The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 45, No. 5, October 2001, New Haven
The public reaction to the recent terrorist attacks on U.S. soil provides a textbook example of the "rally around the flag" effect. No longer is Commander in Chief George W. Bush a questionable president with anemic approval ratings; instead he has suddenly become the nation's leader, supported by an overwhelming majority of the electorate. Sound familiar? Cast your mind back 11 years to the Gulf War, when George Bush Senior's popular support followed a similar upward trajectory.
Although recent events and anecdotal historical evidence suggest that this tendency for the public to rally around national leaders in times of crisis is quite real, some researchers are still keen to play down the phenomenon. A notable example is the article "Patriotism or Opinion Leadership?" by mathematician William D. Baker and political scientist John R. Oneal, which appeared in the October 2001 issue of The Journal of Conflict Resolution, a bimonthly publication out of Yale University and sponsored by the Peace Science Society (International).
The authors analyze 167 international military disputes involving the United States between 1933 and 1992, covering every president from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George Herbert Walker Bush. They find that, over this period, the rally effect was "neither as sizeable nor as certain" as is often made out. Even hostile situations that "seriously threaten the nation's economic, political, and strategic interests" only produced a limited boost in presidential popularity. Baker and Oneal also argue that, during international crises, the U.S. public normally does not unite behind the president out of any heightened sense of patriotism. Rather, what matters most is "how effectively the White House manages the presentation of the dispute through presidential statements, prominent media coverage, and the garnering of bipartisan support."
How do these conclusions square with the recent surge of popular support for George W. Bush? The bulk of conflicts analyzed by Baker and Oneal were small-scale affairs in which U.S. security was not directly threatened. In these smaller disputes, there have clearly been limits to the rally effect. As Bush Senior found to his cost, the Gulf War proved insufficient to save him from defeat in the 1992 election. However, the current war on terrorism is very different. The American homeland has been attacked. Images of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon in flames evoke memories not of the Gulf War, Somalia, or Kosovo, but rather of large-scale, epochal events like Pearl Harbor and Vietnam.
By developing categories such as "hostility levels" and "crisis severity," Baker and Oneal attempt to capture the clear differences between large and small incidents. But their methodology still leaves much to the imagination. For instance, there is no way of distinguishing between the "total war" of the 1940s and the more limited conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Nor do the authors gauge the extent to which certain pivotal international crises exerted a lingering impact on popular attitudes, thus influencing public reaction to later conflicts. After all, Pearl Harbor did not just rally the public behind President Roosevelt. It also cast a long shadow over American life in the 1940s and 1950s, engendering anxiety and insecurity and boosting support for firm presidential actions in the early Cold War era. Moreover, Vietnam was not just a war in which the "rally effect" soon waned. It also made the public far more wary of presidential saber-rattling in the decades that followed.
In 2001, as in 1941, there clearly was a "rally effect" after a shocking and unexpected attack on the American homeland. But how long might this current rally last? As Baker and Oneal would argue, the answer depends partly on how effectively President Bush uses the "bully pulpit." He has certainly made a good start, delivering an impassioned message to Congress, carefully warning the public that there is a long, hard struggle ahead, and trying to forge a cooperative relationship with the U.S. media. But Bush's task will surely become harder if the conflict drags on and casualties mount. The president would do well to consider the model of Franklin Roosevelt, an inspirational leader who steered America successfully through a long and bitter struggle.
Even after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt never took public support for granted. Instead, he responded to ebbs and flows in popular morale, worked to undermine isolationism, and sustained a broad consensus over a long period. Roosevelt's reward was not simply to win the war. In 1944, he also gained reelection for an unprecedented fourth term.