How Racism Feeds Militarism

While most public opinion research on foreign policy asks the public to evaluate specific policies and interventions, a new working paper by Ohio State political science PhD student and Data for Progress co-founder Jon Green takes the novel approach of measuring support for hypothetical justifications for military intervention against racial attitudes. The research is still in progress, but early returns suggest that being racist — scoring high on a scale Jon calls “Acceptance of Racism” — is associated with increased support for war for oil and attacking terrorist camps. Racism also predicts much lower support for using the military to prevent genocides, support allies, or enforce international law. I spoke with Jon over e-mail to discuss these and other findings, and what they tell us about the future of progressive foreign policy in America.

SR: What do scholars know so far about how people come to their preferences about military intervention?

JG: In general, we know that the public is less supportive of war if they perceive high human costs, and we know that low income communities of color typically shoulder a disproportionate share of those human costs. So in general (though not always), when scholars have looked for a racial dimension to foreign policy attitudes, they’ve found one. Observationally, black citizens became less supportive of the Vietnam War more quickly than their white counterparts. Experimentally, framing opposition to the (then-potential) Iraq War in terms of disproportionate human costs significantly reduced support among black respondents who were high in in-group consciousness (the same experiment found that framing opposition in implicitly as opposed to explicitly racial terms — highlighting the likelihood that war funds would divert resources away from the social safety net — increased support among white respondents who were high in out-group resentment).

With respect to racial attitudes, as opposed to racial identity, most of the work that’s out there has focused on specific conflicts in the Middle East, and not without good reason. Scholars have found both that the targets of American foreign policy in the region are racially constructed, and that support for interventions in the region has consistently been associated with various attitudinal measures that implicate race: value of hierarchy, ethnocentrism, anti-Muslim stereotyping, e.g. However, there’s a growing body of work showing that racial attitudes are becoming increasingly associated with all manner of policy attitudes — from health care to environmental regulation — such that it seemed reasonable to at least check to see if the same sorts of relationships would carry over to uses of military force that less-obviously invoke the Middle East, such as helping the UN uphold international law.

When you say racial attitudes are becoming “increasingly associated” with policy preferences, do you mean that social scientists are becoming more aware of how racial attitudes have long shaped policy preferences, or that  we’re literally seeing an increase in the proportion of policy preferences that can be explained by racial attitudes?

Racial attitudes are increasingly becoming associated with policy preferences in that how someone responds to racial attitudes questions on a survey gives us more information about that respondent’s other political characteristics — their partisan and ideological identifications, who they voted for, what they think about not-obviously-racial public policies, etc. — than it did 30 or even 10 years ago. To steal a chart from this Monkey Cage post:Capture

It’s also true that political scientists are increasingly starting to notice this trend. The same day I dropped my working paper on racial attitudes and military intervention, Salil Benegal — a professor at DePauw — published a paper showing that white Republicans who are more racially resentful are less likely to endorse the scientific consensus on climate change. All this is to say that it’s becoming difficult to study any aspect of US public opinion without accounting for racial attitudes.

Talk me through your top-line results on the effect of both racial identity and racial attitudes on various intervention preferences–what stood out to you?

The finding that stands out for me the most is the relationship between Acceptance of Racism and support (or lack thereof) for using troops to help the UN uphold international law. For some of the other outcomes, like destroying a terrorist camp or ensuring the supply of oil, I was expecting to find a relationship because those policies may call to mind specific political objects with racial connotations — US citizens associate “terrorist” with Arab Muslims; Donald Trump, arguably our country’s foremost racist, repeatedly and emphatically argued that we should take Iraq’s oil. But it wasn’t obvious to me going in that there would be a relationship between racism and support for the UN or international law. And not only is the relationship there, it actually carries even less uncertainty than is the case for the other outcomes and is the best-fitting model of the six. So that’s one of the areas where I need both a bit more theory (though I discuss some historical work in the paper that suggests a mechanism for how that relationship developed) and some additional data. I’m really curious to see a) how different groups of citizens think and talk about the UN and international law more generally and b) what people think of when they think of the UN.


