Thinking Aloud: “Ignorance, Partisanship Drive False Beliefs about Obama, Iraq”

Jan. 7, 2015 by Darius

It’s hard to agree on a course of action when the facts are in dispute.  That adage holds true nowhere more than foreign policy.  Unfortunately, when it comes to basic facts, Americans are still quite divided not on how to respond to ISIS but on the last war—the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  According to a new poll released by Fairleigh Dickinson University, a majority of Republicans believe, falsely, that US troops found an active Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program.

The purported existence of an Iraqi WMD program was a major justification the US used to build support for the invasion of Iraq.  When it became clear that Iraq had no such program, it was a major blow to US credibility and prestige worldwide.  Except many Americans still believe it to be true.  Overall, 42% of Americans said it was “probably” or “definitely” true that the US found an active Iraqi WMD program.  There was a major difference in results by political party affiliation, though, with only 32% of Democrats but 51% of Republicans responding in this way.  Based on these findings, Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson and the director of the poll, noted, “People who think we did the right thing in invading Iraq seem to be revising their memories to retroactively justify the invasion.  This sort of motivated reasoning is pretty common: when people want to believe something, they’ll twist the facts to fit it.”

There was an even starker divide based on news sources: 52% of those who use Fox News as their primary source of news believed the US found a WMD program in Iraq, while only 14% of those who get most of their news from MSNBC believed the US found an active Iraqi WMD program (though the poll did not claim that MSNBC is a better news source than Fox).

Another pertinent, and disturbing, part of the poll was designed to gauge how closely respondents follow current events.  Specifically, the poll asked three questions: Which party currently controls the US House of Representatives?  What are the three branches of government?  Who is the current Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court?  Only 13% of respondents got all three questions correct, while one-third got all three questions wrong.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the group that got all three of these questions wrong was more likely than the average citizen to believe that the US found a WMD program in Iraq and that President Obama is not a US citizen.  Among the 13% of respondents who answered all three questions correctly, about half as many believed in the Iraqi WMD program and that Obama is not a legal citizen as the overall population.

You can see the poll’s executive summary at http://publicmind.fdu.edu/2015/false/ or the full report http://publicmind.fdu.edu/ .

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