The new Pew survey has a lot in it to discuss, but for the moment I would like to focus on the foreign policy section. As Jim Antle observed in his post on the survey’s treatment of social conservatism, there are potentially problems in Pew’s definitions and questions as there usually are in these surveys, and this applies to the questions on foreign policy as well. For example, the statement, “It’s best for the U.S. to be active globally” is a statement that seems set up to maximize agreement. After all, how many people are interested in passivity and inaction as such? While this kind of statement can help reveal the public’s vague and unformed sentiments and attitudes, it doesn’t tell us all that much about how the public thinks the United States should be acting around the world. It is worth noting, then, that even now there is just a slight majority that completely agrees with this statement (51%), which is almost entirely a product of Democrats who were dissatisfied with Bush and are now content with Obama, and it is essentially identical to the figure from 2003 near the height of post-9/11 hysteria and panic about foreign threats. No doubt, as Iraq has disappeared from the headlines and the recession has occupied more of the attention of most Americans, concerns that the U.S. continues to be hyperactive abroad are going to fade.
The survey does not show anything like instinctive or habitual “isolationism,” which is the bogey interventionists use to mobilize their supporters. Indeed, 90% agree to some extent with the general statement. What it does show is a divided country in which at most half of most demographics believes that an active U.S. role abroad is “best.” There is a much lower floor of support for this statement among women, Democrats and independents. Agreement has increased the most among these groups over the last two years, but this shows how weak their agreement with the statement really is. There has been a drop-off in Republican support as well from 54% in 2003 to 47% now, bottoming out at 44% two yeas ago. Significantly, the strongest agreement with this statement comes from college graduates. Their agreement has not dipped below 51% over the last six years, and now stands at 62%.
On the face of it, this would indicate that half of the country is on board with America’s present role in the world. The relevant political point here is that the other half has almost no representation in government. Nonetheless, in the same survey 78% agreed that “we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.” This is again a very simple statement with which it is easy to agree, and it does not tell us what most Americans think would be the proper balance between the two. It is an encouraging sign that an overwhelming majority thinks that our priorities are out of order and our attention is too focused on foreign problems. As the survey report notes, this figure of 78% is significantly lower than it was in the early ’90s, but it remains remarkably high considering that the U.S. is engaged in two military campaigns and a larger, ill-defined Long War of which these campaigns are ostensibly a part. This suggests that there is no pressing concern about impending “existential threats” from abroad.
The “peace through military strength” question seems designed to elicit a favorable response from Republicans, many of whom would probably agree with any Reagan formulation regardless of what it was, so it is perhaps no surprise that Republicans overwhelmingly agree with this (75%). What is interesting is the difference in agreement among age groups. Back in 2002, a slim majority of 18-29 year olds agreed with this formulation (51%), but now just 38% agree. This is the largest drop in any age group, and helps explain why 18-29 year olds have fled the GOP in large numbers over the last five years. 45% of this group voted for Bush, and just 32% backed McCain. There are undoubtedly other factors that worsened Republican fortunes among so-called Millennials, but inasmuch as they regard the Iraq war as the product of a “peace through military strength” mentality they have turned against both that view and the party that espouses it most fervently. It seems improbable that they will be won back by redoubled hawkishness and nationalistic bluster.