Looking at public perceptions of peace and conflict

By Beth Hallowell, Adrienne Lynett

This article originally appeared in Nuance: The war stories, peace stories journal.

When war-mongering headlines and militaristic narratives dominate the news cycle, it can be hard for peacebuilders to break through the noise. Despite years of research from organizations like ReThink Media and the American Friends Service Committee, where we work, and from organizations like Frameworks and the Alliance for Peacebuilding, included in this issue, on how to effectively communicate about peace and diplomacy, we are still working toward a media environment that facilitates public dialogue – and policy solutions – that support peacebuilding. Fortunately, recent research from our respective organizations – like others in this special issue – points to a number of openings for peacebuilders, journalists, and advocates to build awareness of what it takes to create a more peaceful world. In this article, we share insights from polling conducted by ReThink Media and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) over the past five years in the hope that our findings can shed light on how we can all communicate more effectively about peaceful solutions to conflict. 

ReThink Media Research and Insights  

In 2020, ReThink Media set out to investigate the current public opinion landscape on foreign policy, “endless war,” and America’s role in the world. As part of this project, we conducted a poll on June 11–16, sampling 2,160 Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents. This population was chosen in order to better understand what sorts of progressive foreign policy messages resonated with people whose support we and our partners might have the best shot at galvanizing. 

Broadly speaking, this poll revealed that the center of gravity in the Democratic party has moved in a progressive direction. Unlike the centrism of the Clinton era, the reflexive militarism of the post-9/11 years, or the comparatively cautious Obama years (notable for progress on arms control, but also a sharp increase in killing by drone), Democrats want their party and its leaders to articulate a different path by a wide margin. 

For this population, international cooperation to solve global issues or problems is extremely popular. Eighty-five percent of those surveyed said it’s important to work together with other countries, and that a “go-it-alone” approach is just going to put us at risk down the road. By contrast, just 15% said that in order to maintain peace, the US needs to stay ahead in military spending and to be “too strong to mess with.” 

Sixty-nine percent of Democrats agreed with the statement, “The Democrats need to make their differences with Republicans clear on national security and champion the message that the US needs to lead through diplomacy, innovation, and development in order to compete with China, Russia, and other world powers.” The remaining 31% of Democrats preferred a statement saying that Democrats should pursue an aggressive and confrontational approach to foreign policy. 

Where we saw more divergence was when we asked specifically about whether and when to intervene in global conflicts. Fifty-six percent of respondents said the US has an obligation to protect nations from aggressors and that we should always take action to maintain peace. Meanwhile, 44% said that the US should only get involved if we are directly threatened, and that other nations should handle their own conflicts. 

We also found generational differences in response to questions about intervention. Younger respondents—people under 40 at the time of this survey—were less likely to support intervening to protect other countries, and, by the same token, more likely to agree that other nations should handle their own conflicts. This 40-and-under group also indicated — by a five-to-one majority — that their voices are not sufficiently heard. This is both a warning and an opportunity for party “elites.”  

Progressive Americans trust the experts, but they want their views to be solicited and they want them to count. They respect the views of military leaders and veterans to the same degree that they trust the views of other experts, such as academics, foreign service professionals, and their own members of Congress. Sixty-five percent of Democrats say people like them do not have enough say in US foreign policy, while only 13% say they have the right amount, and 7% say they have too much. 

This knowledge gap, paired with a desire for more involvement in decision-making, presents an opportunity to introduce new ways of discussing and formulating foreign policy. As Americans grow increasingly wary of military intervention, they appear to be open to more cooperative, preventative, and diplomatic approaches to global engagement — and this is particularly true of progressive-leaning Americans. 

Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, one of these alternatives — “peacebuilding” — is largely absent from public discourse in the news media. In ReThink Media’s database of US news coverage of nuclear weapons and war (more than 37,000 articles from 2011 to the present), just 31 articles mentioned “peacebuilding”. By contrast, about 5,000 articles mentioned diplomacy. This initial keyword analysis suggests that Americans are not hearing much about peacebuilding as a possibility for foreign policy. However, some promising avenues for effective messaging about peacebuilding have been researched by organizations such as Frameworks and the Alliance for Peacebuilding. (See page X.)  

AFSC Research and Insights  

In research led by AFSC from 2021 to 2023, we prioritized multiple avenues of inquiry: exploring participants’ thoughts and feelings about specific issues, measuring attitudes on a few of those issues – including change over time – and testing messaging strategies. Over the course of four studies, we’ve garnered significant insights into how the US public thinks about peace and conflict broadly speaking, as well as specific issues like engagement with particular countries and Pentagon spending.  

One insight that stands out in our research is how effective the Race/Class Narrative framework can be in messaging on these issues. Developed by a coalition of communicators, advocates, and researchers in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Race Class Narrative method is a messaging strategy that very astutely responds to the deep-seated division we're experiencing right now in the United States. It brings together Americans from across the political spectrum to discuss a variety of divisive issues—education, the economy, policing, healthcare, etc.—in a way that specifically undermines the racial scapegoating which only increases divisions. This messaging toolkit was designed so that communicators seeking to advance social justice initiatives on a number of domestic issues could easily adapt their messages to this frame. 

