In early 2020, ReThink Media set out to investigate the current public opinion landscape on foreign policy, “endless war,” and America’s role in the world. Specifically, we wanted to know:
• Was the public in general more open to progressive foreign policy ideas than they used to be?
• What audiences were particularly interested in or persuaded by these ideas, and were there differences by age, race and ethnicity, and gender?
• What discrete policy ideas had popular support?
• What did the public think about the emerging “cold war” with China?
• How did the public perceive America’s “long wars?”
We had several hypotheses, including that younger adults — particularly members of Gen Z — were thinking about foreign policy and military intervention differently than their older counterparts.
An initial survey in January identified some promising openings that necessitated further research. It also revealed that, while the Trump administration has critiqued “forever wars” and some Republicans take a fiscally conservative approach to Pentagon spending, the other side of the political spectrum was, unsurprisingly, far more inclined toward significant policy change.
We conducted a second, more extensive poll on June 11–16 sampling 2,160 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. The poll was conducted online and included oversamples of Black/African American, Latinx/Hispanic, and Asian/South Asian/Indian American respondents as well as younger Gen Z and Millennial adults. The poll was conducted via online panel.
Throughout this piece, we will use “Democrats” to refer to Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.
Party unity across demographic lines
We began this research expecting to identify and explore the contours of a generational divide on these issues, only to find that it does not substantively exist. Democrats are largely united across the boundaries of gender, age, race, ethnicity, and educational attainment in both preferring progressive foreign policy approaches and in rejecting the military interventions of the past 20 years.
Democrats have undergone stronger and more widespread shifts than we anticipated. For example, 61% of Democrats agree that most U.S. military action taken post-9/11 has not been worth the costs. This view is shared across all age groups.
Democrats under age 40 are more likely to choose an “isolationist” view on an isolationism vs. interventionism forced-choice question than those older, but all age groups are closely divided.
A party moving toward progressive positions
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 sharply increased drone killing — Democrats want their party and its leaders to articulate a different path by a lopsided margin.
For example, 69 percent of Democrats agree with the statement, “[t]he Democrats need to make their differences with Republicans clear on national security and champion the message that the U.S. needs to lead through diplomacy, innovation, and development in order to compete with China, Russia, and other world powers.” Only 31 percent of Democrats agreed with a statement saying that Democrats should pursue an aggressive and confrontational approach to foreign policy.
The Democratic base wants to be heard
By a striking five-to-one majority, Democrats do not feel they are sufficiently heard on foreign policy. This is both a warning and an opportunity for party “elites.” Democrats trust the experts, but they want their views to be solicited and they want them to count. They respect the views of military leadership 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 U.S. foreign policy, while only 13 percent say they have the right amount, and seven percent say they have too much.
Military generals are the top potential validators on foreign policy for Democrats, with 67 percent saying they would give a lot or some weight to their opinions on the topic but this is statistically tied with their trust of academics and experts, at 65 percent. Also trusted are career foreign service officials, at 63 percent, military veterans at 62 percent, and your member of Congress from your district at 59 percent.
“A prominent activist” is a strong potential validator for younger Democrats, particularly Black Democrats under the age of 40, for whom they are the top potential validator, at 57 percent.
Unity around specific policies
Specific progressive foreign policies — such as restricting arms sales to human rights-abusing governments and strengthening limits on presidential war powers — enjoy overwhelming support.
For example, a stunning 87 percent majority of Democrats agree that the U.S. should not be selling weapons to human rights-abusing authoritarians. This is a sharp reversal from the 1990s, when arms sales were an area of bipartisan agreement, centered around forging relationships abroad and creating manufacturing jobs at home.
A similar 86 percent of Democrats agree that “we need to strengthen the limits on a President’s war powers no matter what political party they represent.” This finding is consistent with ReThink Media’s research from 2017, which found that Democrats are reassessing executive powers in light of, but not limited to, President Trump.
With no description provided, 24 percent of Democrats support repealing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, while 21 percent are opposed. After seeing some background information and brief arguments from both sides of the debate, support for repeal rose significantly to 51 percent, while opposition rose more modestly to 32 percent.
Forty-two percent of Democrats say Congress should be kept fully informed on matters of foreign policy, and 31 percent say Congress should be kept fully informed except when national security requires information to be strictly classified. Only 16 percent of Democrats say Congress should be kept informed on a need-to-know basis.
Keep it topical
When advocates talk about Pentagon spending and changing our foreign policy approach, it can feel disconnected from the more immediate concerns of their audience. As we mentioned above, many Americans feel that their opinion does not count in this arena, and many more feel that they lack expertise or knowledge of foreign affairs.
Advocates are most persuasive when they connect the major issues of the day — racial justice and the COVID-19 pandemic — to foreign policy. These topics are highly salient in framing choices about our national priorities overall, and are particularly effective in highlighting the need to reallocate Pentagon spending and the benefits that could come of it.
For example, 81 percent of Democrats found a message linking the movement for racial justice to reducing Pentagon spending and reprioritizing the budget convincing — 53 percent very convincing. Eighty-two percent of Democrats found a message linking our response to COVID-19 to reducing Pentagon spending and reprioritizing the budget convincing — 49 percent very convincing. And 68 percent of Democrats agree that the COVID-19 pandemic “shows that we can’t spend unlimited amounts of money on war and weapons when the American people desperately need health care and economic security” and that “it’s time to take a hard look at Pentagon spending and make the cuts we need in order to fund our economic recovery.”
Work, not war, with China
Democrats do not want a new Cold War with China and broadly support building engagement from shared interests.
Seventy-seven percent of Democrats agree that “[o]ur goal should be to avoid a new cold war with China. We have lots of shared and interconnected interests, like global trade and the economic growth of the developing world, which will create new markets and a stronger world economy. We should work with China to reduce tensions and identify areas where we can work together.” A similar 74 percent of Democrats say they would prefer to vote for a candidate who would “prioritize diplomacy to position the U.S. as a leader in solving global problems,” while only 15 percent side with a candidate who wants “to make sure the U.S. remains the strongest military power in the world and is willing to use that power.”
A 46 percent plurality of Democrats prefer a “soft power” approach to foreign policy, closely followed by 43 percent who prefer a “smart power” approach. Only 12 percent prefer a “hard power” approach. In light of our other findings showing that Democrats want a clear direction and policy platform, it may behoove the Democratic Party to define a direction here. While this is a complicated question, the benefits of clarity and focus would be considerable.
The center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted considerably to the left on foreign policy and national security in a short span of time. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are largely united along demographic lines in preferring a new, progressive approach to global issues and desiring a clear direction distinct from the Republicans and leaders from the past. A party base that feels unheard still trusts the experts, but overwhelmingly wants its leaders to listen to them on issues such as curbing executive power, standing up for human rights, and avoiding a prolonged conflict with China.
Taken together, we see major opportunities to seize the moment and build demand for a more progressive foreign policy.
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