Domestic Costs, the U.S. Public, and the Isolationist Calculus



This article examines and tests two models of the circumstances shaping the extent of the American public&;apos;s isolationist sentiment. The first, termed the “elastic band” model, assumes a constant popular disinclination toward foreign involvements, one that may, at most, temporarily be stretched to accommodate responses to major external threats. A second model assumes the operation of a “cognitive shortcut” based on low-information rationality. It proposes that acceptable levels of domestic involvement depend on the gravity of the domestic opportunity costs of foreign involvement, and it is termed the “domestic costs” model. While the former model implies a constant public resistance to international activism, a resistance that is relaxed only in proportion to the gravity of external threats, the latter model suggests that the U.S. public displays a relatively constant internationalist attitude, and that variations around that threat are largely explained by fluctuations in the perceived domestic opportunity costs of international involvement.

Both models are subjected to statistical testing, a testing that vindicates the domestic costs model. Further insights are obtained by examining attitudes toward internationalism as they are affected by levels of education. Although internationalism increases with education, and although levels of education predict differential impacts of the variables encompassed by the model, each segment of the public seems to operate within the general parameters of the “domestic costs” model.