The Political Origins of Elite Support for War: How Democratic Leaders Manage Public Opinion

53 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2012 Last revised: 19 May 2015

See all articles by Elizabeth N. Saunders

Elizabeth N. Saunders

George Washington University - Department of Political Science

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Date Written: May 2015


In the last few decades, a significant body of research in international relations has linked the behavior of democracies in the international arena to electoral mechanisms, notably the prospect that democratic leaders face of being voted out of office. Indeed, in the US context, presidents often worry about public opinion when making foreign policy choices. At the same time, however, scholars of American politics emphasize that voters typically do not know much about foreign policy, and tend to take their cues on foreign policy from elites. To reconcile these perspectives, I argue that we can better understand the nature of democratic foreign policymaking by focusing on elite competition. If presidents are able to earn and retain the support of other important elites - such as Congress, key members of the bureaucracy, and high-ranking members of the military - then public opinion can be effectively managed and presidents can try to inoculate themselves against electoral consequences. For practical purposes in many cases, then, the relevant domestic audience for foreign policy choices may be other elites, rather than the mass public. Important implications follow for our understanding of the foreign policies of democracies more generally, as well as international relations theories that rely on regime type as a key variable. If leaders in a democratic state frequently worry most proximately about the political reactions of other elites, then in many cases the relevant domestic audience is likely to be far smaller than theories of democratic foreign policymaking typically assume. Focusing on the use of force, the paper outlines an elite-centered framework for understanding how democratic leaders manage public opinion, and illustrates the theory with two cases of presidential deliberations over whether to escalate an ongoing military intervention.

Keywords: war, use of force, democracies, US foreign policy, regime type, leaders, presidency, public opinion, voting behavior, issue salience, military intervention

Suggested Citation

Saunders, Elizabeth N., The Political Origins of Elite Support for War: How Democratic Leaders Manage Public Opinion (May 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Elizabeth N. Saunders (Contact Author)

George Washington University - Department of Political Science ( email )

2115 G Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
United States

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