Public Opinion and War

Political scientist Scott Althaus was here last week and had a lot of interesting things to say about war and public opinion.  Here is one tidbit.  The public’s opinion of past wars improves as a new war approaches.  Thus, after Vietnam most people thought the war was a mistake and this held true for decades until the beginning of the Iraq war when the opinion of war in Vietnam suddenly improved!  Even more dramatically, a majority of people thought that World War I was a mistake until World War II approached when the percentage thinking it was a good war doubled.  This is especially perverse in that any rational response has got to see WWI as a bigger mistake the more probable is WWII. 

Althaus also shows, in Priming Patriots, that the intensity of new coverage typically increases support for war – regardless of whether the coverage is negative or positive.  Until negative news becomes overwhelming and long-lasting, more coverage simply rallies the martial spirit, encourages solidarity and solidifies support for the war.  This explains a lot.

What checks on democracy are required to deal with the irrationality of public opinion about war? 


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