Do Americans generally favor a more interventionist military role for the United States in world affairs or a more isolationist (or at least non-interventionist role)? The answer, which I found surprising, is that — for many of us — it depends on which party controls the White House.
Donald Trump ran for office as an America Firster. America First-ism is a mushy, bordering-on-stupid appeal which suggests that, as president, a candidate will put the interests of America and Americans ahead of the interests of other nations (or perhaps the world in general).
If you take this seriously, you will find very little there there. It’s hard to imagine a president or especially a presidential candidate who will pledge to put the interests of America or Americans second or third.
But those who tried to take Trump’s America Firstiness seriously and literally would have guessed that he intended to stop meddling in the world so much, especially including meddling militarily in conflicts that wouldn’t have much of a chance of producing clear, concrete benefits for Americans.
(Trump was on the record as telling Obama not to get involved in Syria. In 2013, he tweeted: “AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA – IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!)
Then, once in office, Trump saw TV pictures of little Syrian children who had been gassed. Then, as one of his first actions as commander-in-chief, he ordered a bombing raid to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The direct benefit to “Americans first” is hard to identify.
Then Trump ordered the “mother of all bombs” to be dropped in Afghanistan. Hard to see how these were America First-y things to do. And it’s easy to believe that Trump would have criticized President Obama if he had done them.
Polls found Trump’s bombings more popular than not, but if you look inside those poll results, the partisan breakdown is interesting, if not surprising.
Republicans (in this CBS News poll) approved of the Syria bombing by 84-11 percent, but Democrats opposed the action by 53-40 percent. I don’t want to be too cynical, but I suspect those numbers would be roughly reversed if Barack Obama had ordered those raids. Yes, of course, partisanship affects these things bigly. No duh.
But, writing for the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog, under the headline “Why presidential candidates (like Trump) campaign as isolationists but (like Trump) govern as hawks,” political scientist Verlan Lewis took my understanding of this phenomenon to a new level.
It isn’t just a partisan inclination to support whatever the president does (if he is from your party) and oppose whatever he does (if you are in the other party). There is a powerful, measurable tendency for partisans to generally take a more isolationist, or at least non-interventionist attitude toward the U.S. role in the world when a member of the opposite party is in the White House. And vice versa.
Lewis claims to find evidence for this going back at least to the early 20th century. But his most powerful evidence dates from the post-World War II era. That evidence is based on the amazingly valuable set of survey data known as the American National Election Study, which has been conducted regularly, with scientific rigor, before and after every presidential election since 1948. (That’s 17 presidential election cycles, which covers nine cases of the presidency passing back and forth across party lines.) It’s considered the gold standard of election surveys, not in predicting the outcome of the presidential race but in understanding what the electorate is thinking before and after each election.
Lewis’ finding is not based on a question like “do you approve of the way the president handling foreign policy?” Those questions are heavily influenced by straightforward partisan loyalty.
Instead, the ANES has been asking voters for 68 years whether they agree or disagree with the statement: “This country would be better off if we just stayed home and did not concern ourselves with problems in other parts of the world.”
That’s a pretty straightforward effort to locate the responder on the isolationist-to-interventionist scale. But Lewis tracks answers to that question, by the party identification of the people answering it, over time. And when he charts the changes, he finds that when Democrats are president, Democrats are more likely to give the interventionist answer and Republicans are more likely to give the isolationist answer. And when a Republican is in the White House, the lines flip.
Here’s the chart. I find it quite impressive and it explains a lot. Trump ran for office as an America Firster and is governing as a world policeman.
It’s true that, on balance, since the mid-1950s, Republicans, in general, were more likely to give the interventionist answer. But Lewis wants you to notice what happens to the trend lines when the president is a Republican versus when the president is a Democrat.
Without fail, the inauguration of a Democrat made Republicans substantially less willing to intervene abroad. And, without fail, the election of the next Republican president restored Republicans’ confidence of the value of interventionism. The same happened in reverse among Democrats.
I find this surprising and a little creepy. But I suppose it’s one more bit of evidence that party identity is fairly tribal. If my tribe’s leader decides to take us into foreign adventures, I try to be for it, perhaps out of team spirit, perhaps out of a confidence that when my tribe’s guy is in charge, he’ll pick the right battles and manage them well.