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New Study Shows Deep American Divisions on Foreign Policy

New Study Shows Deep American Divisions on Foreign Policy

If you pay any attention to U.S. politics, then you already know that the Democratic and Republican parties are so divided over Iraq, the war on terrorism, the limits of the surveillance state, and a host of other thorny national security issues that party labels are no longer the best ways of segmenting American voters.

Take Iraq, for example. One wing of the Republican Party — epitomized by men like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham — favors the use of aggressive military force to beat back extremist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Another wing — represented in part by Sen. Rand Paul — wants the United States to cut back on its involvement in foreign conflicts to instead focus more of its time and attention on problems here at home. On the left, a similar divide between peaceniks and liberal hawks can leave one wondering how Sens. Bernie Sanders and Dianne Feinstein can caucus together.

To better understand these divisions, the Pew Research Center on Thursday released its latest report on American political groupings, which attempts to sort Americans into categories based on their ideological affinities. (For the political junkies out there, the full report is available here.) Among other things, the report paints a fascinating portrait of American attitudes on foreign policy and the degree to which the Democratic and Republican parties have a fundamentally different view of America’s role in the world.

The report could not be more timely. Though President Obama entered office with a desire to recalibrate American foreign policy away from the aggressiveness of the Bush administration, the world has refused to comply with his desire to build a world order based more on cooperation than confrontation. In Iraq, Obama is now contemplating the use of military force in a country from which he proudly withdrew American forces. The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have failed. The Arab Spring is backsliding. Militancy is spreading in Africa. China is acting belligerently against its neighbors. Russia is annexing territory in its backyard. The world is up in arms over Edward Snowden’s revelations of aggressive American intelligence collection against allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Syria, once one of the region’s most stable countries, is locked in a years-long civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead and caused millions of refugees to flee to other countries.  

So how to make sense of these challenges and how the American people think about them? To get beyond the Democrat/Republican labels, Pew presents a new typology of the American people.

On the left, “solid liberals” comprise the base of the Democratic Party and believe deeply in an activist government. Meanwhile, the “faith and family left” supports an activist government but generally holds conservative views on social issues. They are more religious, make less money, and are composed more heavily of minorities. The “next generation left” is broadly composed of well-off and well-educated young people with broadly liberal views on social issues, including support for same-sex marriage.  

Moving toward the center of the political spectrum, so-called “hard-pressed skeptics” somewhat favor the Democrats but are skeptical toward both major parties. This segment of society is marked by financial distress and distrust of government.

Crossing over into Republican territory, so-called “young outsiders” hold a witches’ brew of conservative and liberal ideas. They lean Republican but lack respect for both parties. Some 81 percent think the poor have it easy because of generous government benefits. They also mostly favor the legalization of marijuana. Meanwhile, so-called “business conservatives” might be called typical small-government Republicans. Leaving the country club, we encounter the “steadfast conservatives,” who are on the right on most issues but are skeptical of Wall Street and big business.

As you may have intuited from the typology, the survey, which tallied the views of 10,013 people over a period from January to March, paints a portrait of an American electorate deeply divided about America’s role in the world.

One of the survey’s most striking findings is the degree to which the Republican Party is divided over foreign policy, presaging a fascinating 2016 presidential campaign that could pit a quasi-isolationist like Paul against more hawkish Republicans like Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Some 67 percent of business conservatives believe the United States should be highly involved in international affairs, while the other wings of the party mostly want to pull back from the world stage.

On the question of whether American involvement in world affairs only makes matters worse, a similar divide exists among conservatives. Interestingly, the two younger demographics — young outsiders and the next generation left — are also split on whether America is capable of doing good in the world. Young outsiders are skeptical about America’s ability to improve the state of affairs, while their counterparts on the other side of the spectrum — the next generation left — are far more optimistic:

Obama’s cautious approach to countries like Syria may have done nothing to quell those conflicts, but his embrace of diplomacy over military might has support across a broad spectrum of the American people. And those who favor a heavier reliance on the military would probably never vote for him anyway:

Similarly, a broad spectrum of the American people believes that a heavy reliance on the use of force to combat terrorism creates more enemies than it defeats:

On the heels of Snowden’s revelations about aggressive American intelligence gathering, there is a palpable sense in Washington that the politics of intelligence are still governed by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The fear of a catastrophic attack is part of what has motivated both politicians and bureaucrats to oppose surveillance reform and improve privacy protections, but the American people appear increasingly unwilling to support that trade-off:

Liberals and conservatives are similarly united in disapproving of the NSA’s collection of Internet and phone data:

But on China, the electorate is deeply divided. Unsurprisingly, more conservative Americans are more likely to support a tough approach to China, while liberals favor cooperation:

As Hillary Clinton and other potential 2016 presidential candidates start gaming out their campaigns, these divisions — messy as they are — will be things they take into consideration.