Reports of American Fears Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Despite threats of terrorism and concerns over Muslim immigrants, the numbers show the U.S. public hasn’t completely lost its collective head.

during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on August 29, 2013 in Columbia, South Carolina.
during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on August 29, 2013 in Columbia, South Carolina.

American public opinion on foreign policy, wrote the eminent journalist Walter Lippmann in 1955, has been “destructively wrong at critical junctures … a dangerous master of decisions when the stakes are life and death.”

George Kennan, of “Mr. X” father of Cold War containment fame, was even more caustic when it came to the American public, comparing it to “one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin.” Various scholars point to historically shifting “moods,” a societal biorhythm by which every two decades or so the public reflexively shifts between internationalism and isolationism. All sorts of surveys show low levels of information, limited attentiveness to the global scene, and tendencies to over-reaction.

In fact, though, the public often has been more sensible than given credit for, what in analyzing public opinion on the use of force I’ve called “pretty prudent,” varying its support in ways that are neither as trigger-happy as some want or as gun-shy as others fear. To the disappointment of some and reassurance of others, amid the Islamic State and terrorism threats the American public is showing yet again how even when frightened, it can be prudent and pragmatic about what policies it supports.

Public threat-o-meter perceptions are way up.

  • Likelihood of another terrorist attack in the United States in the next few months: 79 percent, the highest since immediately after 9/11, and substantially up from 57 percent about a year earlier.
  • Terrorism as the No. 1 problem facing the country: 14 percent in one poll, with the economy at only 8 percent, and after terrorism being only 2 percent a month earlier; 18 percent in another poll, up from 1 percent a year earlier and with the economy at only 9 percent.
  • Islamic fundamentalism as a critical threat: 55 percent before Paris and San Bernardino, the highest since immediately after 9/11 and likely higher now.
  • President Barack Obama’s handling of terrorism: only 34 percent approval, less than half of his high-point (72 percent) after the Osama bin Laden capture-killing; when posed as how well “the government” is doing, it rises slightly to 46 percent, but the same poll a year earlier was 72 percent.

Yet when asked about Donald Trump’s plan for banning Muslims who are not U.S. citizens, only 36 percent were supportive, with 60 percent saying it’s “the wrong thing to do.” Josh Barro points out some variation across polls based on wording and whether they were via phone or online. Three other polls have large margins opposed to the foreign Muslim ban: NBC News/Wall Street Journal even larger at 32 percent, CBS News slightly smaller at 22 percent, and Bloomberg News/Purple Strategies narrower but still substantial at 13 percent. Two polls found more support than opposition but with thin margins: 4 percent (YouGov) and 6 percent (Rasmussen).

But other questions also point in the prudence-pragmatism direction.

  • Even among those who said terrorism is a threat, the margin supporting banning Muslim immigrants was a bare 1 percent, with 49 percent supporting and 48 percent opposing.
  • On whether Islam is an inherently peaceful religion, 54 percent said yes, the same percentage as in 2010. But in response to the question of whether Islam encourages violence more than other religions, the result was 46 percent yes and 45 percent no, still many decibels lower than the rhetoric being propagated.
  • On whether Muslims are discriminated against, 73 percent said yes. Of those, 59 percent said such discrimination was unjustified and only 14 percent saw it as justified; 61 percent said no to greater scrutiny of Muslims. Broken down demographically, 80 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were opposed.
  • While 85 percent were concerned about terrorism from those entering the country, 49 percent support allowing Syrian refugees in, with 47 percent opposing.

I want to stress that prudence does not necessarily mean low support for military force. There’s already plenty of support for airstrikes, special operations, and other limited force options. Support for American ground forces in Iraq and Syria did go from 39 percent (55 percent opposing) a year ago to 47 percent (47 percent opposing) this year. Past patterns going back to the 1980s and including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars show a greater tendency to support the use of force to restrain aggression than to remake governments. The Islamic State-Syria-Iraq is a mix of these objectives. If the threat does get greater, particularly if there is significantly more terrorism within the United States, and if this or the next U.S. president proposes a strategy that the public sees as sound and strategic, not just reactively lashing out, the public is likely to support it.

The concern is more with what we do at home. In this regard, the partisan divide in the polls stands out. Democrats are not impervious to the threat: Those saying the government has not gone far enough to protect the country increased from 38 percent in 2013 to 54 percent in 2015. And those who view Islamic fundamentalism as a critical threat went from 35 percent in 2014 to 48 percent in 2015. Still, even leaving aside direct questions about Obama, on which partisanship is inherent, the gap is gaping. For example, on Islam being more encouraging of violence than other religions: 68 percent of Republicans (77 percent of conservative Republicans) and 30 percent of Democrats agree.

On concern over Islamic extremism within the United States: 65 percent of Republicans, and 38 percent of Democrats, say they are “very concerned.” And, especially striking, 59 percent of Republicans support banning Muslims, but only 15 percent of Democrats say the same. The political dynamics within the Republican presidential primary are still playing out. Given the small percentages of voters who participate in party primaries and caucuses, the passions of the few matter more than opinion trends among the many.

Moreover, American history is a cautionary tale. The uprooting and forced internment of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II on the basis of their ancestry is a particularly egregious example but hardly the only one. In the 1850s, the American Party, which came to be known as the “Know-Nothing” movement, set out to purify American politics by going after Catholics. The 1924 National Origins Act virtually excluded all new Asian immigration, for fear of the “yellow peril.” And not just race and ethnicity, ideology, too: With 1950s McCarthyism in mind, one noted historian remarked on how the British managed to fight the Cold War without Parliament having an “un-British affairs committee.”

So for the prudence and pragmatism it has shown thus far, two cheers for the American public. There’s no guarantee that opinion will stay this way — the public is pretty prudent, not always fully and assuredly so. We’ll hold off on that third cheer for now.

Photo credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Bruce W. Jentleson is a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University and the author of The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons From Twentieth-Century Statesmanship.

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