In preparation for a conference paper (warning: large pdf) due in a couple of months, I’ve been carefully reading a number of academic articles about the failure of the public sphere (or if you prefer, the “marketplace of ideas“) to function effectively during periods of foreign policy crisis. The post-9/11 period featured limited debate about many foreign policy choices — leading to the Iraq war, for example.
Keep in mind that I’m a proponent of deliberative democracy and would like to see “the” public sphere function effectively in all political contexts. If national or global public spheres break down during periods of foreign policy crises, then there’s almost no hope of achieving a communicatively rational outcome. The discussion would simply be too distorted by power and barren of truly open and inclusive debate.
Political scientists Ron Krebs and Jennifer Lobasz have argued that political opponents could not effectively challenge the proposed Iraq war during 2002 and 2003 because the Bush administration had effectively fixed the meaning of 9/11 in the public debate. In other words, the “war on terror” frame was overwhelming and political opponents had been rhetorically coerced into acquiescence with it.
My ongoing research into counterpublic spheres potentially offers a means for public sphere theory to survive this challenge. Based on some recent research, even scholarly critique could offer a means to resist the hegemony of war and security frames.
However, much of the literature on foreign policy debate is quite pessimistic — the public sphere all-too-often seems threatened even during periods of normal (non-crisis) policy.
For example, interesting research published by sociologist Steven Clayman and colleagues, which examined presidential press conference questioning from 1953-2000, found that the press, which is an important institution in a functional public sphere, is generally much more deferential about foreign policy than about other issues. The scholars studied more than 4600 press conference questions through that time (Clayman and colleagues are only now updating their data to account for the post-2000 era).
The Columbia Journalism Review had a note about the study’s conclusion in May/June 2007:
White House journalists were twice as likely to be ”cautious and deferential”on foreign and military affairs as on domestic matters, a finding that held through periods of war and peace, recession and prosperity.
Another blurb about the Clayman et al study appeared in Utne in the November-December 2007 issue. This note speculates on possible explanations for the failure to question presidents on foreign policy:
while economic developments, such as spikes in unemployment, have historically spurred journalists to ask adversarial questions, administrations’ edicts on foreign policy tend to go unchallenged. The researchers speculate that journalists’ timidity might stem from their limited access to independent information on foreign affairs, or it could be that their patriotism has a tempering effect.
While my own work on transparency speaks to the secrecy issue, I’ve linked also to an academic article by Jane Kellett Cramer, which finds that “norms of militarized patriotism” served to limit debate in the leadup to the Iraq war.
Cramer suggests that a “militarized political culture” was established in the US during the cold war era (receding somewhat during the Vietnam era), which means that virtually all foreign policy debate in the US was artificially limited for decades — whether during crisis or not.
And now this form of militarization is arguably back.