The Determinants of US Public Opinion Towards Democracy Promotion


In this paper, I evaluate two competing perspectives regarding what underlies the public’s support for democracy promotion—a democratic values-based perspective positing that the public’s support for democracy promotion is based on a principled desire to spread American values, beliefs, and ideologies to other countries, and a national interests-based perspective claiming that it is based on a rational desire of Americans to advance the US’ political and economic interests abroad. Using a survey experiment, I find that, in general, Americans are not driven by either democratic values or national interests to support democracy promotion even though they believe that democracy promotion is in the interests of both the recipient country and the United States. Only a subset of the population is motivated to support democracy promotion for the sake of democratic values. This subset of the population is driven by cosmopolitanism—that is, a sense of concern for the welfare of those living in other countries and a sense of moral responsibility to promote democracy abroad derived from the US’ position as a world leader, not national pride.

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    Pew Research Center America’s Place in the World, December 2009. A 2005 poll by The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and the CCFR found that only 27 % of those polled said “helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations,” was “very important” and 19 % said that it was “not at all important”. See: PIPA/CCFR “Americans on Promoting Democracy,” September 2005.

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    Pew Center Research, “Public Remains Opposed to Arming Syrian Rebels”, June 17, 2013.

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    PIPA/CCFR“Americans on Promoting Democracy” September 2005.

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    German Marshall Fund, “Transatlantic Trends”, June 6–24, 2006.

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    Pew Research Center,“Public Wary of Military Intervention in Libya,” March 14, 2011.

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    Pew Research Center, “Public Remains Opposed to Arming Syrian Rebels,” June 17, 2013.

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    See: America’s Place in the World“; Worldviews 2002.

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    PIPA/CCFR “Americans on Promoting Democracy,” September 2005; Pew Research Center “Public Wary of Military Intervention in Libya,” March 14, 2011; Megan Thee-Brenan, “Poll Shows Isolationist Streak in Americans,” New York Times, April 30, 2013.

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    Examples: (Haiti): Gallup, September 23–25, 1994; (Kosovo): Gallup/CNN/USA Today Poll, March 30–31,1999; (Iraq): CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, March 22–23, 2003 and Libya (2011) Gallup, March 21, 2011. (Syria): Pew, June 12–16, 1993.

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    Pew Global Attitudes Project: Spring 2007, June 27, 2007. Question 34: “And which comes closer to describing your view? The United States promotes democracy wherever it can, or the United States promotes democracy where it serves its interests.”

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    Democracy is defined here as countries scoring a five or above on the Polity II Index. See: Monty G. Marshall, Keith Jaggers, and Ted Robert Gurr. 2011. Polity IV Project: Dataset Users Manual. Center for Systemic Peace: Polity IV Project.

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    The number of participants in each of the experimental conditions was as follows: treatment 1 (recipient country benefit) = 392; treatment 2 (moral responsibility) = 384; treatment 3 (national interests) = 434; control = 392. See below for a description of the experimental conditions.

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    People’s responses to these questions were not significantly different across experimental conditions according to χ2 tests.

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    A chi-square test is a goodness-of-fit test, which compares observed frequency distributions with the theoretical or expected frequency distribution to determine whether the deviations between the observed and the expected counts are too large to be attributed to chance. It generalizes the Z test, which is appropriate when only two proportions are being compared in the data.

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    If I interact these demographic characteristics with each of the treatment conditions, the interaction effects do not have statistically significant effects on support for democracy promotion.

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    People can recommend more than one type of action.

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    Pew Center Polls. Pew Global Attitudes Project: Spring 2007, June 27, 2007.

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    The public opinion polls on which this statement is based are as follows: (1): “As a rule US foreign policy should pursue US interests, which sometimes means promoting democracy and sometimes means supporting non-democratic governments.” Responses: 54 % agree, 38 % disagree and 8 % no answer; (2) “Do you think the US should or should not support a country becoming a democracy if there is a high likelihood that the people will elect an Islamic fundamentalist leader?” Responses: 54 % should not; 32 % should; 15 % no answer. See: PIPA/Chicago Council Polls, September 15–21, 2005.


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The author would like to thank Steve Smith and the Weidenbaum Center at Washington University in St. Louis for their support in conducting the survey experiment, as well as Ingrid Anderson, Ian MacMullen, and Bob Shapiro for their helpful comments and advice on this project. This project was funded by a Weidenbaum Center grant.

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Correspondence to Dawn Brancati.

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Brancati, D. The Determinants of US Public Opinion Towards Democracy Promotion. Polit Behav 36, 705–730 (2014).

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  • Democracy promotion
  • Public opinion
  • Survey experiment