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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The atomic public : nuclear weapons and U.S. citizen deliberation, 1985-2020 Reed, Samuel Thomas


What is the nature of citizen, policymaker, and scientific expert deliberation on U.S. nuclear weapons policies? Are citizens and policymakers appealing to the best available information in nuclear weapons policy debates? Are citizens prone to emotion-driven responses that impede effective deliberation? This dissertation is motivated by a normative concern for broader public participation in national security policy, and it evaluates some of the claims made by rational public optimists in a hard case for citizen competence. It undertakes original research on three case studies related to U.S. nuclear weapons policies from 1985 to 2020: nuclear arms reduction treaties with Russia, ballistic missile defense of the U.S. homeland, and nuclear crisis management in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The dissertation examines over 232 public opinion poll items and performs content analysis on an original dataset of 1,000 letters to the editor published in 42 U.S. newspapers to assess the content of public opinion and citizen deliberation on these three nuclear weapons policy issues. The letters dataset provides evidence of reasoning and argumentation on nuclear weapons policy issues, and these expressions of opinion are indicative of what citizens might say in other deliberative forums, such as emails to elected officials, social media posts, and at town hall meetings. Overall, this dissertation finds only partial validation for a competent atomic public. It finds that public opinion on nuclear weapons policy issues is stable and more consistent with the policymaker debates than the conventional wisdom would suggest, though it lags behind the technical-scientific debates. The content analysis finds little evidence of emotion-driven responses that impede effective deliberation. At the same time, the research also finds that citizen and policymaker learning is constrained by a failure to consistently absorb, accept, and appeal to the best available information provided by technical experts on nuclear weapons policy issues.

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