Public Opinion - Who is the public?

No matter how we assess the public's role in the foreign policymaking process, Americans do have opinions on international affairs. The range of their attitudes, knowledge, and interest is wide. As there are many opinions, so are there many publics.

At the apex of the pyramidal structure often used to depict the American polity is a small group of opinion makers: business leaders, politicians, statesmen, publishers, journalists, intellectuals, and organizational spokespersons. There are four basic types of opinion makers. In descending order of importance, they are national multi-issue opinion makers, such as senators; national single-issue opinion makers, such as presidents of corporations with defense contracts; local multi-issue opinion makers, such as the president of a large bank; and local single-issue opinion makers, such as a professor of Islamic studies at a local university.

This elite, which is involved with international affairs in its daily professional capacities, constitutes the policymakers' primary constituency. Many members of this foreign policy establishment periodically serve in either official or advisory government positions. As opinion makers they transmit their ideas through the media to the rest of the population. In their ancillary role as opinion submitters, they present their policy preferences to those in power. These opinion makers influence, articulate, and represent mass opinion. In such relatively low-profile areas as tariff and trade policies (except for such issues as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization), they may be the only interested public. Consequently, they can exercise a good deal of influence in the policymaking process. Through their lobbies, pressure groups, and informal contacts with decision makers, they are often able to ensure that national policy serves their needs.

Through most of American history a disproportionate number of opinion makers lived along the eastern seaboard. By the mid-twentieth century, however, they were more widely dispersed throughout the country. Although New York City still maintained its hegemony as the national media and financial capital, new opinion makers in regional power centers like Atlanta and Los Angeles began to play leading roles in the foreign policymaking process.

Below this rarefied group of powerful individuals is a segment of the population, perhaps as large as 10 percent, that has been labeled "the attentive public." This well-educated group, whose composition can shift from issue to issue, is informed about foreign affairs and may be mobilized for some form of political activism. These members of the middle and upper-middle class read intellectual magazines and books, belong to organizations and pressure groups with continuing interests in problems in the international sphere, and are likely to be among those who sign petitions and write letters to politicians. The attentive public helps to transmit ideas and information from opinion makers to the rest of the population through interpersonal communications. Much of the foreign policy debate takes place within the ranks of the attentive public, the primary audience for the opinion makers on most issues.

The remainder of the population, a vast and generally silent majority, is basically disinterested in most diplomatic events and uninformed about the nature of the international system. Wars and crises that result in banner headlines or preemption of popular television shows will arouse them, but they ignore the day-to-day operation of the foreign policy machine. Furthermore, they rarely contemplate the broad strategic concerns that define the American national interest.

The mass public is latently powerful. On occasion it can be persuaded to exert pressure upon the directors of the nation's foreign policy, or even to counterbalance more articulate critics among opinion makers and the attentive public. When Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon began to lose the backing of the foreign policy establishment, they appealed to the silent majority for support of their Vietnam policies.

The static pyramidal structure masks some of the behavioral interaction among the three groups. One of the leading students of the issue, James N. Rosenau, proposes the analogy of a gigantic theater featuring daily dramas of international intrigue on its stage. Seated in a disproportionately large and distant balcony, the mass public is unable to see and hear much of the action and, consequently, becomes involved only when the actors reach dramatic peaks. The attentive public, in the much smaller orchestra section, follows the performance closely and even helps those from the balcony whom it meets during intermissions. The players or opinion makers on stage variously direct their attentions to other actors, to specific groups in the orchestra, and, occasionally, to those in the balcony. From time to time, almost everyone within the theater is engaged in activities simultaneously, although the majority in the balcony only rarely applauds or boos.

The American public's ignorance of and disinterest in international affairs is not unique. Surveys tell us that most people in most countries are little concerned with diplomacy. Nevertheless, when compared with their peers in western Europe, Americans tend to score lower on questions demanding knowledge of the outside world.

This situation appalls many observers. Americans are better-educated and more literate today than they have ever been. Print and electronic mass media provide their audiences with more essential information than was available to the decision makers themselves in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nonetheless, the public is still woefully uninformed about foreign affairs. As late as 1964, more than one-quarter of those polled in a national survey did not know that a communist regime, which had been in power since 1949, ruled on the mainland of China. During the same period, only a handful of Americans could distinguish among Prince Souvanna Phouma, General Phoumi Nosavan, and Prince Souphanouvong, the three rival leaders contending for power in Laos, a country to which millions of dollars and some U.S. military personnel had been committed. In 1997, only 5 percent of the population could name one European nation that was a candidate for membership in NATO. Paradoxically, in earlier days, despite primitive means of communication, the average American probably was better-informed about foreign affairs than he or she is now. Then, boundary disputes and tariff imbroglios not only were diplomatic problems but also dominated the domestic political debate and determined the health of the economy. Of course, the U.S. role in the international system was not very complicated during the first century and a half of American history.

According to several influential scholars, the widespread disinterest in many political issues is not necessarily an undesirable feature of contemporary American democracy. As long as the majority of the uninformed and noncosmopolitan mass public is disinterested, leaders do not have to worry about irrational inputs into the foreign policy process. Indeed, some theorists contend that democracy in a large polity depends upon mass apathy in order to function effectively. If all Americans were to become interested, informed, and active in the political process, decision makers would be subject to constant crosscutting pressures that would render them incapable of performing their duties. Such a model of the civic culture in the United States disturbs some commentators. They call attention, among other things, to a period in the early 1960s when, insulated from public opinion, the government made decisions about political and military commitments to South Vietnam that had tragic consequences for Americans and Vietnamese alike. Had more Americans been aware of the covert and, at the time, relatively obscure programs, the ensuing ventilation of the issues might have led to the development of alternate policies for South Vietnam. The mass public is not always correct in its assessment of prudent foreign policies, but it can monitor and challenge decision makers who may be moving along dangerous pathways.

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