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

In sum, the Bush years divided the parties further-politically and ideologically-not only on the domestic front, but also on national security.

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HAS THE winding down of the Bush administration and winding up of the 2008 election changed these party dynamics at least in the case of foreign policy, or will the trend continue? The latest data at this writing in mid-July do not bode well for the reversal of this trend, even as John McCain and Barack Obama claim-and have been perceived by many-to be able to end the divisive partisan politics of the Bush years. They both did well in the primaries and caucuses among independent and moderate voters. Both have claimed, though Obama most loudly, to be candidates of change. Even though McCain has strongly supported the war and later the "surge" of troops to Iraq, he was preferred by antiwar Republican primary voters, indicative of him being the "anti-Bush" Republican who had challenged initially mainstream conservative Republicans on issues like taxation, immigration, and the treatment of war prisoners and other captives. There has been, however, very little if any ramping down of partisan differences in public opinion on foreign-policy and national-security matters.

The latest survey results and other recent trends are striking. A July CBS News/New York Times poll found about the same as Gallup had in May, a 50-point difference in Bush's approval rating between Republicans (60 percent) versus Democrats (10 percent). Huge differences remain in the same poll for opinion toward the Iraq War: a 55-point difference between Republicans (70 percent) and Democrats (15 percent) thinking the United States did the "right thing" in taking military action in Iraq. A July ABC/Washington Post poll found the same 50-point difference for Democrats and Republicans on whether the war was "worth fighting." There is no convergence of partisan opinion in sight. Partisans even disagree by the same margin on what should be the reality or "facts" about the war: whether the United States is making significant progress. The same occurred earlier for partisan perceptions of whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and connections with al-Qaeda. And in the case of the emergent international issue of global warming, opinion has continued to diverge sharply. From 1998 to 2008, according to a recent Gallup Poll report, the percentage of Democrats who say that the effects of global warming have already begun increased nearly 30 points, from 47 percent to 76 percent, while it declined among Republicans from 46 percent to 41 percent-the results went from no partisan difference to a 35-point gap. Similarly, the percentage of Democrats who thought the news media exaggerated the seriousness of global warming declined from 23 to 18, compared to a 25-point increase for Republicans from 34 percent to fully 59 percent.

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One important and continuing political fissure is the power to send U.S. armed forces into action abroad. The May 2008 Gallup poll revealed a 30-point partisan difference: Democrats were near unanimous (92 percent) in their support for requiring the president to get congressional approval for sending the military into action abroad, and responded close to the same (83 percent) to require the same approval for using air-force or navy planes to bomb suspected terrorists. Republicans are clearly less supportive than Democrats of limiting what might be unilateral American military actions abroad. Will this rift associated with the ascendancy of neoconservatism continue?

While, for now, Obama has appeared to moderate his views toward the way troops would be withdrawn from Iraq, all signs are that he has an "evolving" foreign policy that looks much more multilateral than that of the Bush administration. John McCain, as Richard Holbrooke recently commented, appears to be running to the right of George Bush as a hard-liner on Iran, a supporter of ousting Russia from the G-8 and a proponent of a new league of democracies that would "act whether Moscow or Beijing like it or not." These are strong neoconservative positions.

With candidates staking out these positions, does it look like partisanship in foreign policy will change after the 2008 election? And will this change affect divisions among the American public after the 2008 election? Having looked for this before, we will believe it when we see it.


Robert Y. Shapiro is a professor of political science and acting director of Columbia University's Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP). Yaeli Bloch-Elkon is a lecturer/assistant professor at the Department of Political Science-Communications Program, Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and an associate research scholar at ISERP.


1This statement is based on the last seventy years of data, when scientific polling began.

2The phenomenon is so pervasive that there is now a burgeoning literature about current partisan and ideological conflict in American politics. Books like Pietra Nivola and David Brady's two volumes of Red and Blue Nation? and Morris Fiorina's Culture War? lead the pack.

3Tracked by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal (and later with Nolan McCarty).

4According to Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders (consistent with data reported by Gary Jacobson, Donald Green, Eric Schickler, Bradley Palmquist and a number of others).

5Formerly known as the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

*Charts courtesy of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Essay Types: Essay