Death & Turnout: The Human Costs of War and Voter Participation in Democracies

The forthcoming article “Death & Turnout: The Human Costs of War and Voter Participation in Democracies” by Michael T. Koch and Stephen P. Nicholson is summarized by the authors here:

International conflict has the potential to engage even the least politically interested individuals in society. In our research, we examined whether international conflicts that witnessed combat casualties mobilized voters. We proposed that this happens because mortality salience causes people to defend their beliefs. Studies from psychology have shown that if reminded of death, people are more likely to defend their worldview and others who share it. Since casualties invoke thoughts and feelings related to death, we predicted that increasing casualties would motivate people to vote.

Using both cross-national and individual level data, we examined whether combat casualties increased voter turnout in established democracies. Studying twenty-three democracies over a fifty-year period, we found that mounting casualties increased national-level turnout. We also examined survey data from the United States and United Kingdom during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and found that the effect of casualties on turnout is enhanced if they are from the local community and happen close to the election. Although one might expect that people who opposed the war are most likely to turnout, we found no clear partisan effects. In the United States, for example, neither Democrats nor Republicans were disproportionately mobilized to vote. Nor was the effect concentrated among Independents. Rather, we found that the effect happened among the least politically interested members of society regardless of party affiliation. In both the United States and United Kingdom, those who were least interested in politics were just as likely as the most interested to vote as casualties accrued.

Our research has important implications for democracy as well as democratic foreign policy making.  Increased voter participation, especially in response to local combat casualties suggests that democratic institutions provide the public with a means of expressing voice. Increased electoral participation during wartime might also increase the responsiveness of elected leaders to the public. However, the absence of a partisan dimension to the mobilizing effects of casualties during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars likely mean that U.S. leaders were more beholden to their base constituencies.  It suggests that leaders may anticipate the public’s response to the use of force abroad, informing their preferences about whether to engage in international conflict. Policy choices that ultimately involve the human costs of war, can deeply engage audiences, mobilizing even the least politically interested

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.