Tag: public opinion

Will Trump’s Foreign Policy Matter for the Midterms?

In a recent piece at The Hill, I argue that Trump’s terrible approval ratings for his handling of foreign policy will matter more than most people think.

The basic argument consists of four points:

1. Trump has made foreign policy more important to Americans today thanks to his “America First” approach:

The genius of Trump’s “America First” slogan was the way it allowed Trump to connect foreign and domestic politics under a single populist and nationalist banner. When Trump says he’s protecting American workers, he could be talking about tax cuts, illegal immigration, “horrible trade deals,” or terrorism. Trump’s America First strategy has blurred much of the historical difference between foreign policy and domestic policy. All of this makes foreign policy more important moving forward.

2. Trump’s foreign policy has been historically unpopular:

Not only does Trump suffer lower approval for his handling of foreign policy than all presidents back to Ronald Reagan, but majorities of Americans oppose Trump’s calling card issues. Fifty-eight percent oppose building a wall along the Mexican border and 67% think that illegal immigrants currently living in the United States should eventually be allowed to apply for citizenship. Twice as many Americans (49%) think raising tariffs will hurt the economy as think it will help (25%)…

3. Foreign policy approval feeds into overall presidential approval:

… even though the impact of foreign policy is most obvious during a war or international crisis, it plays a key role in shaping the general narrative of a president’s performance while in office. One analysis, for example, found that public approval of the president’s handling of foreign policy has a larger impact on his overall approval rating than does his handling of the economy.

4. Trump’s net-negative presidential approval ratings signal big trouble for Republicans at the midterms:

Research suggests that Trump’s current 41% approval rating historically would typically result in about an 8-point national advantage in voting for Democrats…. Looking at data from each president’s first midterm elections going back to 1946, the four presidents who did not enjoy a net-positive approval rating saw their party lose an average of 49 seats in the House and 6.5 seats in the Senate.

The bottom line is that Trump’s handling of foreign policy hasn’t done Republicans any favors this year and is likely to be an even bigger problem for Trump himself in 2020.

Thanks to Hannah Kanter for the background research and contributing to the writing of the original commentary.

The Rising Popularity of Increasing Immigration

The most fascinating phenomena of American politics is the increasingly anti-immigration opinions of politicians like Donald Trump that contrasts with an increasingly pro-immigrant public opinion.  Gallup has asked the same poll question on immigration since 1965: “In your view, should immigration be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?”  Gallup’s question does not separate legal from illegal immigration, likely meaning that answers to this question undercount support for increasing legal immigration.  They recently released their 2018 poll results.  The support for increasing legal immigration is at 28 percent – the highest point ever (Figure 1).  Support for increasing immigration is just one point below support for decreasing immigration – well within the 3-point margin of error (95% CI). 

Figure 1

Gallup: Should Immigration Be Kept at Its Present Level, Increased, or Decreased?

Gallup

Sources: Gallup.

The Gallup trend is the clearest and best for those of us who support increasing immigration but the General Social Survey shows a similar directional trend – although not nearly so dramatic (Figure 2).

Figure 2

GSS: Should Immigration Be Kept at Its Present Level, Increased, or Decreased?

GSS

Source: General Social Survey.

If the public is increasingly pro-immigration, why is the GOP so opposed to immigration?  It can’t be radically divergent opinions across partisan lines. According to the Gallup poll, 65 percent of Republicans think immigration is good for the country compared to 85 percent of Democrats.

Another possibility is that anti-immigration voters care a lot more about the issue than pro-immigration voters and are willing to change their votes based on it.  For pro-immigration voters, immigration just isn’t their biggest issue.  The Gallup poll hints at this as 55 percent of those who are dissatisfied with the current immigration levels want to cut the numbers while only 22 percent who are dissatisfied want to increase the numbers.

Another issue is causality as anti-immigration politicians could be pushing moderate Americans into a more pro-immigration position.  The crude language used by nativists, such as President Trump’s description of illegal immigrants as an infestation, can turn off a lot of voters in the same way that the Prop 187 campaign in California in the mid-1990s convinced a lot of white voters to not support the GOP.  This is the exact worry that Reihan Salam, a moderate restrictionist, voiced. The spokesman for political issues matters and Trump is not a very good one.

