A Bottom-Up Theory of Public Opinion about Foreign Policy

The forthcoming AJPS article, “A Bottom-Up Theory of Public Opinion about Foreign Policy”, by Joshua Kertzer and Thomas Zeitzoff is now available for Early View and is summarized here by its authors: A Bottom-Up Theory of Public Opinion about Foreign Policy

In July 2014, a wave of violence erupted in the Middle East, as Israel responded to a barrage of rockets from Gaza by launching airstrikes, and eventually, a ground incursion intent on degrading Hamas’s military capabilities. In Washington, both Democrats and Republicans firmly sided with Israel: the Senate passed a unanimous resolution blaming Hamas for the conflict, and both prominent Democrats and Republicans gave staunch defenses of Israel’s right to defend itself.

Although both Democrats and Republicans in Washington were united in their support for Israel, a series of polls found that Democrats and Republicans in the public were divided: in a Pew poll from July 24-27, for example, 60% of Republicans blamed Hamas for the violence, while Democrats were split, with 29% blaming Hamas, and 26% blaming Israel. A Gallup poll from July 22-23 detected a similar pattern: 65% of Republicans thought Israel’s actions were justified, but Democrats were divided, as 31% backed the Israeli response, and 47% called it unjustified.

This pattern—where political elites are united but the public is not—is particularly interesting for political scientists because it raises questions about a widely held set of assumptions in the social sciences about public opinion, which holds that the public knows relatively little about politics (especially foreign affairs), and thus structures its beliefs by taking cues from trusted, partisan elites. But if the mass public knows so little, and can only regurgitate carefully pureed talking points, why does it often disagree with what elites have to say?

In our new paper in the American Journal of Political Science, we argue that these partisan “elite cue” models are unnecessarily restrictive. The public may often lack information, but it doesn’t lack principles, and because cues are the most persuasive when they come from cue-givers you trust, information need not only cascade from the top down. In an era when more Americans are turning away from traditional party politics, trust in government is abysmally low, and many of the major political events of the past year—Brexit, Donald Trump steamrolling his way to the Presidency over the objections of elites in both parties, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader in Great Britain, and so on — consist of political movements disconnected from and disenchanted with the political establishment (“I think people in this country have had enough of experts”, as Brexiteer Michael Gove put it), it seems plausible that people might take cues from actors other than partisan political elites.

Drawing on five survey experiments fielded between 2014-2016, we test and find evidence for a “bottom-up” theory of public opinion, in which ordinary citizens anchor on their core belief systems, and look not just to politicians in Washington, but also to each other to help determine their opinions on foreign policy. People aren’t blank slates; the public has minds of its own. Political scientists thus need to take into account what the authors call the “meso-foundations” of public opinion: the social context and broader network in which citizens are embedded.

In suggesting that public opinion can be shaped by social forces from below, rather than just cues from above, the results suggest a number of broader implications. The extent to which people care about what other members of the public think (even about relatively technical policy issues) raises interesting questions about the effects of the growing media coverage of public opinion polls in lieu of substantive policy discussion. Horserace political coverage may have more problematic consequences for democracy than many might think. It is also especially interesting in the age of new media, where both search engines like Google and social networks like Facebook rely on complex algorithms to show users what they think they want to see, producing alternative and often self-segregating information environments whose implications for public opinion in foreign affairs are not yet fully appreciated. In the current balkanized information environment, replete with the rise of “fake news” and disinformation campaigns led by state-sponsored “troll armies” with fake online identities, the results imply that concerns about opinion manipulation shouldn’t just focus on propaganda from above, but also on disinformation from below.

A Bottom-Up Theory of Public Opinion about Foreign Policy is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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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.