Going to War in Iraq: When Citizens and the Press Matter

Going to War in Iraq: When Citizens and the Press Matter

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Conventional wisdom holds that the Bush administration was able to convince the American public to support a war in Iraq on the basis of specious claims and a shifting rationale because Democratic politicians decided not to voice opposition and the press simply failed to do its job.
            Drawing on the most comprehensive survey of public reactions to the war, Stanley Feldman, Leonie Huddy, and George E. Marcus revisit this critical period and come back with a very different story. Polling data from that critical period shows that the Bush administration’s carefully orchestrated campaign not only failed to raise Republican support for the war but, surprisingly, led Democrats and political independents to increasingly oppose the war at odds with most prominent Democratic leaders. More importantly, the research shows that what constitutes the news matters. People who read the newspaper were more likely to reject the claims coming out of Washington because they were exposed to the sort of high-quality investigative journalism still being written at traditional newspapers. That was not the case for those who got their news from television. Making a case for the crucial role of a press that lives up to the best norms and practices of print journalism, the book lays bare what is at stake for the functioning of democracy—especially in times of crisis—as newspapers increasingly become an endangered species.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226304373
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/22/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Stanley Feldman is professor of political science and associate director of the Survey Research Center at Stony Brook University. Leonie Huddy is professor of political science and director of the Survey Research Center at Stony Brook University. She is coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology. George E. Marcus is professor of political science at Williams College and the author, coauthor, or coeditor of seven books, including, most recently, Political Psychology: Neuroscience, Genetics, and Politics.

Read an Excerpt

Going to War in Iraq

When Citizens and the Press Matter

By Stanley Feldman, Leonie Huddy, George E. Marcus

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-30437-3


The Public Responds to a Possible War in Iraq Confronting Two Conundrums

"Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive." — John F. Kennedy


On March 20, 2003, the United States and several of its allies began a military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein as leader of Iraq. The war has been the target of endless discussion, consternation, debate, and analysis. However, the military campaign was preceded by another campaign that is equally worthy of research scrutiny but that has attracted less, far less, analysis than the war itself. In the twelve months or so prior to the war's onset, but beginning in earnest in September 2002, the administration of President George W. Bush designed a political campaign to mobilize public support to help secure congressional approval for military action in Iraq. At first glance, the Bush administration was successful in this second campaign: public opinion polls conducted in the months before the war's onset documented majority support for military action to remove Saddam, and both houses of Congress supported and passed in October 2002 the "Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq," commonly referred to as the Iraq War Resolution.

The Bush administration's efforts to sway the American public and members of Congress to support a war in Iraq, its apparent success in promoting dubious claims about Saddam's intentions and Iraq's weapons capabilities, and the failure of the news media to challenge these claims is well-worn territory by now (Bennett, Lawrence, and Livingston 2007; Entman 2004; Hoyle 2008; Isikoff and Corn 2006; Rich 2006; Ricks 2006). The main storyline is familiar: the Bush administration advanced a number of factual claims that were either ill supported or plain wrong; the news media relayed and amplified these claims in the absence of much scrutiny; many congressional Democrats, in an effort to settle the war issue before the 2002 midterm election, voted for the war resolution; and the public, with no credible counterweight to the administration's claims, supported the use of military power to remove Saddam Hussein.

While much in this account is correct, in two crucial respects it is clearly wrong. First, while the news media as a whole may have failed the public by insufficiently challenging the administration's claims concerning Iraq, not all news outlets did so. In recounting a story of broad news media failure in the months before the Iraq War, researchers have overlooked the publication of a series of newspaper articles that got the story right. The existence of these critical newspaper accounts, emanating in part from the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau but also other sources, has been acknowledged sporadically in recent years (Massing 2004; Moyers 2007; Rendall 2006; Ricchiardi 2008; Ritea 2004). But previous public opinion researchers have failed to note this exceptional news coverage, leaving unexamined its potential influence on public opinion.

Second, while many public opinion surveys document majority support for the use of military force in the months before the Iraq War, implicitly linking support to the Bush administration's war advocacy, the administration's efforts in promoting war may have been less successful than this link implies. For one, Republicans supported the war well in advance of September 2002, and their support did not increase even after the administration had launched its pro-war campaign. Moreover, other segments of the American polity, namely, Democrats and independents, became increasingly opposed to war during this time period.