Another potential explanation is the “locus of brutality,” a riff on the locus of control literature that says voters are more supportive of liberalized immigration when they perceive it to be controlled.  Under that theory, border chaos, illegal immigration, refugee surges, and the perception of immigrant-induced chaos increases support for restriction.  Thus, countries with open immigration are mostly able to maintain those policies so long as it appears orderly.  Since disorder usually arises from poor government laws, this means that more regulation can make it more chaotic and create demand for more legislation in an endless cycle.  That locus of control pattern could be countered by the brutality of immigration enforcement such that voters become more pro-immigration when they are confronted with the government’s brutal enforcement of immigration laws.  Prison camps for immigrant children thus create support for liberalization.

My final theory is that this is the last gasp of nativism.  Lots of dying political movements that are terminally ill due to shifting public opinion go all out as it is their last chance to get elected.  Think George Wallace and segregation.  During the 2016 campaign, then-Senator Jeff Sessions said that that was the “last chance for Americans to get control of their government.”  When it comes to changes in the public trends and support for cutting immigration, he is probably correct.

The public is becoming increasingly pro-immigration.  The Democratic Party is increasingly reflecting that changing public opinion while the Republican Party is getting an increasing percentage of that shrinking but sizable anti-immigration minority.  There will come a point, should public opinion continue to support increasing immigration, where both parties will adopt this position.

The Trump Doctrine and Public Opinion at One Year

In advance of the January 30 conference here at Cato—The Trump Doctrine at One Year—I review public attitudes toward Trump’s “America First” vision and his foreign policy handling over his first year in office. Join us for a what will undoubtedly be a spirited conversation with a fantastic group of experts.

Donald Trump’s America First rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign marked a sharp departure from the fundamental tenets of liberal internationalism that have guided U.S. foreign policy since World War II. Trump’s tirades against free trade, NATO allies, immigrants (legal and otherwise), and his general disinterest in engaging with the world unless there was money in it for the United States horrified the foreign policy establishment of both parties.

Beyond concerns about Trump, many observers worried that his success reflected the demise of public support for internationalism. Though the public supported robust internationalist policies after World War II and during the Cold War, Trump’s emergence coincided with rising economic insecurity and inequality, intense political polarization, and dropping confidence in government to solve the problems facing the nation. Had the public perhaps decided that internationalism’s time had come and gone? Would Trump’s presidency usher in rising support for nativist and protectionist policies and calls to turn inward, away from the international arena?

A wide array of poll data from Trump’s first year in office strongly suggests the answer is no. A large majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of foreign policy and his America First policies are among the most unpopular elements of his foreign policy.

Trump’s fiery attacks on unfair trading practices by China and Japan and his criticism of NAFTA as “the worst deal ever made” may have energized his base during the campaign, but since taking office Trump’s course on trade has not been a popular one. Though Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as soon as he took office and appears likely to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Americans remain committed to free trade. A June 2017 survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 72% of the public thinks international trade is good for the United States. An October 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center echoed this result, finding that Americans are more likely to believe NAFTA is good for the United States by 56-33%. 

America’s Foreign Policy Attention Deficit

We Washingtonians rightly get criticized for being hyper focused on politics. While D.C. natives gossip about the ups and downs of the powerful elite, most Americans are worrying about their marriages and mortgages. The disjuncture is even greater when it comes to foreign policy, an area in which public interest and knowledge are particularly limited. As many scholars have pointed out, to some degree this dynamic is the result of “rational ignorance” on the part of the public. Given the many other priorities citizens have in their private lives, the benefits of following policy debates closely is quite limited so long as people are generally confident that more knowledgeable people are paying attention. 

Taken too far, however, public apathy toward foreign affairs could become a problem for a democratic system. A central pillar of democratic politics is the ability of the marketplace of ideas to foster debate and produce sound policy. Without a certain level of public engagement, the marketplace of ideas cannot function effectively. If no one is paying attention, how can we have a meaningful debate over U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Africa, or what to do about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, or China’s growing power? 

The traditional method for criticizing the public’s attentiveness to foreign policy is to note Americans’ astonishing lack of knowledge about the world. The June 2017 Pew Research “News IQ” survey finds, as usual, that most Americans know little even about events and people that have appeared regularly in the news. On the four questions most closely related to foreign policy, 60% of those surveyed knew that Britain is leaving the European Union, 47% could identify Robert Mueller as the person leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, 44% could name Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State, and just 37% could identify Emmanuel Macron as the president of France.

