Why 'Old Europe' Still Matters: Foreign Voices in the News, Public Opinion, and the War in Iraq
54 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 30 Sep 2009
Date Written: 2009
U.S. public opinion in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq presents a puzzle. The dominant model of attitude formation posits that when elites are united on an issue, public opinion will coalesce behind that position. Only when domestic elites diverge - when Republicans and Democrats in Congress, for example, stake out differing policy positions - will mass opinion polarize along party lines. Yet despite the fact that domestic political elites publicly voiced very little opposition to the Iraq War, large numbers of Americans - especially Democrats - remained opposed to military action in 2002 and early 2003. We suggest that some Americans expressed these negative sentiments because of the widely reported anti-war positions staked out by foreign elites. We test this argument using a large-scale content analysis of news coverage and a series of public opinion surveys from August 2002 through March 2003. Our findings suggest that Democrats and independents - especially those with high levels of political awareness - responded to dissenting arguments articulated in the mass media by foreign leaders. However, only Democrats took cues from the few domestic sources of opposition to the war. Our results show that scholars need to better account for the role played by foreign elites in shaping U.S. opinion in prominent foreign policy debates. To do so, researchers must examine individual-level data to specify how partisan - ideological predispositions and political awareness mediate the effects of news discourse. Our findings also raise important normative questions about the operation of the media as a mechanism of political accountability and democratic policy responsiveness.
Keywords: iraq, public opinion, mass media, foreign elites
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