What do Americans (Republican Voters) Actually Think?

Apr 23, 2018

This article was originally posted on the Ethics & International Affairs blog on April 23, 2018.

We hear all sorts of assumptions as to what American voters—and now specifically Republican voters who may or may not serve as the basis for President Trump's support—think and believe about U.S. foreign policy. The prevailing wisdom is that the Republican base is isolationist, supporting a recession of U.S. global influence, and less willing to articulate a defense of U.S. values overseas. Colin Dueck crunches the numbers and puts them in context, and comes to the following set of conclusions:

The great majority of Republican voters have no affection for Putin's Russia. Nor is the base of the GOP overwhelmingly hostile toward free trade. Rather, there is a deep and longstanding division among GOP voters over the relative merits of free trade agreements. A certain ambivalence toward economic globalization, military intervention, alliance commitments, and U.S. foreign policy activism is prevalent among American voters writ large, including Republicans, now as in the past. Trump's particular formulations in response to this are of course new. But neither internal GOP divisions over important foreign policy issues, nor the presence of an intense American nationalism, are truly anything new when it comes to the Republican Party.

What this suggests is that the opposition is less in principle to the concepts, and more to how U.S. foreign policy has been executed. My sense, based on the discussions I have been having, is that a tendency of U.S. politicians to overpromise results and underreport expected costs, as well as the inability to link specific foreign policy questions to a compelling, overarching narrative helps to account for this ambivalence–among both Democratic and Republican voters. In particular, I continue to direct my attention to the "no-costs calculus" that often drives U.S. policymaking. In reporting on the first set of meetings hosted by the Sustained Dialogue Institute on searching for a new, sustainable bipartisan approach to Russia, I noted:

We still don't have a clear cost calculus for what the United States is willing to commit to deter Russian action or compel Moscow to change its course. This ties into the last issue: it is hard to calculate costs when there is no overarching narrative about how Russia—either as a potential partner or as an adversarial competitor—fits into U.S. policy.

Narrative matters—and rebuilding public support for American internationalism–and Dueck shows that there are still green shoots of such support among Republican voters—requires reconnecting the aims of U.S. foreign policy with the experiences of the citizen-base.

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