Foreign Policy, Meet the People

September 2, 2008 Topic: Society Tags: Heads Of State

Foreign Policy, Meet the People

Mini Teaser: Partisanship used to stop at the water’s edge. But times have changed; the U.S. electorate is now deeply divided—and not just on domestic-policy prescriptions. Facing a rift among the masses greater than that spawned by either the war in Korea or

by Author(s): Robert Y. ShapiroYaeli Bloch-Elkon

THE OLD adage that partisanship ended at the water's edge, no matter the degree of domestic division, is officially debunked. Especially striking now, this partisanship has penetrated to the level of mass public opinion not only on issues like economic welfare, gay rights and abortion but also when it comes to foreign policy-at unprecedented levels.1 We owe this to the Bush administration's Republican conservatism on domestic issues in tandem with its neoconservativism in foreign policy. Independent voters and the ideologically moderate center of the electorate may remain decisive, but this has not prevented conflict between the extremes from dominating political debate and challenging government's ability to address pressing national problems.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, harkened in our new foreign-policy divide. The unpopular policies of the White House have not been tempered by the close 2004 elections and, worse, even the resounding Republican defeat in the 2006 congressional elections has had no effect. President George W. Bush, not having to worry about reelection, has had his veto pen and signing statements at the ready for both domestic and Iraq wartime policy legislation.

Shapiro 1

We are skeptical that either presidential candidate, Barack Obama or John McCain, will be able to change the high level of partisan conflict in American politics, even with all their promises. Remember George W. Bush's own claim to be a "uniter not a divider"? Watching the current presidential campaign at this writing, the partisan enmity that exploded during the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the 2000 vote count and the 2004 campaign is alive and well.2 If this continues, we'll be living in an America crippled by partisan divide-unbridgeable on issues inside and outside our borders.


RED STATE-Blue State antagonism all started back in the mid-1970s. But what got the blood boiling among the political establishment were domestic-policy prescriptions. Politics became increasingly polarized along both partisan and ideological lines. Defining ideology largely in terms of favoring or opposing an expansive economic and regulatory role for government,3 during this period the Democratic and Republican Parties became more ideologically cohesive internally and distinctive from one another as civil-rights and racial-equality issues shook up party loyalties. A big part of the story is the South, which became the new base of the Republican Party. Over time, conservative Southern politicians who had been part of the New Deal coalition left the Democratic Party for the Republican Party or were replaced by liberal Democrats. In the Republican Party, liberals and moderates on civil rights and later women's rights no longer had a political home. As new social issues like abortion, gay rights and the like became part of party politics, in both primary and general elections, Democrats and Republicans became the liberals and conservatives as we know them today.

It was not long before these divides penetrated mass public opinion. Because the public relies heavily on partisan leaders for information which the mass media widely cover, we would expect that these increasing partisan differences among the elite would penetrate the public's psyche. And lo and behold, it has. Strong attachments to the parties have made a comeback in influencing presidential voting. Self-identified Republicans and Democrats rarely deviate from voting for their party's candidate, and the same goes for House and Senate elections. Further, while Democrats and Republicans have always reported higher levels of approval for the performance of presidents from their respective parties, these partisan differences increased over time from Richard Nixon's presidency through Bush in 2004. The difference between Democrats and Republicans approving the president's performance was 36 percentage points for Nixon in 1972, 42 percent for Jimmy Carter in 1980, 52 for Ronald Reagan in 1988, 55 for Clinton in 1996 and 71 for George W. Bush in 2004.4 Even after widespread dissatisfaction with Bush by 2008-he had only a 28 percent approval rating according to a May 2008 Gallup poll-fully 60 percent of Republicans still approved of his performance, 53 points higher than the 7 percent approval among Democrats.

Shapiro 2

The importance of party identification has returned-with a vengeance. The partisan American voter of the first decade of the twenty-first century is very different from his forebear: partisanship is not only more strongly related to whether Americans call themselves liberals or conservatives, but also more Republican identifiers have taken conservative positions and more Democrats liberal ones across the board.

