Foreign policy is rarely high on list of priorities for American voters, especially in mid-term elections. The top issues motivating voters last month: healthcare, healthcare, and healthcare. But when pressed, voters do express preferences — ones that contain lessons for national security practitioners.
A new national survey by Pew Research Center finds that about seven in ten American voters (72 percent) say warding off terrorist attacks should be a top priority, about as many (71 percent) who say it about protecting the jobs of American workers and just a bit more (66 percent) than say it about preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
But behind these overall numbers is a widening gap on foreign policy views between voters who identify as Republicans and Democrats. For example, improving relationships with U.S. allies ranks at the top of the Democrats’ foreign policy goals (70 percent), but is a middle-tier objective for Republicans (44 percent). And Republicans are twice as likely to say that getting other countries to assume more of the costs of maintaining world order should be a top priority (56 percent vs. 26 percent).
Another partisan divide is defense spending. A large majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (70 percent) say that maintaining the U.S. military advantage over all other countries should be a top priority; just 34 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners rate this as a top priority.
Immigration is a growing area of voter interest. Far fewer Republicans than Democrats (11 percent vs. 39 percent) say that helping refugees who are fleeing violence should be a top priority. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to rate reducing both illegal immigration and legal immigration into the country as major priorities. Indeed, the partisan divide on the importance of reducing illegal immigration is wider than at any point in the past two decades (68 percent of Republicans vs. 20 percent of Democrats).
Most surprising, perhaps, is the continued gap on climate change: 64 percent of Democrats and 22 percent of Republicans say that dealing with it should be a top foreign policy priority. (The polling was done before the release of new reports on the increasing danger.)
Getting voters to focus on international affairs is hard. Most Americans don’t much care until “foreign” issues hit them at home or in their pocketbooks. Expect this to get worse: the data shows that younger voters care even less about military spending and more about jobs.
For those of us who believe in global engagement, this kind of data should be a clarion call. We must find new ways to make the argument that isolating ourselves or threatening war will not make us safer, richer, or wiser. We must do better at fighting simplistic national security thinking like America first, NATO is bad, trade wars are good, and immigrants are terrorists. We need positive messages that reinforce how a multicultural America brings needed skills and increased jobs and security. We need to show how participation in the global economy lessens the burden on our troops by reducing conflict, and how agreements like the Iran deal that President Trump ripped up might reduce the threat of nuclear war. We need to show that we will not abide by threats to our democracy, and will stand with friends to defend shared values.
It has never been easy to make the connection for ordinary Americans between what happens inside our communities and what happens outside our borders. Now is the time to make that connection clearly and consistently. Our security depends on it.