Public opinion and the use of force

There is, by now, a substantial amount of research on the determinants of public support for the use of military force, most of it focused on the United States, however.5 Overall, we can distinguish also here at least three waves of studies on the determinants of public support for the use of force.

Besides a first, pre-theoretical stage, before World War II, in which the main attention was on ways of measuring attitudes toward war,6 the end of World War II generated a complacent consensus about the willingness of the public to support war and the use of force under a wide set of circumstances. This complacency melted away with the Vietnam war which brought forth an 'agonizing reappraisal' of the nature of the alleged 'permissive consensus', generating a spate of studies about support for war heavily critical of the Americans' willingness to approve the use of force. Out of this reappraisal, a new consensus emerged: public support for the use of force was limited and short-lived at best, fickle and uncertain at worst.

With the end of the Cold War and the experience of the Gulf War of 1991 this conclusion was turned upside down, showing that, under some (perhaps, very specific) conditions, war and support could indeed go together. The Post-Cold War period saw many instances in which force was used, albeit with mixed ratings in public support. The 9/11 terrorist attack and the Iraq war of 2003 tested these changed conditions once again, adding some further qualifications to the Post-Cold War optimistic reading of public support for the use of force.

An appropriate way to synthesize the vast and differentiated literature on this topic is to recur to the well-known metaphor of the 'funnel of causality' by Campbell and collaborators (1960), in which, moving from the most distal factors to those proximate to the situation we have a flow of three blocks of independent variables, considered at different times and by different perspectives as the most important in explaining support for war and the use of force: socio-demographic, predispositional and situational variables.

Socio-demographic explanations look at socio-economic and group characteristics of the respondent to differentiate levels of support for the use of force. As we will see, race, education and gender are among the variables more frequently singled out for explanation, with socio-economic status and age much less frequently invoked.

Predispositional variables explain support for the use of force looking at the ideas and beliefs of the public, referring either to the general

The funnel of causality in support for the use of force

Figure 2.1 The funnel of causality in support for the use of force

ideological stance of the respondent or to more specific posture-based predispositions, such as internationalism (Caspary, 1970; McClosky, 1960), authoritarianism (McClosky, 1958) or self-esteem (Sniderman and Citrin, 1971).

Situationally-driven explanations look at the structure of the situation, and in particular at the conditions and events occurring in the external world, to explain support for the war. Here, casualties have assumed a great importance in discussions on the determinants of support for the war, but they are not the only factors in this category. Predispositions and elements of the situation are often considered in combination, with varying interaction among the two7 (see Figure 2.1).

Over time, attention has shifted progressively from socio-demographic variables back in the 1950s and 1960s, to predispositional factors in the 1970s and 1980s to end up with situational variables in the 1990s and 2000s. It is time, we argue, to be true to the funnel metaphor, to see them all in combination and to see whose interaction very much affects the position people take on decisions as momentous as those related to the use of national force.

In our review, we focus exclusively on those studies that report results about specific policy preferences on the use of military force, although we cannot ignore that some variables, such as race and gender, can impact on policy preferences related to the use of force either directly or mediated by the structure of beliefs - typically the degree of internationalism/ isolationism. For this purpose, in some cases we will refer to the relationships between particular demographic variables and the structure of beliefs, because of their indirect impact on support for the use of force.

In reviewing the results, we start off with the socio-economic characteristics of the individual or of the groups to whom s/he belongs. Next, we examine the predispositional factors, consisting of a general ideological position or more specific policy postures. Last, we look at the characteristics of the situation and we then conclude by discussing the mediated models that stress the intervening role of media and elite framing in shaping the relationships between events and support for the war.

 
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