The public also typically lacks key facts informing specific foreign policy issues. Even as the Trump administration calls for new kinds of nuclear warheads, polls have routinely found that few Americans are aware that the United States already possesses thousands of nuclear weapons. And though 67% of Americans in 2014 knew that the Islamic State controlled territory in Syria, only half could identify the nation of Syria when it was highlighted on a map. In 2009, fewer than 30% knew that the United States had 70,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Thanks to Google we have another way to measure America’s foreign policy attention deficit. Google Trends gives us the ability to track how often people searched for a given term over a particular time period. If public ignorance is due to lack of interest, search activity on the Internet is a good way to measure that.

82% Say It’s Hard to Ban Hate Speech Because People Can’t Agree What Speech Is Hateful

An overwhelming majority (82%) of Americans agree that “it would be hard to ban hate speech because people can’t agree what speech is hateful,” the Cato 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey finds. Seventeen percent (17%) disagree. Majorities across partisan and demographic groups alike agree that hate speech is hard to define and thus may be hard to regulate.

Full survey results and report found here.

How Do Americans Define Hate Speech?

When presented with specific statements and ideas, Americans can’t agree on what speech is hateful, offensive, or simply a political opinion

Besides slurs and biological racism, Americans are strikingly at odds over what speech and ideas constitute hate.[1] For instance, a majority of Democrats (52%) believe saying that transgender people have a mental disorder is hate speech. Only 17% of Republicans agree. On the other hand, 42% of Republicans believe it’s hateful to say that the police are racist, while only 19% of Democrats agree.

Among all Americans, majorities agree that calling a racial minority a racial slur (61%), saying one race is genetically superior to another (57%), or calling gays and lesbians vulgar names (56%) is not just offensive, but is hate speech. Interestingly a majority do not think calling a woman a vulgar name is hateful (43%), but most would say it’s offensive (51%). Less than half believe it’s hateful to say that all white people are racist (40%), transgender people have a mental disorder (35%), America is an evil country (34%), homosexuality is a sin (28%), the police are racist (27%), or illegal immigrants should be deported (24%). Less than a fifth believe it’s hateful to say Islam is taking over Europe (18%) or that women should not fight in military combat roles (15%).

20% of College Students Say College Faculty Has Balanced Mix of Political Views

The Cato 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey finds only 20% of current college and graduate students believe their college or university faculty has a balanced mix of political views. A plurality (39%) say most college and university professors are liberal, 27% believe most are politically moderate, and 12% believe most are conservative.

College Democrats Less Likely Than Republicans to Think Faculty Is Liberal

Democratic and Republican students see their college campuses very differently. A majority (59%) of Republican college students believe that most faculty members are liberal. In contrast, only 35% of Democratic college students agree most professors are liberal. Democratic students are also about twice as likely as Republican students to think their professors are moderate (32% vs. 16%) or conservative (14% vs. 9%).

Full survey results and report found here.

College Students Agree Student Body is Liberal

Current students believe that most of their campus’ student body is liberal. Fifty-percent (50%) believe that most students at their college or university are liberal, 21% believe most are moderate, 8% believe most are conservative, and 19% believe there is a balanced mix of political views.

Democratic and Republican students largely agree on the ideological composition of their campus student body.

Consequences of Campus Political Climate

These perceptions of ideological homogeneity on college campuses may explain why 72% of Republican college students say the political climate prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive. About a quarter (26%) of Republican college students feel they can share their political views.

51% of Strong Liberals Say It’s Morally Acceptable to Punch Nazis

Is violence an appropriate response to hate speech? The Cato 2017 Free Speech and Tolernace Survey finds most Americans say no. More than two-thirds (68%) of Americans say it is not morally acceptable to punch a Nazi in the face. About a third (32%), however, say it is morally acceptable.[1] 

Strong liberals stand out with a slim majority (51%) who say it’s moral to punch Nazis. Only 21% of strong conservatives agree.

Full survey results and report found here.

Strong liberals’ approval of Nazi-punching is not representative of Democrats as a whole. A majority (56%) of Democrats believe it is not morally acceptable to punch a Nazi. Thus, tolerance of violence as a response to offensive speech and ideas is found primarily on the far Left.

The survey found liberals were more likely to consider upsetting and controversial ideas “hateful” rather than simply “offensive.” This may help partially explain why staunch liberals are more comfortable than the average American with using violence against Nazis.

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