The libertarian think tank Cato Institute held a debate on American public opinion and going to war, featuring professors Adam Berinksy of MIT, Ohio State’s John Mueller, the University of Exeter’s Jason Reifler and Trevor Thrall of George Mason University.
Mueller began the discussion and focused on how American public opinion was polled during the “four, long ground wars” since World War II. He observed that support for wars has gone progressively down through the years. The Vietnam, Korea, and Iraq and Afghanistan military campaigns had a brief spike of approval in the beginning of said wars. Yet in each case, the decline is rapid after the start of war. Mueller said, “As casualties accrue, the support for war dwindles. Sometimes that’s been put, ‘as soon as they see the body bags, they’ll stop supporting the war.’” At one point, Mueller said, the military would not unload body bags at the Dover, Delaware Air Force base for publicity reasons.
In his analysis, Mueller said, “People are not willing to pay as much [in Iraq] as they were for the Cold Wars.” Approval ratings hit 50% and below for the Afghanistan war when there were 2,000 American dead, but in Vietnam, that approval rating came after 20,000 Americans had died. A consistent result in his findings was that “People agree that we don’t know how many casualties there are.” And, the wording of the poll questions, such as “going to war,” has some effect on approval ratings of wars. Predictably, the approval ratings drop as more American soldiers die. He said, “It’s hard to move public opinions” and gave the example of Ford’s failed Edsel car, where “90% of all products, no matter how brilliantly marketed, fail.”
Mueller noted the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans over the Iraq war, but somehow leading Democrat politicians supported the war while the Democratic base was adamantly against it. He compared recent events in Iraq, where the country is torn apart by Islamist terrorism, to the collapse of Vietnam to communism in three simple reaction mechanisms:
- Americans accepted the debacle and “they shrugged it off”
- “They wanted to continue the Cold War, to support the basic idea against communism…the big change was they no longer wanted to use one tactic, ground war”
- “They were willing to say, essentially, I do care about communism advancing” but without conducting a “ground war”
However, when Americans are asked about supporting the War on Terror, approval ratings are consistent and positive, as Americans during Vietnam saw the Cold War. But, similar to delete the aftermath of the collapse of South Vietnam, Americans today do not want a ground war to fight the War on Terror.
Reifler averred that Americans can tolerate casualties for successful missions, but not for unsuccessful ones It is consistent with the view that Americans do a cost-benefit analysis of war and then base their opinion on that analysis. But, “our emphasis on the importance of perceptions of success…is misguided because it relies on people to have …knowledge of battlefield success.” Reifler felt that method of cost-benefit analysis was “a strawman argument.” Success cannot be measured by casualties, because there is “little evidence that this is the primary measure people link to for success” and it is “not the primary metric people use” in determining success.
Berinsky said, “Partisanship is a driving force” of opinion, but when making decisions on stances, “information matters” because “people need to know where their leaders stand.” He believed “polarization within parties” can take place, without a vocal opposition, if cue-givers like a sitting president or leading lawmaker, and take strong or distinct positions on issues. He gave the example of George W. Bush: “You don’t need to have Democrats say, this is a bad war.” But, “anything that George Bush was for, they were against.” Because of this, “that partisan gap remains strong.” An interesting historical example he gave was that during the 1940’s, when the U.S. was neutral in World War II. American public opinion wanted neutrality, but FDR Democrats also wanted to support the United Kingdom in World War II. This is an example of “divergent rhetoric…divergent opinion” within public opinion polling.
Thrall said, “People rely on one good reason to support wars” that serves as a motivator to support a war or not. “That single good reason,” he said, “is doing heavy lifting.” Thrall continued, “The most fundamental reason…humans are cognitive misers, looking to cut corners when it comes to thinking hard.” Also, “the search for and maintenance of a single good reason is an awful lot easier for your brain.”
“Our psychology” powerfully resonates with the mindset that one single, good reason can motivate us. For example, “people respond far more to individual children than statistics” and “it’s our nature” to treat an example of suffering as important when an individual, not a group, is involved. He concluded, “The bottom line is that people can support something for a wide range of reasons.” With the Iraq war and war in Afghanistan, as time went on, “60% of Americans never changed their mind once” about their stance on the war.