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Triangle Institute for Security Studies

For faster downloading, Part I of this conference report is divided into the following linked sections:

·  Background & Introduction:
  Prof. Richard Kohn

·  Roundtable I: Presentation
  by Prof. Ole Holsti

·  Panelists:  Profs.
  David Cheshier and
  Erik Doxtader

·  Questions from the Floor

·  About TISS

Part II of the report will appear in the Summer 1998 issue of American Diplomacy

You may also send comments or questions by e-mail in care of the Editor,
American Diplomacy

(click here).

TISS Conference Report: Bridging Gaps In the Study of
Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy



  Timothy Hynes, State University of West Georgia
  David Cheshier, Georgia State University
  Erik Doxtader, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
  Ole Holsti, Duke University (Presenter)

At the end of the panel discussion of Professor Holsti's presentation, others in attendance at the conference also commented and queried the presenter on various aspects of the topic.

~ Ed.

Question from floor (William Dale,* U.S. Foreign Service, ret.). In last week's Washington Post Weekly there was a long article by polling people concerning just this question of foreign policy and American opinion. One of the things they point out is that since the end of the Cold War there has been a downward spiraling of interest in the U.S. public on foreign policy questions in general. That has brought less coverage in the media, which in turn causes less interest in the public and a growth of misinformation. These pollsters point out the egregious example of misinformed public opinion regarding foreign aid. A majority of their sample claims that foreign aid absorbs more of the American national budget than such things as Medicare and social security. Obviously this is very much the opposite of the truth.

To me what is most worrisome is that without an informed public opinion, which is the condition this article claims is being brought about, we're going to end up with the pressure groups, so often crystallized in the form of lobbies, as the sole determinants of the policy pressures present in the government. You need an informed public in order to counter that and to give a broader view on questions that are very important. I'm afraid that kind of general knowledge, that kind of counter force to pressure groups with specific interests, is going to drop to the point that there will be almost no one to challenge the foreign policy directions toward which particular pressure groups try to force the nation.

So this is just a sad comment.

Holsti: The foreign aid example is a good one because it does illustrate that many surveys, including some that Stephen Cole has done at the University of Maryland, show that the public is really prepared to go well beyond what Robert McNamara thought was an appropriate level of foreign aid — one percent of GNP. The public does believe that they're spending up to fifteen percent of the national budget, and they think it ought to be somewhat less than that, but certainly more than we are actually spending. There the blame to some extent has to be borne by leaders who make little effort to inform the public.

Question from floor (Kohn): I'm troubled as a historian about the way we are using the terms "public" and "public opinion." The reason is that the framers of the Constitution had a very real sense of the people. They didn't use public opinion as the term, but they had a real sense of the people and they constructed a very complex government that was set up on the basis of representation. In going back and reading Madison's Federalist Number Ten, you sense that the framers of the Constitution had a deep understanding of the differences amongst the public in terms of the concept of faction. There is some thinking — and I tend to agree — that a good deal of the foreign policy thinking at the Constitutional Convention and in the construction of the government was a response to the great divisiveness of the Jay negotiations over the opening of the Mississippi River. It frightened the Virginians and the Southerners that the government under the stewardship of John Jay as secretary of foreign affairs was going to bargain away open access to the West through the use of the Mississippi River as a means for getting exports and trade out to the rest of the world.

So, to talk constantly about public opinion and the public in some kind of gross terms, when American politicians from the very beginning recognized the public as a enormously atomized and shifting series of individual groups that can be appealed to or can be manipulated, as well as whose support can be sought — that bothers me. Can you respond to my concern and comment on how modern public opinion and polling deals with that point?

Holsti: What you say about the Founding Fathers is certainly correct, and with respect to foreign affairs there were special efforts made to try to shield leadership from what was seen as the passions of the public and their problems or factions that Madison talked about. The Senate was given much more responsibility than the House on most issues of foreign affairs. The same exists today, that we have interest groups that. We have a huge amount of writing recently about the impact of ethnicity and other things like this.

Yes, Madison was right. The issue continues. We've been talking about public opinion here, but almost every survey will then make efforts to break down almost any variable that you can think of — party ideology, gender, occupation — into trying to get some sense of what are the characteristics of those on this side versus that side versus the other side of an issue. Polling can do something about giving us a more precise sense of what the nature of the factions that Madison was talking about, but it doesn't solve the problem.

Madison's argument was that to expand the public, more factions, passions over here will be counter-balanced by passions over there and that somehow the worst of those passions will be counteracted and in some sense balanced out. That was his hope, and so we continue to assign Federalist Number Ten in Political Science 1 and probably in American History 1 as being an insightful view. We also assign other scholars writing years later about the impact of public opinion and domestic politics on the inability of democracies to conduct foreign affairs effectively. These old dead white males did have a few insights.