The other thing that I suppose isn’t surprising but is worth noting is that while racial identity was in many cases significant, its substantive effects seem to be largely absorbed by the effects of racial attitudes. As in, holding Acceptance of Racism constant, white and black women have only slightly different predicted probabilities of endorsing the various reasons for intervention…but white and black women have very different average levels of Acceptance of Racism! So the next draft of the paper should probably show versions of the models that don’t include racial attitudes.

I want to touch on another interesting finding in your paper: though having racist beliefs is basically a wash overall on predicting support for war to spread democracy, support for pro-democratic interventions are strongly positively associated with racism among self-identified liberals and strongly negatively associated with racism among self-identified conservatives. How much of a surprise was that result, and does it reframe at all your vision of how the American policymaking community approaches questions of pro-democratic interventions?

I definitely didn’t hypothesize that going in and I don’t have an explanation for it (yet) that carries any empirical support. It’s important to note that this was the least popular and least polarized use of force in general — support among both Clinton and Trump voters was in the mid-teens — about the same as the share of the US that doesn’t support interracial marriage — and there’s some pre-Iraq War work to suggest that this isn’t just because “assist the spread of democracy” calls that unpopular intervention to mind. In general, the public isn’t as supportive of military actions that carry high costs, and people seem to get that spreading democracy by force — even if you buy that we can successfully do so — is extremely costly.

More generally, I think this finding speaks to the fact that the (not exactly unfounded) consensus among a lot of scholars of foreign policy attitudes — a consensus that’s made its way into the policymaking community — is that in all but the most extreme cases the public simply doesn’t have stable attitudes on foreign policy that will actually affect their voting behavior. In general, the public is fairly responsive to elite cues on specific foreign policy actions, so if there’s an elite consensus that intervention is a good idea, the public will follow. But that depends on there being an elite consensus. Given what looks like a baseline predisposition against costly interventions to help establish democracies abroad, ordinary members of both parties seem more likely to side against pro-democracy promotion arguments if other elites they trust are arguing against such intervention. Even in a Republican primary, Jeb! et al seemed to find themselves on the defensive when Trump broke their (minus Rand Paul) consensus that “nation-building” was worth it and the Iraq War was a good idea.

Your last point is, I think, of particular interest to a left foreign policy blog. How might progressive defectors from the elite Democratic foreign policy consensus find popular political support?

I’m not sure I have any advice that I’d lean too hard into, given how preliminary some of these findings are, but I think in general it seems that as the political parties continue to polarize on racial attitudes (and as the Trump administration continues to be a caricature of the merger between racism and imperialism) it isn’t absurd to expect the Democratic base to shift left on foreign policy such that, at the very least, it isn’t obvious that progressives should be afraid to criticize the elite consensus on foreign policies that I think we just don’t spend very much time talking about — and criticize it in terms that link racial injustices produced by our actions abroad to the struggle against racial inequalities at home.

Are there other understudied areas of foreign policy attitude formation where you think there are significant gains to be made in explaining where preferences come from?

At least within the field of political science, the area of foreign policy attitude formation that I think needs a lot more work is history. It can be difficult to empirically show exactly how the present has been shaped by the past, but I keep stumbling on historical accounts that make it seem incredibly obvious that, given how US foreign policy has been conducted and articulated in the past — and given how foreign policy debates have implicated domestic racial politics in the past — these attitudes should polarize along racial lines today. So the next step in this project is probably an experiment to separate political identity from racial attitudes in explaining present-day foreign policy opinion, but the step after that will probably be a bit retrospective.

I want to start a tradition of FTB reading recommendations, so what’s the best thing you’ve read recently? Doesn’t have to be related to your paper, just a book/article/whatever that you think more people should check out.

I’m currently in the middle of Ideology and US Foreign Policy, which is a historical account of how the US’s foreign policy developed as a function of the need to reconcile individual freedom and republicanism with the conception of national greatness — and how racism was used to navigate that contradiction. It’s helped me clarify my thinking on where to take this project going forward, and in general I think everyone should be taking history more seriously with respect to these questions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jon Green is a political science PhD student at Ohio State and the co-founder of Data for Progress.

Sam Ratner is an MPA candidate at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, concentrating in international security policy. He studies civil wars, statebuilding, and southern Africa.

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