Here is how We Make the Future, an organization spearheading the toolkit, defines the Race Class Narrative approach: 

The Race Class Narrative is an empirically tested narrative on race and class that neutralizes the use of dog-whistle racism to win on the issues we care about. 
Our opposition regularly uses racial fear as a tool to exploit economic anxieties and turn people against one another, even when their economic interests are aligned, and turn them against a government that works for all. In doing so, they regularly scapegoat communities of color for problems that have been created by self-interested politicians and their greedy corporate donors. The Race Class Narrative messaging architecture fights back at these attacks to build cross-racial solidarity and support for issues. (We Make the Future, 2023) 

In more general terms, the architecture of this framework includes the following steps:  

1. Intentionally constructing messages based on shared values rather than political orientation 

2. Identifying a clear problem to be solved 

3. Lifting up examples of how everyday people have come together historically to solve similar issues 

4. Quickly pivoting to a clear action step or plan for coming together to solve this problem in the present.  

A badly-needed antidote to the polarizing, vitriolic messaging environment on so many social issues in the U.S., we were curious to learn if the framework would translate to foreign policy or other issues that are outside mainstream domestic advocacy messaging.  

We were thrilled to learn that the insights from the Race/Class Narrative did translate well to messaging on Pentagon spending and peace and conflict generally, with one major caveat: it could sometimes back us into an isolationist-sounding advocacy position. For example, one of our most compelling messages could be interpreted as a call for the U.S. to pull back on international humanitarian commitments to focus on domestic issues, which is the opposite of what we were going for. For example, one of our top-performing messages in our survey, was the following: 

“To make life better for working people we need to invest in education, create better paying jobs, and make healthcare more affordable for Black, Brown, and white people struggling to make ends meet, not the Pentagon and weapons of war.” 

While this message follows some Race/Class Narrative recommendations and was very persuasive to many research participants – and was the number three message out of fifteen tested in our national study overall – qualitative feedback on this message helped us see that this message, while inspiring and compelling, also felt controversial to some respondents and even conveyed to some that people in the U.S. are too self-interested. Similar messages elicited high agreement, but it wasn’t clear if that was because respondents wanted to support peace abroad or turn exclusively to domestic issues. To solve this, we followed up by testing language that explicitly calls out all the investments we want the U.S. to make – domestically and internationally. For example, our number one performing message in a 2023 study worked across demographics: 

“To make life better for working people in the U.S., we need to invest in education, create better paying jobs, and make healthcare more affordable. But sending weapons and military aid to conflict zones takes away from programs that help people who are struggling to make ends meet. It also takes away from diplomacy and peacebuilding programs that bring people together to solve problems. We need to come together and demand our leaders in programs that help people thrive at home and build peace around the world, not in weapons or war.” 

In a 2022 focus group, we explored the idea of “people coming together to solve problems” in many different ways – and in many different types of messages. As with the Race/Class Narrative research, this idea had broad appeal to U.S. audiences in this divisive time, and with some tweaking, translated well between domestic and international contexts. 

In addition to this key insight, we have observed a few additional trends that have helped our advocates and communicators develop more effective messages. ​One is that​ addressing audiences’ real concerns about safety and security with concrete – but briefly articulated – solutions is vital. While solutions-oriented messaging may sound intuitive, we find that advocates – and even some communicators –often fail to address audiences’ fears about conflicts or violence, get lost in the weeds of a policy solution, or manage to do both at the same time. Audiences are generally not experts on peacebuilding issues – indeed, like us, our listeners are usually everyday people leading busy lives with concerns that may or may not align with the goals of advocates and peacebuilders. The trick is to address these audiences in plain language that speaks to their lived experiences, which may well include feelings of fear or insecurity, and then reassure them that there is a solution to the problem at hand. If advocates and peacebuilders can do this using some of the key insights from the Race/Class Narrative and give a little context – but not too much to overwhelm – our research indicates that this messaging is most likely to be effective. 

This is both a challenge and an opportunity. At a moment when the U.S. public is feeling notably pessimistic about the future, advocates and communicators in this country who are pursuing a more peaceful future have an uphill climb. At the same time, we see significant openings in our research for messages that are hopeful, inclusive — and intentionally trying to bridge racialized and class divides — and include plain-language solutions to problems around the world.  


These findings point towards some key openings for peacebuilders, journalists, and anyone interested in media narratives that support peace over war. New openness to diplomacy, cooperation, and nonmilitary engagement with the world — combined with powerful messaging frameworks like the Race/Class Narrative — can help us cut through the noise of the daily news cycle and give people the hope that so many are seeking. While we expect it will take a lot of work to get there, the combined voices in this issue make us hopeful that we can change the narrative on war and militarism.