We believe it is important to revisit public opinion in the lead-up to the Iraq War for three reasons. First, we show that a close reexamination of public opinion prior to the war challenges the dominant political science model of public deliberation concerning war, a model in which public opinion is driven by political elites, including the administration, congressional leaders, and partisan politicians. Second, we demonstrate that Americans can sift through complex information on foreign policy and arrive at an independent political judgment under the right conditions. Third, our analysis of public opinion in the months before the war illustrates that Americans' ability to sensibly evaluate complex information surrounding government policy depends on the existence of an active and critical press, something that is under growing threat at the present time as the news business struggles to establish a stable economic foundation. Our findings challenge much of what constitutes conventional wisdom about the public and the press.

Democracy and Information

Democracy has long provoked conflicting appraisals. These largely emanate from opposing views of the public and its capacity for thoughtful prudent judgment. Thomas Paine's (1776) defense of democracy in Common Sense and Abraham Lincoln's (1953, 536) celebration of democracy, in his Gettysburg address, as "government of the people, for the people, and by the people" have democracy as the laudatory vehicle that gives full and proper voice to the public's collective will. Critics of democracy have focused their challenge on what they see as the incapacity of the public to provide sober judgment. H. L. Mencken's (1949, 622) quip that "democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard" is representative of a vast opposing literature. Intermediate is the more circumspect construction of Churchill (1947, 7:7566): "Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Our goal is not to assess the virtues and vices of democracy, but rather to answer a more tractable question: What conditions promote, and which undermine, democracy? More specifically, our interest lies in the conditions that allow citizens to evaluate complex political information and make the best decision concerning the future course of government action. We have no illusions about the public. We are acutely aware of the many ways in which human failings undermine the quality of public deliberation (Chong 2013; Taber and Young 2013). Nonetheless a number of institutional factors play a key role in determining how well a democracy functions, including open and competitive elections, laws that protect free expression, active and vigorous contestation between contending parties, and the rise of social movements. The most important factor, however, is the availability of information.

If the public is to influence governmental policy, it must have information. What problems are being pondered by political leaders? How serious are these problems and which are most important? What feasible and practical solutions to such problems are being crafted, discussed, and evaluated by government officials and political elites? What changes to existing policy are being proposed? What are their prospects for success or failure? Information is needed to answer such questions. But such information typically lies outside the daily experiences of most citizens and must be made available from elsewhere. The government and opposing political elites are the primary sources of political facts, arguments, and insights, which then need to be arrayed before the public by an entity such as the press in order to influence everyday political deliberation. If democracy is to be viable, plentiful information must be transparently available to the public so that the public can attend to and make good use of it.

The vital importance of information in a well-functioning democracy leads us to advance two claims. First, while other factors matter, democracy depends on information generated by competing political elites, disseminated and critically evaluated by a free press, and actively used by an engaged electorate. Second, it is more difficult to make democracy work under conditions of war and external threat than under peaceful conditions because the free flow and use of information is often curtailed at such times. The barriers to successful public deliberation are thus high, yet we argue that the public can perform better than these hurdles might imply and conventional wisdom asserts, even when faced with a foreign policy crisis.

Competing Elites, a Free Press, and an Engaged Electorate

We consider three players central to a well-functioning democracy: political parties, the press, and citizens. To more fully understand the conditions under which democracy best operates, we consider each in turn. We turn first to political parties. It is commonly claimed that to function effectively, democracy minimally requires competing elites. Having multiple political parties, goaded by the discipline of recurring elections, ensures that the parties will engage in vigorous public debate about the merits, and demerits, of their respective plans. Visible and vigorous elite debate, debate directed to the citizenry, keeps the public informed and enablescitizens to consider partisan claims and counterclaims to arrive at an informed opinion on the credibility of competing proposals.

When this logic is applied to the formation of government policy, it follows that democracy is best served when a policy proposal advanced by one political party is challenged by another to foster spirited and illuminating public debate. This is not to say that partisan disputes are always in a country's best interests. For instance, under conditions of national threat, one political party often joins another in support of a common policy position in a clear demonstration of bipartisanship. This can lead to swift and decisive action, a potential plus. But it can also obscure or weaken the quality of a chosen course of action, a clear negative. A decision by partisans to join forces in a show of bipartisanship and "put country first" can be beneficial under some circumstances, but it can also worsen democratic decision making. Because united political parties have a common stake in overstating the policy's benefits and minimizing its risks, bipartisanship can hide information on any side bargains made to attain consensus, on the full array of costs, and on risks associated with the policy.

An active and free press is the second key player essential to democracy. One task of the press is to accurately convey ongoing debate among political elites to the attending public. But a free press is expected to do more. It is also expected to critically examine the importance and veracity of various claims and counterclaims advanced by partisans, weigh the evidence, and probe the honesty and accuracy of the points and counterpoints. Hence, when a major political decision is placed before the public, the political system can be judged more democratic when the press not only advances the claims of those on different sides of an issue but also vigorously and independently evaluates such claims and related evidence. This process lies at the heart of investigative journalism, which Alex Jones (2009, 5) describes as "the toughest kind of journalism because it not only takes time and great expertise, it must be done in the face of efforts to keep information secret."

