Informed Public Opinion about Foreign Policy: The Uses of Deliberative Polling

By Brady, Henry E.; Fishkin, James S. et al. | Brookings Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Informed Public Opinion about Foreign Policy: The Uses of Deliberative Polling


Brady, Henry E., Fishkin, James S., Luskin, Robert C., Brookings Review


Only one-sixth of the respondents to a January 12, 2003, poll for the Knight-Ridder newspapers knew that none of the September 11 terrorist hijackers was an Iraqi citizen. One-third said they did not know whether the hijackers were Iraqis, and almost half (44 percent) said that some or most of them were from Iraq. Almost two-thirds thought that "Iraq and Al Qaeda--Osama bin Laden's organization--are allied and working together to plan new acts of terrorism." And two-thirds said that the United States should "take military action to disarm Iraq and ensure that it cannot threaten other countries with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons."

It is hard to know exactly how far these beliefs were causally linked--to what extent the plurality belief that some or most of the hijackers were from Iraq led to the majority belief that Iraq was allied with Al Qaeda and from that in turn to the majority belief that the United States should take military action to disarm Iraq. But the combination of support for military action with such striking ignorance and misinformation is troubling--the more so, considering that two-thirds of the same Knight-Kidder respondents thought they had "a good understanding of the arguments for and against going to war with Iraq."

Strong feelings undergirded by scanty knowledge are hardly new to American public opinion about foreign policy. In a book and article of the mid-1950s, Harold Isaacs found among Americans a new awareness and sense of "worried urgency" about Asia, accompanied by images of the continent that were little more than "scratches on our minds." Much the same now could probably be said about American public opinion toward the Arab world. When Isaacs wrote, the United States was already waging war in Korea and would later do so in Vietnam. Now we have just finished waging war in Iraq. Whatever one's position on these wars, we think it worrisome that public attitudes toward them, whether supportive or critical, typically rest on such limited information. Is there some way of doing better--of glimpsing better informed and more considered public opinion concerning America's role in the world?

One approach is Deliberative Polling, which surveys a random sample of Americans both before and after they have had a chance to deliberate about certain issues. The sample is first interviewed, then invited to gather for a weekend. They are sent carefully balanced (and publicly available) briefing materials. On-site, they discuss the issues in randomly assigned small groups led by trained moderators and then pose questions developed in the small groups to panels of experts and political leaders. Parts of the discussions are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. At the end, the participants are asked again the same questions posed initially. The resulting distribution of opinion represents the conclusions the public would reach if people knew and thought more about the issues.

This proposal is not just theoretical. On January 10-12, 2003, we collaborated with MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, the National Issues Forums, and others to conduct a Deliberative Poll on foreign policy issues as part of a project called By the People: America in the World. The participants in the 2003 poll in Philadelphia were a scientifically chosen random sample of 343 American citizens, aged 18 and older. They matched the country's adult citizenry in age, education, sex, region, ethnicity, race, occupation, employment status, military service, religious belief, religious attendance, and union membership. In microcosm, the sample was America. What did they conclude?

The Deliberative Poll on Iraq and International Security

Before coming to Philadelphia, the participants completed a 40-minute telephone interview about their views on fighting terrorism, controlling weapons of mass destruction, protecting human rights, promoting democracy, providing foreign aid, solving global environmental problems, promoting international trade, and other topics. …

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