Last week, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released its annual survey of American public opinion and foreign policy, titled “America in the Age of Uncertainty.” Predictably, the council focused its polling on the issues that appear to be shaping the 2016 presidential campaign. But its most revealing findings run deeper.
The council compared responses among Democrats, Republicans and Independents, occasionally breaking out “Core Trump Supporters.” That’s an understandable approach, but it’s also not ideal: Democrats and Republicans aren’t monolithic. As the primaries demonstrated, some of the most interesting differences were among candidates of the same party.
So what did the council find? That the “American public as a whole . . . still favors the country’s traditional alliances, a shared leadership role for the United States abroad, and the preservation of U.S. military superiority.” So far so good from the council’s point of view (and mine).
But the partisan breakdown reveals a less happy picture. First, there’s a tendency for partisan views on foreign policy issues to change as presidents do. For example, through 2006, Republicans were slightly more optimistic about the impact of globalization than Democrats.
But in 2008, Republican optimism declined slightly (though Republicans remained more optimistic than they were in 2002), while Democratic optimism soared. It’s hard to believe that the major world events after 2008 — the Great Recession, the Euro crisis, the Syrian war and the refugees — could have made any reasonable person more optimistic.
So what the survey seems to be measuring, in part, is a natural Democratic tendency to support a U.S. leadership role in world affairs — as Democrats understand the term — when a Democrat is in the White House. The same is true of Republicans.
That may be understandable, but it’s not good. We all know that politics don’t stop at the water’s edge, and they never have. But if attitudes toward the U.S. role in the world waver back and forth as rapidly as our politics shift, it will be all the harder for us to have an enduring strategy.
Happily, when you look at the major instruments of foreign policy, the divergences diminish, though they don’t disappear. Republicans are a bit more supportive of a strong U.S. military, and Democrats slightly more cheerful about possible new alliances — but the differences aren’t vast.
The divide grows again when you turn to signing new international agreements and supporting the United Nations, about which Democrats are substantially more optimistic. This is, as it were, the old face of liberalism: credulous to a fault about the utility of merely signing pieces of paper and holding meetings between nations with wildly different interests and political systems.
But the Chicago survey also shows the newer face of liberalism. Throughout its report, the council tends to highlight Republican divergences from Democrats, as in its treatment of immigration: “More Republicans See Immigration as a Critical Threat.”
Yet what the council’s own data show is that Republican views have remained fairly constant. On the headline question of whether the United States should take an active role in world affairs, the GOP since 1974 has varied from 61 percent to 77 percent supportive, while Democrats have swung wildly from 49 percent to an all-time high now of 70 percent.
Thus, while the council frames its report around Republicans, it’s the Democrats who are the most changeable — in ways that reflect the changing base of the Democratic Party. That comes through in spades on illegal immigration, where Republicans have grown a bit more skeptical, while Democrats — who in 2002 were only a bit less worried than Republicans — are now barely skeptical at all.
So what the council is measuring isn’t beliefs about U.S. foreign policy. It’s measuring those beliefs refracted through the rise of the new Democratic Party that elected President Barack Obama. The council thinks it’s looking at an age of uncertainty. What it’s actually looking at are U.S. views on foreign affairs in the age of multiculturalism.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom