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2 April 2006

Berinsky on Group Attachments and War

During the spring break edition of PPBW, Adam Berinsky of MIT presented a paper entitled "Group Attachments and Public Support for War." That voters use group attachments to structure their political attitudes has a long history in political science. Converse found that while the mass public did not exhibit any ideological sophistication, group attachments could be used as a proxy to guide voters when making decisions. Although this idea has been applied to areas of domestic policy, Berinsky argues that it may be also useful in explaining public opinion about foreign affairs, specifically attitudes toward World War II.

According to the paper, dislike of German and Italian citizens was clearly associated with increased support for pro-intervention policies. Similarly, respondents whose parents were born in Axis countries were less likely to support helping England during 1940 and 1941. Moreover, Berinsky finds that these ethnic differences in attitudes persist even after Pearl Harbor - those of German and Italian descent continued to trust England and Russia less than those whose parents were born in Allied countries. He also presents evidence that group attachments might help explain attitudes on foreign policy matters other than war. Attitudes toward blacks were an important predictor of support for sanctions against South Africa during apartheid, and attitudes toward Asians were an important predictor of whether respondents blamed Japan for economic difficulties in the early 1990s.

The paper responds to several literatures - including those who argue that foreign policy attitudes are shaped largely by events (such as battlefield causalities). Some questions were raised about whether events might structure attitudes towards groups rather than the other way around. For example, it is possible that the dislike of Mussolini led to anti-Italian sentiment, but Berinsky shows that such feelings existed even during the 1920s. Many suggestions were offered about additional cases to help solidify the argument. One obivous case - attitudes towards Arab Americans shaping public opinion about the war on terrorism - seems to suffer from lack of adequate data, as most relevant questions were asked post 9/11, making it difficult to separate the theory of group attachments from the event-driven hypothesis. Nevertheless, there are other cases where group attachments seem promising in explaining attitudes toward foreign policy.

Posted by Ian Yohai at April 2, 2006 11:30 PM