Question from floor (Curtis Jones,* U.S. Foreign Service, Ret.): Following up on Dick Kohn's remarks, it seems to me that the public is everybody or nobody and it's really not an adequate term to use when you're talking about foreign policy. You have to compartmentalize it. As I was listening to the presentation, I was trying to list the various departments. First of all, you have the politicians who sometimes lead the public and sometimes follow. In Lyndon Johnson's case, he tried to lead and he ended up following and finally collapsing. Then you have the bureaucrats. You mentioned somebody who said, we have to lead the public. But bureaucrats have negligible effect on the formation of foreign policy except in day-to-day implementation. Then you have the media who have a significant effect on those members of the public who actually try to keep up with affairs, and next you have academia. I'll leave that to you gentlemen as to what effect you have on the formulation of foreign policy. Finally you have, as Dick used the term, factions.

I guess that's probably the best word, meaning the way in which people fall into interest groups among the electorate. The Irish Catholic Americans who have a strong interest in intervening in the dispute over the future of the two parts of Ireland, for example. I've always used the term "special interest groups," but now I'm thinking maybe that's misleading and we should say special interest or public interest lobbies. These are distinct from factions because they're made up of the activists. These are the people who try to mobilize the special factions. I wouldn't be surprised if in many cases they have more influence on foreign policy than any of the other elements I've mentioned.

The question is, have I listed the elements that formulate foreign policy completely and have I divided them accurately?

Holsti: You've certainly got the main actors there. The real question then is, what is the complex interplay among these in any particular given incidence? That would certainly vary from case to case. You mentioned the Irish back in the late nineteenth century. It was one of the absolute rules of thumb among presidential candidates that you must take a few blows at the British if you were going to win the votes of Chicago, New York, and so on. Indeed, one presidential candidate who lost, James G. Blaine, would probably have won the election in 1884 except for an error made by one of his supporters. But Blaine was seen as having defamed the Irish and Catholics, and that probably threw the election to Grover Cleveland. This is certainly not a new phenomenon in American politics.

Question from floor (Cori Dauber, Univ. of N.C.-Chapel Hill): I guess the notion of factions and special interests takes us back to an issue of data, that is to say, who's the culprit? What are the names and addresses, which group of folks are you talking about? It seems to me that when you can see the factions and special interest groups speaking to the public or speaking about the public, polling those people then seems to hint at a certain fluidity. So that perhaps the Irish are the special interest group or the faction when we're talking about the IRA. But if we are talking about military budgets, they sort of fade back into the woodwork as just another part of the general public. What I'm wondering is, when you say "public," who is that in your perception?

Holsti: If what you are trying to do is to assess the question of impact, you're exactly right, it's very fluid. Another example of a quite small segment of the public that had a huge impact was on the issue of aid to Turkey after the invasion of Cyprus. Greek Americans, who make up between two and three percent of the American population, were effectively aroused and for a number of years prevailed over the Ford and Carter administrations in preventing aid to another NATO ally, Turkey. Presumably, many of these are people that would not be so aroused by an issue of aid to some Far Eastern country.

Dauber: So the public is on to something that exists in potential and needs to be called forth?

Holsti: If you go back to the V.O. Key definition, which is a good one for those interested in the impact of policy — "those opinions held by private individuals with the administration finds it important to heed" — that's going to vary from issue to issue. When it comes to trade and protectionism, the whole question of fast track authority, a very different group of people represented by labor leaders and others who come to the forefront are able to have some significant impact on policies.

Question from floor (James Abrahamson,* university professor emeritus): A President who requires legislative support — and fast track would be an example for a foreign policy initiative — has to be interested in public opinion, however defined at the moment. But in foreign affairs and military affairs, certainly the President is very often free to initiate action. It would seem to me that his greatest interest would be what opinion will be once it becomes an issue, that is, when people become better informed and more aware of consequences. I can imagine some techniques that would enable you to assess how the public might feel about an issue as it, the public, becomes better informed and even aware of possible consequences. Is anybody making any effort to do that kind of thing?

Holsti: We now have the ability to get almost instantaneously the reactions to issues even as they unfold, and that leads back into the policy making process. On the question of the military versus other kinds of issues, one of the arguments that prevailed during very much of the Cold War, for better or worse, was that, in fact military security issues required the ability to act fast, to act flexibly, and to act on the basis of confidential classified information. There was a general sense in Walter Lippmann's book, A Public Philosophy , in 1955 that illustrated that if you just give the executive greater leeway and get away from the constraints of the Congress, we're going to have much more effective policy.

