You think you’re riding Seabiscuit, but you’re just a kid on a carousel ride.
American citizens place great value on public opinion. From the polls blasting from our television screens, to the pie charts and graphs plastered across internet news pages, citizens are not only interested in what the public believes, but also think to some extent that the political elite are looking at these graphs and taking the cue. Consider the joyful American who punches his fist triumphantly in the air when ABC news publishes poll results declaring his opinion to be the most popular and he thinks to himself that perhaps this will change a law he doesn’t like. He notices the law isn’t changing and so he joins an interest group in hopes that this will result in a change. This simple scenario brings about an important question about the public and it’s presence in foreign policy: What kind of impact does public opinion have on decision makers?
Public opinion is largely ignored by the foreign policy elite because the mass public is uninformed. There are three opinion groups: the mass public, the attentive public (about 15% of Americans), and the foreign policy elite (about 1%). The mass public is similar to George Kennan’s famous dinosaur illustration. The monster (public opinion) has a huge body, a small brain, and is so self-interested that it is unaware of external troubles. Kennan remarks that, “you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed.” Once the monster realizes, he creates a disaster destroying not only his foe but his home as well.
Public opinion has little bearing on foreign policy and this is evidenced by policymakers rarely venturing into the constantly changing extremes of the public viewpoint. The incidental impact of public opinion isn’t nearly as interesting as the question of what impact the official presentation of foreign policy has on public opinion. Consider that when an incident does occur, the largely uninformed masses look to news from the government for information. The government in turn portrays their stance in the light they want to the public to see. Like the dinosaur finally being provoked into action, the volatile and incoherent public roars in anger grasping the little information they have and they begin making extreme and uncalculated demands. Public opinion, which comprises mainly of mass public opinion, is a reflection of the information the government issues and this is of no use to policy makers.