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Assuming the Costs of War: Events, Elites, and American Public Support for Military Conflict


Adam J. Berinsky is associate professor of political science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139.


Many political scientists and policymakers argue that unmediated events—the successes and failures on the battlefield—determine whether the mass public will support military excursions. The public supports war, the story goes, if the benefits of action outweigh the costs of conflict. Other scholars contend that the balance of elite discourse influences public support for war. I draw upon survey evidence from World War II and the current war in Iraq to come to a common conclusion regarding public support for international interventions. I find little evidence that citizens make complex cost/benefit calculations when evaluating military action. Instead, I find that patterns of elite conflict shape opinion concerning war. When political elites disagree as to the wisdom of intervention, the public divides as well. But when elites come to a common interpretation of a political reality, the public gives them great latitude to wage war.