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Is the American Public Realist?

- April 4, 2008

bq. For more than half a century, realist scholars of international relations have maintained that their worldview is inimical to the American public. For a variety of reasons – inchoate attitudes, national history, American exceptionalism – realists assert that the U.S. government pursues realist policies in spite and not because of public opinion. This paper takes a closer look at the anti-realist assumption by examining survey data and the empirical literature on the mass public’s attitudes towards foreign policy priorities and worldviews, the use of force, and foreign economic policy over the past three decades. The results suggest that, far from disliking realism, Americans are at least as comfortable with the logic of realpolitik as they are with liberal internationalism. The persistence of the anti-realist assumption might be due to an ironic fact: American elites are more predisposed towards liberal internationalism than the rest of the American public.

That is from a recent paper by Daniel Drezner (ungated version here). Drezner surveys a vast amount of polling data and argues that there is an “intuitive realism” or “folk realism” in American public opinion:

* Americans prioritize realist goals — e.g., protecting the U.S. against terrorist attacks — more than internationalist goals — e.g., promoting democracy and human rights.

* Americans favor the use of force much more when the mission is based on realpolitik (e.g., missile strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998) than when it is based on humanitarian concerns (e.g., Haiti in 1992-95).

* Americans are “mercantilist” with regard to trade, expressing concerns about the loss of American jobs and favoring a relative gains approach.

Drezner argues, convincingly, that the null hypothesis among some IR scholars is “the American public is hostile to realism.” If that’s the null, then Drezner has amassed impressive evidence to reject the null.

At the same time, I wondered if this folk realism was, well, entirely real.

Much public opinion literature, dating back to Converse, demonstrates that the American public is not particularly ideological, and even those folk ideologies that do exist tend to be “morselized,” in Robert Lane’s famous phrase. So it’s quite likely that Americans lack a coherent realist worldview — that is to say, an overarching and solidly constructed ideology. I think Drezner would agree, but I don’t think he’s as attuned to the implications as he could be.

One implication is this: people may look like realists, but they don’t think like realists. That is to say, they haven’t reasoned their way to a realist outlook. Instead, this outlook is cognitively cobbled together from disparate sources. For example, Drezner notes that concern about the impact of trade drives from concerns such as “cultural integrity” and “national identity.” But are these the bedrock foundations of realism? Earlier, Drezner describes realist concerns about trade in terms of concerns about interdependence and vulnerability. But the public’s concerns about culture and identity may reflect something more like good old-fashioned nationalism. “They took our jobs!” — in the immortal parody of “South Park.” Of course, I’m not suggesting that public concerns about free trade reflect redneckish ignorance, but they certainly could reflect something other than a realist calculus.

A second implication is that the public depends on elites to provide the information that enables them to link realist “intuitions” to specific public policies. This is an insight from John Zaller’s book. Reasoning from broad values or principles to specific policies often necessitates a cue of some sort. In general, Drezner doesn’t really discuss how elites may be able to affect opinion in this way. For example, as Lee discussed previously, Adam Berinsky has shown that elite cues, not casualties, are the crucial determinants of public opinion about war. Thus, when I look at Drezner’s Table 4, which documents Americans’ support for the use of force in various conflicts from 1981-2005, I wondered whether these figures reflect independent judgments based on realist intuitions, or whether the public tends to support wars in rough proportion to the number of elites supporting these wars. An elite consensus begets a public consensus; elite divisions beget a divided public. Drezner talks some about framing effects, but I’m suggesting a more fundamental kind of endogeneity.

A third implication has to do with the informational content of attitudes. Drezner notes a study that finds that support for foreign aid — a true internationalist goal — increases when researchers corrected the public’s vast overestimates of the amount of such aid. Evidence from a Deliberative Poll shows similar findings: after a weekend of policy briefings and small-group discussions, participants were much more likely to support foreign aid, fighting AIDS abroad, and other internationalist goals. In short, at least some of the public’s realist intuitions may derive from misinformation and misperception, and may change in an internationalist direction in response to substantive information and discussion. To the extent that politics provides such information or discussion, realist intuitions could be supplanted by internationalist ideas. This doesn’t refute Drezner’s thesis, but simply suggests that, again, any realist folk ideology is potentially less-than-sturdy.

A final, and related, implication, which was Converse’s main point way back when: there are large differences in the belief systems of the well-informed vs. the less well-informed. Drezner acknowledges that the there could be differences within the public but then suggests that “the existence of different components of the American public fails to undercut the evidence presented here.” I’m less sanguine. For one, Drezner documents how elite samples are more liberal internationalist. The best-informed citizens may be too. And, because these citizens are those most likely to participate in politics, their influence might be disproportionately large. The subset of the public that “matters most” may be less realist and more internationalist.

Again, none of this means that we should resurrect the old null hypothesis. But we should be cautious in imputing to the public a mindset that would consistently support any well-developed international relations theory — realist, internationalism or otherwise.