The POP (Public Opinion Poll) Superpower

Why is it dangerous to legitimize U.S. foreign policy decisions through opinion polls?

March 23, 2007

The United States’ has an unrivaled level of projecting its global power globally. For that power to be exercised smartly and effectively requires a greater need than ever for effective internal controls. The must come to bear before U.S. power is committed to major new military or other foreign policy initiatives.

If that does not happen, the United States runs the risk of engaging in vast enterprises — such as the invasion, occupation and democratization of Iraq — without proper consideration of the many consequences.

As the internal U.S. debate leading up to the Iraq war has demonstrated, neither the U.S. Congress nor the U.S. media were up to their respective tasks of providing an effective check on the executive branch. They acted as cheerleaders instead.

Just how did the Bush administration at the time succeed in getting the legislative branch and the fourth estate to go along rather easily and legitimize such a crucial decision without any serious debate?

The answer lies in the great — if treacherous — power of public opinion polls. Call it “POP” democracy, the acronym for those ubiquitous public opinion polls.

The American model is ultimately based on a straightforward notion: As long as an overwhelming number of Americans is in support of an administration's chosen cause, it must by default be the right policy — and can be viewed as fully legitimized.

A legitimate tool?

There is only one problem. Opinion polls are nothing but a snapshot and — especially during the early framing of an issue — are often based on ill-informed or very haphazard sentiments, if not outright wishful thinking.

The American public also has no qualms whatsoever to revise its views in mid-course, after the country has been committed to a definite course of action.

That may not be of great concern on many issues. But on matters of war and peace — which involve the commitment of the nation's blood and treasure — those shifts can have big consequences.

The U.S. public’s shifting moods on the Iraq war and the invasion of Afghanistan is shows the great dangers of relying on public opinion as a substitute for more careful internal debate.

In the run-up to the war in the second half of 2002 and early 2003, repeated soundings of public opinion showed that Americans were solidly behind their president — by a margin of 70% to 30%, on average.

A few years on, by March 2007, the American public believed by a 65% to 35% margin that the war in Iraq was not worth fighting. The American people had finally come to their sense and matched, with serious delay, European public opinion at the time of the invasion in March 2003.

Benefit of the doubt

In contrast to other the people of nations, many Americans on big national issues are willing to give their executive the initial benefit of the doubt. And especially on matters of national security, many want to present a united front.

As solid as that consensus appeared at the time, even back then there were troubling signals. There was an alarming degree of ignorance on the part of the supportive American public that probably should have given policymakers pause.

A majority of Americans, for example, believed that Saddam not only had links to the al Qaeda terrorist organization, but also that he was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks. (And that doesn’t even touch upon the most preparatory information needed for an occupation of Iraq: knowledge of the sectarian differences between Sunni and Shia.)

Despite such obvious shortcomings of polls, policymakers in Washington rely on this POP version of democracy to a dangerous degree. It is dangerous because few of these polls presented the trade-offs involved in terms of costs, U.S. casualties or long-term commitments.

In turn, most members of Congress — especially those weighing bids for future office or their re-election campaigns the following month — concluded that they had better not get in the way of the rush to war. Members of the media then fell into a similar trap — and few challenged what was becoming a national “consensus.”

Group think

When challenged on the wisdom of the Iraq policy, even seasoned journalists at the time replied that 70% of the American people can't be wrong all at once.

At this point, the reliance on opinion polls as a justification mechanism became self-reinforcing — a giant national exercise in groupthink.

Of course, the experience on the ground in Iraq – and then in Afghanistan – has shattered much of the early optimism. After a brief post-invasion high in the polls, support for the Bush administration's Iraq policy steadily declined, as sticker shock, mounting casualties, and a lack of an exit strategy took their tolls.

In Afghanistan, momentarily forgotten in favor of opening a second war in Iraq, the once almost universally supported post-9/11 war of reaction devolved into a quagmire rivaling the failure of Iraq and became America’s longest military engagement. Even as the Obama Administration now draws down troops – after years of bitter efforts to salvage some scrap of victory – there is still no end in sight for the ongoing financial commitments that will follow the exit.

And yet, even in the frenzy that followed the 9/11 attacks, there were expert voices pointing out that it had been barely a decade since the world’s other great superpower had met its destruction in the same place.

Still others noted that the Taliban, amid ongoing internal war, were ready to cut a deal against Bin Laden. to avoid a U.S. invasion. But the American people had already spoken and they demanded retribution and occupation. The experts went unheeded.

Either way you look at it, basing the ultimate legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy decisions on the "support of the American people" may prove too volatile a foundation for any kind of long-term strategy.

Outside observers are rightfully concerned that – with the U.S. electorate not always well-informed about the issues and the mainstream U.S. media unwilling to state unpopular truths — the process of superpower management relies on pandering to the changeable moods of the American crowd.

A treacherous cycle

The ready abdication of the notion of viable opposition from within the nation’s elite — paired with the pseudo-legitimate substitute of relying on polls — ultimately leads to considerable global chaos. Here’s how.

At first, the American people — always strong believers in their president and their nation’s ability to project its might — are gung-ho to go to war.

Then it dawns on them what the fiscal and social consequences of that unilateral rush to action are — and they gradually withdraw their support.

But by that time, the United States has extended itself, invested its reputation — and set an agenda it now is no longer able to carry through.

The American public's ex post facto mood change results in a messy extraction that may create new risks down the road.

Tocqueville flagged it.

It was Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote in 1835 that

the majority in [the United States] exercise a prodigious actual authority, and a power of opinion which is nearly as great. No obstacles exist which can impede or even retard its progress so as to make it heed the complaints of those whom it crushes upon its path. This state of things is harmful in itself and dangerous for the future

This analysis is even more true today than it was in de Tocqueville’s time. The big global issue is whether that is a wise way for the United States to manage its global role. It obviously is not

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published in the Financial Times on July 28, 2004. It was published on The Globalist on March 23, 2007 and was updated by the author on June 7, 2014.

Takeaways

Few polls survey Americans on trade-offs on costs, U.S. casualties or long-term commitments.

As long as an overwhelming number of Americans is in support any foreign action is viewed as fully legitimate.