Journalists can check factual claims and lay bare uncertain or dubious assertions. They can seek out experts to verify or challenge swirling suppositions and questionable conclusions. They can identify and reach out to opponents, present their alternative perspectives, and examine their arguments and factual claims. The news media can expose the truth by bringing to light clandestine activities, reports, and conversations. The views of the powerless, the reluctant, and the secretive can be sought and conveyed. The more the press scrutinizes government policy in this way, taking actions that lie at the heart of investigative journalism, the more the press can be judged as aiding democratic debate.

Finally, a well-informed public that deliberates over policy choices presented to it by competing political elites is the third essential ingredient in a healthy democracy (Benhabib 1996; Elkin and Soltan 1999; Rawls 1971). Deliberation here means that the public has "agency." Rather than deferring to others, members of the public use their own capacity for autonomous judgment to determine the best course of action. If democracy is meant to empower the public, it follows that a public that exhibits modest engagement and passive acquiescence is less democratic than a public that is thoughtful, critical, and informed (Bennett and Resnick 1990; Ladd 1978; Schattschneider 1960).

Each of these three elements, taken separately, is vital to a functioning democracy. However, we should not conclude that each factor is independent of the others, each a solitary pillar. In the main, those who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, thought of them as intertwined and interdependent. A close reading of the First Amendment of the Constitution makes this interdependence quite clear. Table 1.1 explicates the common thread of freedom, information, and public debate within democracy, interweaving spirited debate and a free press to enable an energetic and competent electorate. This interdependence is evident in the construction of the First Amendment, which is written as one sentence consisting of three sequential clauses. The order of the clauses is meaningful as each clause is also a foundation for the clause that follows.

The authors of the Bill of Rights believed that the competence of the public and the vitality of the new republic would prove to be mutually reinforcing. Democracy requires multiple intertwined supporting elements, including the absence of an established religion and the positive endorsement of the diversity of religious expression, which together provide the foundation for a legally secured "public sphere" (Habermas 1989). This sphere allows for forceful and open public debate and proffers legal protection for political action that might challenge an existing government or its proposed course of action. Remove, or weaken, any of the precedents and the consequent result will diminish an active and assertive electorate.

In sum, democracy is in greater force when elites take different positions on grave policy matters, thereby generating the conditions for public debate. Democracy is in greater force when a free press covers the debate and probes the claims so as to aid the public in its efforts to arrive at a well-informed opinion. Democracy is in greater force when the engaged public uses elite debate to inform its thoughtful judgment (Fishkin 1991; Warren 1996). And democracy is best served when all three conditions mutually reinforce one another.

The Detrimental Effects of War on Democracy

It has long been understood that war is a robust danger to democracy. Democracy demands wide-ranging and open debate in the making of collective decisions. But war impels reliance on hierarchy and secrecy. Moreover, the normally high status of military service and patriotism are elevated to yet more lustrous levels. During wartime, the military typically asserts more expansive claims to authority, thereby reducing civilian power. Further, war eclipses all other policy claims, which take second place to the demands for national victory.

With respect to information, the claim of a watchful and devious enemy is used to establish wide-ranging schemes of secrecy that often preclude congressional, let alone public, awareness of the true state of affairs (Wills 2010). Democracy presumes equality and, in the American variant, civilian control of the military as well as various checks and balances that empower an independent judiciary to secure the public's political and civil rights. Each of these factors — equality, civilian checks on the military, and judicial power — typically suffers during wartime (Polenberg 1987). Democracy presumes transparency in governmental matters, yet in wartime secrecy is often preeminent. In times of war, claims of national security readily trump concerns about democratic accountability. Democracy presumes the validity of contestation, yet in wartime patriotism can promote obedient subordination to a governing authority and subservience to current political doctrine.


Excerpted from Going to War in Iraq by Stanley Feldman, Leonie Huddy, George E. Marcus. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

Chapter 1.   The Public Responds to a Possible War in Iraq: Confronting Two Conundrum
Chapter 2.   The Skeptical Citizen: Public Uneasiness about Waging War in Iraq
Chapter 3.   Political Leaders Set the Stage for War
Chapter 4.   The News Media Reacts: Channeling and Challenging the Administration
Chapter 5.   The Deliberative Citizen Emerges: Democratic and Independent Opposition to the Iraq War
Chapter 6.   Newspaper Content or Newspaper Readers?
Chapter 7.   Citizen Competence Reconsidered



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