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Public Opinion Dynamics During Wartime: Are Ordinary Citizens Cost-Benefit Calculators?

- December 11, 2007

As a war drags on and as American casualties mount with no clear end in sight, war-weariness sets in among members of the mass public, who increasingly come to question whether the perceived benefits of the war outweigh the costs. This idea — that successes and failures on the battlefield determine the public’s willingness to support American military involvement overseas — is a key element of the conventional wisdom concerning public opinion and foreign policy.

In “Assuming the Costs of War: Events, Elites, and American Public Support for Military Conflict” (Journal of Politics, November 2007), Adam Berinsky puts this piece of conventional wisdom to the test. If Berinsky is right, the conventional wisdom is wrong.

Analyzing data from World War II and the Iraq War, Berinsky finds “little evidence that citizens make complex cost/benefit calculations when evaluating military action.” Rather, it is dissensus among members of the political elite that undermines public support for a war.”During times of war,” Berinsky writes, “individual-level knowledge of the most basic facts of war is weak; the power of elite cues is not.” Thus, an interpretation of mass opinion dynamics premised on well informed cost-benefit calculations is bound to fall short.

After Pearl Harbor, members of Congress of both major parties converged in support of the U.S. military effort and the public followed along, notwithstanding the terrible toll that the war was taking on the country. By contrast, the split between Republican and Democratic leaders in endorsement of the Iraq War (strong advocacy by the Republican leadership, headed by President Bush, versus a mixed response from Democratic leaders) has been directly reflected in the dynamics of mass opinion. None of this is to say that what happens on the battlefield has no impact on public opinion; whether it matters, Berinsky concludes, depends on the cost-benefit calculations of the elites from whom the mass public derives its political cues rather than on the direct cost-benefit calculations of ordinary citizens themselves.