In “Any Good News in Soft News?” Markus Prior investigates whether or not, beyond enhancing their attentiveness to select political issues, consumers also learn about politics from soft news. He presents evidence suggesting that the audience for soft news is much smaller than that for hard news, and that a self-expressed preference for soft news outlets is associated with at most sporadic gains in factual political knowledge. He concludes that the public appears to learn about politics from the soft news media at most only sporadically. In this commentary, I argue, contrary to Prior, that the audience for soft news outlets is, in fact, quite large, perhaps rivaling that for hard news. I further argue that long-term retention of factual political knowledge – the focus of Prior’s web-based survey -- is a highly restrictive definition of learning. By broadening our definition, taking into account recent insights from cognitive and social psychology concerning human information processing, it becomes possible to understand how consuming soft news might indeed be associated with learning about politics, but not necessarily with an enhanced long-term store of factual political knowledge. I present evidence that consuming soft news influences the attitudes of politically inattentive individuals and that, in at least some fairly predictable contexts, consuming soft news is also associated with enhanced factual political knowledge. I conclude that while Prior’s finding of an absence of evidence of consistent factual political knowledge effects represents a valuable contribution to our understanding of the political significance of the soft news media, it does not constitute compelling evidence of absence of any meaningful learning about politics associated with consuming soft news. Hence, as Prior acknowledges in his conclusion, it is premature to conclude that there is no good news in soft news.
Scholars have repeatedly confirmed the phenomenon of relatively short-lived spikes in presidential approval ratings immediately following the occurrence of sudden, high profile foreign policy crisis events. Despite the massive attention heaped upon the rally phenomenon, relatively little attention has been paid to its constituent elements. Yet, recent research has found that different groups of Americans respond differently to presidents’ activities according to their interests and attentiveness. In this study, I disaggregate public opinion along two dimensions: political party and political sophistication. I argue that, in responding to presidential activities, particularly such high profile activities as the use of force abroad, different groups of Americans weigh various individual, contextual and situational factors differently. I investigate all major U.S. uses of force between 1953 and 1998 and find that the propensity of different groups to "rally" does indeed vary according to individual circumstances. Moreover, these differences are refracted through variations in the external environment. To explain these differences, I employ two models of public opinion change. The first emphasizes the importance of threshold effects in explaining opinion change. That is, individuals who are closest to the point of ambivalence between approval and disapproval are most likely to change their opinion in response to external circumstances. The second emphasizes both the propensities of different types of individuals to be exposed to a given piece of information, and their susceptibility to having their opinion influenced by any additional information. My results offer a more nuanced picture of the nature and extent of the rally phenomenon than has been available in previous studies. My findings hold important implications for other, related, scholarly debates, such whether, and under what circumstances, the use of force can successfully divert public attention from a president's domestic political difficulties.
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Attention has recently focused on the distinctive foreign policies of democracies. We examine the domestic policy consequences of democracy. Building upon a model of the state as a monopoly provider of public services, we hypothesize that democratic states will seek fewer monopoly rents and produce a higher level of public services than autocracies. We also hypothesize that changes in regime type will produce fairly rapid and disproportionate effects on the level of public service provision. We test these hypotheses both cross-sectionally and over time for a variety of public service indicators. The statistical results strongly support our expectations. Democracies indeed provide significantly higher levels of public services, substantial changes in regime type appear to produce disproportionately large effects on public service provision, and the lag between changes in the level of democracy and in the level of public goods appears quite short, suggesting that periods of "democratic transition" may be more rapid than commonly supposed.
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