Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism

Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism

Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism

Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism

Synopsis

Do American policymakers really know what the American public wants in U. S. foreign policy? Through extensive interviews with members of the policy community, the authors reveal a pervasive belief--especially in Congress--that, in the wake of the cold war, the public is showing a new isolationism: opposition to foreign aid, hostility to the United Nations, and aversion to contributing U. S. troops to peacekeeping operations. This view of the public has in turn had a significant impact on U. S. foreign policy. However, through a comprehensive review of polling data, as well as focus groups, the authors show that all these beliefs about the public are myths. The public does complain that the United States is playing the role of dominant world leader more than it should, but this does not lead to a desire to withdraw. Instead people prefer to share responsibility with other nations, particularly through the UN. The authors offer explanations of how such a misperception can occur and suggest ways to improve communication between the public and policymakers, including better presentation of polling data and more attention by practitioners to a wider public.

Excerpt

The following two statements are edited versions ofcomments made at the October 20, 1997, conference in Washington, D. C., at which the findings of this study were presented. Two pollsters, one who works for Republican candidates and one who works for Democrats, were asked to comment on the findings of the study in light of their experience. Fred Steeper, president of Market Strategies, has been a pollster for the presidential campaigns of George Bush and Robert Dole as well as other Republican candidates. Celinda Lake, president of Lake Snell Perry, has been a pollster for President Bill Clinton and other Democratic candidates.

To use a technical term, there is a great deal of "good stuff" in this study. As a review and analysis of public opinion and of practitioners' perceptions of it, it is excellent. A misreading of the public on foreign policy issues by policymakers does take place and, indeed, the public is not as isolationist, anti-UN, anti-UN peacekeeping, or anti-foreign aid as many policymakers tend to believe.

I think that this misinterpretation on the part of policymakers is due to two recent and important changes in public opinion. The first is that . . .

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