In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq

December 17, 2009

Steadily dropping poll numbers in the US have registered growing public dissatisfaction with the war in Afghanistan. In this context, it is worth asking: what leads citizens to support or oppose military action? Adam Berinsky’s In Time of War asks this question to examine the formation of American public opinion since the Second World War. He assembles some impressive and disturbing statistics that will confirm some readers’ worst doubts about how little reasoning goes into American popular feeling about their country’s wars.

In Time of War also raises a second question: how much should we rely on quantitative analysis of opinion polls to understand public responses to war? In advancing a “general theory of public opinion and war”, Berinsky assumes the fundamental similarity of American wars in the past six decades. Yet, by neglecting aspects of public opinion that polls can’t capture, he ignores crucial historical differences between conflicts such as the Second World War that entailed a high level of public action and today’s so-called television wars, in which less is asked of citizens.

Some political scientists argue that citizens rationally evaluate the costs and benefits of military action by carefully weighing the body counts against the possibilities for “success”. Berinsky disagrees. Instead, he finds that individuals view wars through the prisms of their group identities.

In Time of War places particular emphasis on the role of political party identification in shaping attitudes toward wars. Citizens, Berinsky finds, generally respond to cues of party leaders in forming their opinions because they are inadequately informed to make independent judgments. While he presents plentiful data to show that the stances of party elites strongly correlate with public opinion, his evidence that the former causes the latter is limited and does not acknowledge the role of grassroots anti-war sentiment in party politics.

Polls are useful gauges of public opinion. But they are also thin measures that cannot capture the intensity of feelings that wars elicit: it is one thing to tick a box stating that you oppose a war, another to demonstrate against it. Polls also rarely capture the actions that “supporting a war” often requires. During the Second World War, supporting the war meant complying with the draft, buying war bonds, or, for many women, defying gender norms to work in wartime industries. In that context, high poll numbers were significant because they reflected the concrete sacrifices citizens made that were necessary for the success of the war.

But what do such poll numbers tell us in our own moment of television wars and volunteer armies? What matters politically about public opinion regarding military engagement is not simply the poll numbers, but the extent to which support or opposition is a viable political force. How could President Obama consider escalating American military involvement in Afghanistan in the face of negative opinion polls?

A majority of Americans now see the war as no longer worth fighting, but there is no powerful anti-war movement. This war can be fought for a long time without the active support – or even the acknowledgement – of most citizens. To comprehend public opinion in time of war, we need to understand poll numbers in the context of historical shifts in the nature of military conflicts.

In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq

By Adam J. Berinsky
University of Chicago Press
360pp, £47.50 and £16.00
ISBN 9780226043586 and 43593
Published 18 September 2009

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