The first weeks of February have seen rare within-party conflict between the Obama administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill over the President’s continuing policy of using secret drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists. Among the targets of these extrajudicial killings are U.S. citizens, who are normally protected by Fifth Amendment guarantees of due process. Seeing these events through the lens of public attitudes toward government reveals that the public, in large part, holds views of government activity that appear incoherent. This is problematic if we expect democracy to function as a direct translation of public views into policy, but may work out nonetheless if elites can be trusted to act in a more coherent fashion than the members of the public they are charged with representing.

The debate surrounding drone strikes involves relatively nuanced legal argumentation about the proper role of executive, judicial, and legislative branches, as was as fundamental ethical questions about the meaning of “citizenship” and “terrorist,” as well as disagreement over how concerns about national security and individual rights should be balanced.

Recent opinion data show that the public is largely supportive of using drones to combat terrorism. (These numbers are relatively unchanged since a year ago.) Indeed, majorities of Democrats and Republicans are favorable. Republicans seem to have few if any concerns about such strikes, and Democrats appear to be concerned only about so-called “collateral damage” in the form of lost civilian lives.

Only about 30% of the public expressed concern about the legality of drone strikes, contrasting with the debate in Washington, which focuses almost exclusively on questions of legality, morality, and justice.

One of the most important questions scholars of public opinion ask is whether there is or should be congruence between government action and public views. Drone strikes as a focal issue easily invites this constellation of questions. Should the debate in Washington stimulate the public to think more about this issue? Does the apparent lack of widespread public concern mean that government action should continue unchanged from the status quo? Do members of the public understand the issues at stake? Are elites listening to their constituents, and vice versa?

I think there are no clear answers to these questions, but there is reason to be concerned about expecting government to reflect the majority view that drone strikes are acceptable. One critical dimension of concern expressed by Congressional leaders is the extrajudicial and potentially unconstitutional use of drones to kill citizens protected by basic constitutional rights. That this concern is widespread among Democratic elites but relatively rare among members of the public is all the more surprising in light of other recently collected data that suggest the public is skeptical that government will act to protect civil rights.

A separate report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press suggests that citizens generally and Republicans in particular are very concerned about threats that government poses to personal rights and freedoms.

This disconnect between aggregate support for a program that is debated almost exclusively along the dimension of individual, constitutional rights of the accused (see, for example, some debate in the Los Angeles Times) and distrust that the government enacting that program will protect that category of rights is intriguing, and possibly very troubling.

One thing that decades of political science research on public opinion has taught us is that humans struggle to connect their ideology and core values to coherent opinions on political issues. That people express concern about rights on one hand, while supporting a policy that is argued to infringe them on the other is thus unsurprising given empirical evidence on opinion formation, but potentially problematic for governance.

This tension is also felt in the overall trend toward declining trust in government generally, even as support for its most controversial program remains high. In January, Pew published an infographic that reinforced findings I’ve written about previously, which shows that levels of trust in government are at historical lows. The graphic shows that trust has actually spiked up a bit in recent months after reaching historic lows at the beginning of the Obama administration (which were similar to levels at the end of the George H.W. Bush administration).

The historically declining trend in public trust therefore comes at the same time as a relatively novel pattern of public attitudes that view government as a threat rather than guarantor of rights and freedoms, mixed with majority support for a controversial government program.

These tensions reflect the fundamental human process of opinion formation – we respond to the stimuli we receive and we infrequently deliberate on all of that information together in order to form coherent, ideological patterns of opinion toward policy and government. That this is how we operate could be seen as good or bad, but it necessitates that representation of public preferences in government cannot be coherent if each policy must be mapped onto opinion toward that each policy separately.

Instead, representative democracy requires elites to act responsibly, enacting policies that find coherence amidst the chaos of public attitudes. That the American public largely does not trust government to fill that role should be troubling indeed.

About the Author

Thomas J. Leeper

Thomas J. Leeper is a Ph.D. candidate in political science and a graduate fellow of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

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