Public Opinion and the Pitfall of Perilous Events

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Perilous times are nothing new to the world; either of the World Wars, the Korean War, or the Cold War, among others, are all formidable examples of dangerous circumstances that affected many countries, including the United States. One glance at any newspaper across the world will confirm the fact that we are once again in such a time period. Different from a time when people could get news from only a few sources, today’s environment with social media, unlimited texting, and new apps on smart phones creates a whirlwind of fast-paced information that is accessible to virtually everyone. As people in a global twenty-first century, we are highly aware of what is going on in the world. Accordingly, there is a wide range of opinions that are constantly being shaped by current events. In fact, scholars have studied how these opinions change and their implications for US policy.

For example, Jennifer Lawless, a highly-accredited gender scholar, conducted a study on the effects of wartime on people’s willingness to support a qualified female presidential candidate. This study was conducted less than a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks in an effort to understand public opinion in a war-infused context. Before asking about female leaders, she asks respondents how important foreign policy is to them generally, in which she finds that people ranked foreign policy very highly. This finding solidifies the fact that people cared deeply about foreign policy, which indicates that foreign policy was an important factor when respondents were taking other parts of the survey. When asked about gendered roles, the respondents preferred male leaders because they saw them as more competent and able to address the security issues that surfaced as a result of the terrorist attacks. In agreement with other scholarship, Lawless found that “voters are more likely to view men than women as strong, assertive, confident foreign policy experts.” [1] Further, respondents who had more aggressive military views had even stronger preferences for men to lead over women. Most importantly, however, she asserts that these opinions are not a result of deeply rooted convictions; instead, they are a result of policy preferences about current events which, in this case, favor male leaders.

In a different context, Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the CATO institute and expert on national security and intelligence surveillance, commented on people’s changing policy preferences. Again referencing the September 11 events as the turning point, Sanchez explains that the American people have  “relentlessly ratcheted up government’s spying powers, assured that only by trading away ever more privacy could we guarantee safety.” [2] The Patriot Act is just one example of legislation that the American public openly supported at the height of wartime. Later, however, the Freedom Act was passed in an effort to effectively reverse the Patriot Act. Political leanings aside, it goes without saying that such a stark reversal of policy as impactful as these pieces in less than a 20-year time span is a reason for pause. Moreover, the inception of both of these pieces was undeniably a direct result of increased attention on world events that were impacting the United States.

Both of these perspectives highlight the influence of war on not only public opinion but the policy itself. These studies show that democracy is alive and well. Knowing that our opinions are considered and affect legislation should cause us to reflect on what we are advocating for. In the end, we need to exercise caution in allowing ourselves to be swayed by current events. While contemporary events should certainly be an important consideration in our decisions and opinions, we should also research and study the events ourselves. Let us choose to take the time to understand what is really going on rather than letting ourselves get caught up in the whirlwind of information, knowing that the fate of our country ultimately rests in our hands.

[1] Lawless, Jennifer L. “Women, war, and winning elections: Gender stereotyping in the post-September 11th era.” Political Research Quarterly 57.3 (2004): 479-490.

[2] Sanchez, Julian. “Snowdenversary Gifts for Privacy Advocates.” The Cato Institute. June 5, 2015. http://www.cato.org/blog/snowdenversary-gifts-privacy-advocates.

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