Sold

The logical fallacy of hasty generalization – or the mistake of drawing a conclusion from insufficient evidence – is a potent propagandistic tool wielded by the U.S. political and media establishment in their efforts to sell aggression to the American public, and the apparent push for war with Iran is a case in point. They’ll put out footage of Iranian street protests (or, in one case, a massive Bahraini demonstration passed off as an Iranian protest) or feature testimony from a handful of political dissidents in order to demonstrate that the entire country is yearning for "regime change"; all the people need, supposedly, is a little nudge from our military in order to get the ball rolling. This approach is not unlike what I observed when studying foreign media coverage of the Occupy protests several years ago; one got the impression that Americans were on the brink of a revolution (of course, the apparent objective in this case wasn’t to drum up support for a military intervention in the US, but to simply demonstrate that the emperor has no clothes).

The problem with this way of thinking can be illustrated as follows. Suppose that no more than 1% of the Iranian population were dissatisfied with the political establishment, and only 1% of that aggrieved segment called into some program on Voice of America (a US government-funded news network broadcasting to Farsi speakers around the world). In this hypothetical scenario, there would still be over 8,000 people prepared to air their grievances. Imagine just a fraction of these people calling in one by one to complain about the "regime". Would their collective testimony not give some people the impression that most of the country is prepared to overturn the political system? Yet this would be a fallacious conclusion to draw, given that it involves extrapolating from a tiny portion of the population to the whole country.

If we go by the more reliable metric of public polling data, then we’ll discover that the Iranian political establishment enjoys greater popular legitimacy than we’ve been led to believe. After analyzing multiple polls conducted at around the time of Iran’s 2009 presidential election, the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes reported that "large majorities…[were] satisfied with the current system, and the system by which authorities are elected." More recently, in 2018, the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland found that as many as three in four Iranians disagreed "that Iran’s political system needs to undergo fundamental change," despite having expressed discontent with economic policies and corruption.

It bears mentioning, however, that there appears to be a significant generation gap in Iran with respect to self-reported confidence in political institutions. For instance, World Values Survey research from 2005 showed that 46% of Iranians aged 29 and younger expressed confidence in their government, which was 11 points below the comparable figure for those aged 50 and above (contrast this with the less than 2% gap between the same age groups in the US). One should be wary, however, of interpreting the decline in confidence in political institutions as a foreshadowing of another revolution. Indeed, in countries that are otherwise considered stable democracies, one finds even lower levels of confidence. These include Australia (38.9), Canada (36.7), France (28.9), Germany (22.7), Italy (25.8), the Netherlands (26.7), New Zealand (37.6), Sweden (42), and the United Kingdom (32.4). Norway (54%) and Switzerland (65%) are two interesting exceptions. Overall, though, one gets the impression that, if the West is truly the political model to emulate, then the more that people lose faith in their political institutions, the closer they are to the ideal!

In short, for better or worse, regime change doesn’t seem to be in high demand among Iranians – not least an overthrow effected by the US government, which the Iranians have reasonably distrusted. Therefore, we can’t fail to miss the irony in some people’s ostensible support for a democratic revolution in a country where the majority evidently doesn’t want a revolution.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that these poll findings are a cause for celebration. Polls are a rather poor moral guide; they tell us what people believe, not whether their beliefs are good. (This fact is especially obvious when we’re faced with poll data that contradicts our personal beliefs.) Nevertheless, while these findings may lack moral significance, they carry a practical significance that shouldn’t go unnoted. Given what we know now, we shouldn’t be terribly surprised if the US encounters stiff popular resistance to a military assault. Regime change will prove to be far more costly than some have let on. As always, the costs – human and economic – will be borne by ordinary people, both here and abroad. Let us work to prevent another devastating conflict by resisting the efforts of the war propagandists to manipulate us once again.

Amir Azarvan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College.

One thought on “The Propagandistic Power of Hasty Generalizations: How Regime Change Is Often Sold”

  1. The argument for war is always presented as principled, noble. The underlying reason – power – is less emphasized. Rightly or wrongly, power (manifested as interest) has been present in every conflict of the past – no exception. It is the underlying motivation for war. Other cultural factors might change, but not power. Interest cuts across all apparently unifying principles: family, kin, nation, religion, ideology, politics – everything. We unite with the enemies of our principles, because that is what serves our interest. It is power, not any of the above concepts, that is the cause of war. And it has led every empire in history to its own destruction.

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