This is the fourth in a series of four posts recapping Imagining the Unimaginable: Ending Genocide in the 21st Century, a symposium held yesterday at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The event featured a keynote address by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, two panels, and a presentation of the results of a poll on public perceptions of mass atrocity prevention. This post summarizes Mark Penn’s presentation of the poll findings.
During this morning’s Holocaust Museum event, Mark Penn, Bill Clinton’s lead pollster, presented recent findings on U.S. popular perceptions of genocide. The polling, which resulted from a Holocaust Museum/PBS partnership, assessed a broad base of political considerations related to genocide and mass atrocities, preventive priorities, genocide education, and military intervention. The headline, for Penn and Mike Abramowitz, the director of the Museum’s atrocities prevention program, is straightforward: Americans overwhelmingly prioritize genocide and mass atrocities within a national security framework, and view the U.S. government as a lead driver of preventive response and crisis mitigation. Americans, especially the youth (55 percent), have a relatively strong handle on the concept of genocide, viewing state-sponsored mass killing as a primary threat to global civilian populations (63 percent). A hefty majority (78 percent), notably, view military intervention as a feasible, worthy, or responsible policy approach toward genocide.
Of course, that’s only half the headline–the substance, as a recent, related YouGov poll by Benjamin Valentino indicates, offers a more complicated perspective. When asked to consider their perspectives on mass atrocities in Syria, 42 percent of Americans would not support military intervention to stop the crisis, regardless of its human consequences for the U.S. military. And, revealingly: if you downgrade "genocide" to "mass killings," popular support for U.S. military intervention–either multilateral or unilateral–appears to decrease by 18 percent. Still a sizeable majority, to be sure, but enough to indicate that, in spite of increasingly widespread comprehension of "genocide," popular discourse has yet to catch up to academic and policy debates on the utility of the term, its political impact, and its moral consequences.
From the Holocaust Museum’s findings, we might conclude that popular U.S. consensus favors an urgent, consistent, and decisive response to mass atrocities. Or, on the other hand, we might not. More than three-fourths of Americans are unfamiliar with the "responsibility to protect" doctrine; we talk a big game about broad, international unanimity surrounding Francis Deng’s "sovereignty as responsibility" framework, but the concept remains abstract for most, with the possible exception of last-resort, external military intervention. However, heightened comprehension among younger American communities may create an avenue for future progress, in a sustained generation of committed, informed constituencies for atrocities prevention.