Well, that argument doesn't much prevail these days, partly because of things like the war in Vietnam and partly because foreign policy in general looks awfully different today than it did back in the 1950s. It's interesting that Lippmann was writing in that style at a time when, if there was ever a President who was unrestrained by the Congress, it was Dwight Eisenhower, even with a Democratic Congress for six of his eight years. He had a much easier time with the Democrats in Congress than with the Republicans. I think that the sense that the President knows best was pretty much dissolved.

Question from floor (Richard Sobel,* Harvard Univ.): The one public that I have not heard discussed very much yet is the public. I'm hearing a lot about publics. It's hard to define the "public," as in public opinion, but I want to give it a try and I hope during the day we can look at this definition at least as the one against which others should be measured.

The public, as I see it, is the predominant sentiment in population; in a democracy a majority of fifty percent plus one is a key benchmark for what the public is. Often it doesn't need to be fifty percent plus one. It might be a plurality, because no other particular opinion has a larger proportion. But this begins to give us an idea of what the public is.

Part of the problem with identifying the public as a larger force, and not really just a vague undefined force, is that in the areas close to majorities, the public doesn't have as much power as it has when there is a sixty percent or seventy percent agreement on an issue. Thomas W. Graham has done some very interesting work on this. The correlation between policy and public opinion gets higher and higher as these approval percentages rise. So the public so defined — and the definition, of course, develops as an issue develops — becomes much clearer. Ole's definition, the one from V. O. Key — "the opinions of the population that are prudent to heed" — also gets at the question of impact. But a lot of what I'm hearing about interest groups and others are what I would call "semi-publics" or even "semi-privates." We read in political science about the socialization and the privatization of conflict. Most of the interested groups want to privatize public issues for their approach. I think we can distinguish them from a general sense of what a public sentiment consists.

I want to suggest two other things on this. First, the public exists separate from how it is measured. Second, the public can be measured by polling, but also by other forms of communication between people and their representatives. Some Congressmen have an innate sense — often wrong — of what the public thinks, but some politicians have a better sense of this than others. There are ways to arrive at this measurement such as mail or letters to the editor, but a lot of the research on public opinion refers to the marginalization of the majority. Many of the other supposed "publics," such as the media and interest groups, get more attention, but there is a larger public out there that we can identify, and which in democracies it is important to identify.

Question from floor (Ralph Levering, Davidson College): I'm doing research on the coming of the Cold War in American public opinion from 1945-1948. I'm particularly interested in the role of public opinion in the elections in 1946 and 1948 on foreign policy and the extent to which the economics issue at home was, in fact, the foreign policy issue, in the sense that those issues were connected. They are often thought of as separate, but I think there is actually a connection between them.

The question that I have for you would be, are voters a surrogate for the public? Are those who actually vote what we might call the Dow Jones, a selection that stands for the larger group, or are public opinion polls different from the opinions of those who vote, different from those that are generally represented in public opinion?

Another question that would help me: Are there any suggestions you might have on political scientists in particular who have done research that relates to this issue of the role of public opinion on foreign policy in elections?

Holsti: John Aldrich and two other political scientists looked at every election starting with 1948. The interest that drove him was the kind of folk wisdom which said that elections are won by domestic issues and not by foreign policy issues. What he found was that in five of those nine elections, foreign policy played a crucial role in the outcome. So that's probably a good starting place. There's no doubt all kinds of other studies have been done. In the 1948 election, the astounding outcome — Truman beating Dewey contrary to the predictions of all surveys — is probably one that's been studied a whole lot and it should be relatively easy to develop a good bibliography on and an almost blow-by-blow account. And also, of course, insider accounts and lots of memoirs of Truman years and not only of Truman himself, but others. On the 1946 election — I know this was a big Republican landslide — it's harder for me to point you in a specific direction on that one.

There's a question that preceded that.

Levering: The question preceding that is whether the general public that is polled, or what we might call the mass public, is the same in its views as the forty percent or fifty percent or thirty percent or whatever that votes or actually shows up at the polls? Is there any information on that?

Holsti: This will again vary. Go back to the 1948 election. It's obvious that the segment of the general public that was being polled was not representative of the voting population, because how else could all these surveys been off so much? There was obviously a consequential divergence between the two.

Be sure to look for Part II of the TISS conference report in the Summer 1998 issue of American Diplomacy. Additional portions of the conference transcript will appear in succeeding issues of this journal.

~ Ed.

* Edited transcript text not cleared by speaker.

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