The Expert and Public Opinion Gap

Dear Kids (and the rest of America's young'uns I've unofficially adopted): This week I'd like to introduce you to John Q. Public, by way of an "interview."

This "interview" with the American public was based on a composite of majority positions in response to a multitude of poll questions. It was written by Professor Steven Kull on behalf of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) -- an outfit that studies public opinion on international issues.

Q: So you like the way the U.S. is involved in the world?

A: Well, I didn't say that. Before Sept. 11, I felt that the U.S. played the dominant role -- like being the world policeman -- more than it should. And I still feel that way now. It seems like we always feel that we have to be out front as the big world leader. I'd like to see that ramped down some.

Q: So it does sound like you want to disengage from the world somewhat.

A: No. I just want to see the U.S. work together with other countries more -- have the U.S. do its share in solving problems together with other countries. I don't like being the Lone Ranger so much. We should work through the U.N. more.

Q: But since the U.N. Security Council refused to back the war against Iraq, haven't you soured on the U.N.?

A: Well, I was disappointed that the U.N. failed to come to an agreement on Iraq. But that does not mean I don't want to keep trying to work through the U.N. I do. In fact, I would like to see the U.N. play an even bigger role in the world than it does now.

Q: Why is it so important to work in these multilateral ways?

A: Well, first of all, I don't like us having to do the job all by ourselves. I'd rather share the burden. But it's also that the U.N. just has the right to do things the U.S. does not necessarily have the right to do. So it's probably going to work better because it's not just the U.S. throwing its weight around. (To read the whole interview go to

What's most interesting about this internationalist, multilateral, majority view in America is that it has remained consistent for decades, despite the massive amount of "expert opinion" and propaganda that constantly and ideologically views America's collective opinion as inconsistent, incoherent and downright ignorant.

The truth is, "we seem to have a rational public and an ideological ruling class," as I.M. Destler wrote in an essay called "The Reasonable Public and the Polarized Policy Process."

"We were taught in school that our founding fathers sought a republic, not a democracy, to provide buffers for extremes in public sentiment. But today's America has turned James Madison on his head. It is the people that seem sensible and stable."

Overwhelming majorities, in poll after poll, not only support the United Nations; majority public opinion also favors U.S. participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Poll after poll, year after year, indicates a strong preference for multilateral, not Bush-style unilateralism, in U.S. international engagement.

Destler's study also points out that "Americans do want to cut foreign aid, but this is apparently because they estimate U.S. spending at 15 to 30 times its actual amount; they support it overwhelmingly in principle."

Here's the kicker: "When these results -- drawing on all extant opinion surveys -- were presented to sophisticated Washington practitioners, they expressed skepticism, and suggested that such public support is soft."

So Destler asked these "experts" to write the poll questions themselves, and guess what? Even when the naysayers asked the questions, they got the same results.

Where did this myth of a moody, ignorant and inconsistent public come from, contrary to the evidence? Who does it serve? What does this say about all that "democracy and freedom" we're supposed to be bringing to the world?

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