The following guest post is by Chris Gelpi, who was on the receiving end of some Senatorial criticism about his NSF grant.
Representative Flake has argued that Political Science research does not deserve public support primarily because we “try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.” Last year Senator Tom Coburn launched a similar effort and the central complaint of both politicians seems to be that Political Science research is either irrelevant to the public’s welfare or reaches conclusions that are banal and obvious.
I was fortunate enough to be the recipient of one of the NSF grants (#0819038) singled out by Senator Coburn as objectionable, so I thought I would share some of my results. The study explored how Americans construct their attitudes toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bulk of the grant money paid for a series of surveys that included several experiments. Each experiment included news story about ongoing combat operations in Iraq or Afghanistan as well as commentary from a Democratic or Republican politician. I randomly varied whether the news events and the commentary were positive or negative about the war.
The study found that people responded to news events rather than to partisan commentary about the wars. Perhaps even more importantly, the study found that people responded to surprising news events that contradicted their expectations. So Democrats (and Independents) who received a “good news” story became more supportive of the wars, while Republicans who received “bad news” stories became less supportive.
These results are “good news” for American public policy in the sense that they show that Americans can make reasoned choices about their support for war that are independent of statements from their party leaders. This ability is the first step in making it possible for the public to influence public policy in this area.
In the process of presenting and writing up these results, however, a number of people pointed out that the effect of good news and bad news stories was still not as large as the remaining partisan gap in war support. If people update their views in response to the news rather than party leaders, how did we end up with such a partisan divide over the war?
This question led me to a follow-on study using data from this same grant to study the effect of the cable news on public attitudes toward Iraq and Afghanistan. Everyone knows that Republicans are more likely to watch Fox and Democrats are more likely to watch MSNBC. But does choosing these different news outlets actually change people’s attitudes? Through the process of statistical matching, I separated out the causal impact of watching Fox, MSNBC, and Comedy Central from the process by which people choose to watch those programs.
My results show that watching Fox News had a substantial persuasive impact on support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan even after we account for which people choose to watch Fox. MSNBC and Comedy Central had much more modest – but sometimes significant – effects.
This combination of results reveals a much more complex connection between public opinion and American foreign policy than the banal relationship that Flake and Coburn seem to anticipate. The public is capable of forming coherent and independent attitudes about war. But at the same time the public is limited by its dependence on an increasingly partisan and fractured media environment.
These two studies also illustrate the catalytic effect of NSF support for Political Science research. The support that I received to analyze my initial question about news events and Iraq allowed me both to ask and to answer additional questions that were raised by that research. This is but one tiny example of the enormous spillover effects that flow from many of the Political Science projects funded by NSF.