The extreme illustration of this has been the deep partisan divisions over the current war in Iraq, where differences between Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives, have been as high as 70 percentage points. By comparison, partisan differences did not reach more than 20 points during the Korean War. Support for the Vietnam War declined in tandem among both Democrats and Republicans. Democratic support, which originally exceeded that of Republicans, briefly declined more steeply when Vietnam became Richard Nixon's war in 1969, but the Republicans caught up, and the average partisan difference was only 5 points. Partisan differences in support for the 1990 Gulf War were relatively small, averaging about 20 percent. But these differences changed stunningly when it came to the 2003 Iraq War. After a few initial months of bipartisan support, the partisan divergence in support for the effort ranged between 40 and 90 percent, depending on the question asked-and more than the party differences in presidential approval.


AND THIS brings us to the polarization of foreign policy. Up until now, national-security partisanship lagged behind that for domestic issues because of the cold-war consensus that was kept alive well after the mid-1970s with Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Although the public saw the Republicans as stronger on national-defense issues, that difference was not viewed as divisive and as stark as the party differences on economic, social and racial issues. There was also a sense of agreement in the post-cold-war world. It may well be that neoconservative leaders were all the while preparing to fight an ideological battle over foreign policy. They wanted the United States to be prepared to act unilaterally, by force if needed, to prevent new centers of power from challenging America after the cold war. September 11 provided them that wide opening to alter U.S. foreign policy in a way that would enable neoconservative Republican ideology, and the subsequent conflict over it, to penetrate from the level of partisan elites into the American public at large. This effect on public opinion became most visible when the Iraq occupation went badly after the defeat of Saddam Hussein.

Shapiro 3

A comparison of the 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2006 Chicago Council on Global Affairs5 surveys of elite and mass attitudes shows a level of partisan and ideological polarization on a wide range of foreign-policy issues, not just Iraq. The partisan differences show the battle over the Bush administration's policies, consistent with a top-down process of attitude change. The elite-opinion data show increasing polarization-widening differences between Republicans and Democrats-on maintaining superior military power worldwide and on spreading democracy abroad-the centerpiece goals of the neoconservatives. In 1998, 31 percent more Republican than Democratic elites thought maintaining superior military power was a "very important" foreign-policy goal; this gap rose by 18 points to about 49 percent in 2004. In 1998 and 2002, more Democratic than Republican elites thought democracy promotion was a very important goal. But by 2004, after the Bush administration increased its stress on democratization as a rationale for the Iraq War and the Bush Doctrine, these opinions reversed, with 14 percent more Republican than Democratic leaders holding this view. The Bush administration's stance against the International Criminal Court also led to an increasing partisan elite divergence, rising from 38 percent in 2002 to 50 percent in 2004.

The same pattern of trends occurred for the mass public respondents, though not quite as pronounced as among elites. Republicans and Democrats diverged in particular on the issues of defense spending, foreign military aid, gathering intelligence information about other countries, strengthening the United Nations, combating international terrorism and maintaining superior military power worldwide. From 2002 to 2004, Republicans moved from 6 percentage points to 20 points more likely than Democrats to favor toppling regimes that supported terrorist groups. The widening gap from 1998 to 2006 was quite clear when the public was asked about the goals of American foreign policy: Democrats and independents became less likely than Republicans to see maintaining superior military power and combating international terrorism as "very important" foreign-policy goals. In the case of strengthening the UN as an international institution, by 2006 Republicans were 21 percentage points less supportive than Democrats of this goal, 28 percent to 49 percent, in contrast to an 11-point difference in 1998. This gap-widening extended to global environmental issues as well: from 1998 to 2006, the percentage of Republicans who thought global warming was a "critical threat" to the vital interests of the United States dropped from 39 percent to 30 percent while the percentage of Democrats who gave the same response increased from 51 percent to 62 percent.

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