What Does the Right Think? GOP Public Opinion on Foreign Policy
In the summer of 2022, as “Top Gun: Maverick” dominates the cinematic universe and an unrepentant Vladimir Putin prosecutes a Russian war against Ukraine, it is tempting to assume that conservatives are the bedrock of support for a strong national defense and an assertive U.S. foreign policy. Such an assumption simply draws on the tendency—reinforced, if not established, during the Reagan years—for a core part of conservative ideology to be based on the belief in a preeminent military and the concomitant need to stand up to the aggression of totalitarian actors abroad.
In this essay, I argue that the reality of public opinion among conservatives today is slightly more complicated. With an eye towards updating and perhaps gently correcting the conventional wisdom, I offer four broad observations (take-away points) about conservatives and their foreign policy attitudes. First, conservatives and liberals are less distinct on foreign policy than on domestic issues. Second, conservatives are less likely to support a robust foreign policy when there is a Democratic president. Third, younger conservatives are much more supportive than their older counterparts of “soft” power and diplomacy. Fourth and finally, conservatism remains an ideology with foreign policy implications, but education, age, and political engagement also affect public opinion on these issues.
Take Away Point #1: Ideological and partisan differences on foreign policy issues exist but are not as large as they are on domestic issues.
Barrels of ink (or terabytes of bandwidth) have been spent chronicling the “sorting” of the American political parties in recent decades. The short version of this story is that conservative Democrats moved away from the party after Democratic leaders staked out more liberal positions on social and civil rights issues in the mid-1960s. This tendency was particularly pronounced in the southern states. Meanwhile, liberal Republicans moved away from their party, particularly in the New England and Pacific coast states. This created more substantively consistent and coherent parties, but it also eroded the need for compromise in the name of coalitional maintenance. The result is the uncompromising, polarized politics of the 2020s.
This story is correct insofar as it suggests that Democrats today are more consistently committed to liberal positions on domestic and social policies than they were in the 1950s, while Republicans are more consistently committed to conservative positions. But this substantive polarization can be overstated on defense and foreign policy questions circa the 2020s, as ideologues of all stripes value the U.S. military and believe substantial resources ought to be committed to defending American interests abroad. For example, since 1972 respondents to the American National Election Study (ANES) survey have been asked to rate the military on a 0-100 scale, with 100 meaning you feel extremely “warm” towards the group and 0 meaning you feel extremely “cold” towards them. In the chart below, we see that conservatives are favorable towards the military—but so are liberals. So, while conservatives typically rate the military 10 to 15 points higher than liberals, the lowest average liberal rating of the military is 55 (in 1972 and again in 1980). In 2012, the last year the item was asked by ANES, liberals rated the military at 71.