Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Should We Call Them “Indycrats”?

• Has the Public Turned Away from Internationalism? (Part Two)

Should We Call Them “Indycrats”?

It is commonplace to call attention to the polarized nature of partisan views on Bush’s administration and policies. Republicans approve; Democrats don’t, and the gulfs between them are immense by historical standards.

The latest CBS News poll confirms this yawning gulf between Democrats and Republicans. But it shows something else that is actually far more significant: the views of political independents are now almost as far away from Republicans as Democrats are. In fact, the two groups – independents and Democrats – have converged so strongly in their political views that we could almost lump them together as one group, “Indycrats,” whose views are starkly different from those of GOP identifiers.

Consider these data from the CBS News poll:

1. Bush’s overall approval rating is 79 percent among Republicans and 14 percent among Democrats – a gap of 65 points. But his rating is also just 29 percent among independents, producing a very sizable gap of 50 points relative to GOP identifiers. Put another way, independents are 50 points away from Republicans, but just 15 points away from Democrats.

2. Only 20 percent of independents believe the country is going in the right direction, a mere 12 points more than the comparable figure among Democrats – but 37 points less than the figure among Republicans.

3. Twenty-six percent of independents approve of Bush’s handling of the economy (66 percent disapprove), 14 points more than the number of Democrats who approve – but 44 points less than the number among Republicans.

4. Twenty-six percent of independents approve of Bush’s handling of the Iraq situation – 15 points more than Democrats; 43 points less than Republicans.

5. On handling the campaign against terrorism, 38 percent of independents approve of the job Bush is doing. That’s 11 points more than Democrats, but 45 points less than Republicans.

6. How about whether Bush has “the same priorities for the country as you have”? Sixty-nine percent of Republicans agree, but just 11 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of independents.

7. Was removing Saddam Hussein from power worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq? Only 30 percent of independents and 15 percent of Democrats say yes, compared to 70 percent among Republicans.

8. And what should the U.S. do now? Just 24 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of independents believe we should “stay in Iraq as long as it takes to make sure Iraq is a stable democracy” (the administration position), compared to 61 percent of Republicans.

You get the idea. Independents and Democrats – “Indycrats” – see eye to eye on the policies and priorities of the Bush administration – which they find very wanting indeed – while Republicans are off seemingly on a different planet.

This helps clarify an important aspect of today’s political polarization. It’s not that there are two roughly equal groups in the public that are at loggerheads with one another. Or that the Democrats and Republicans are light years from one another, while the political center stands in a crossfire, equidistant from both extremes. Instead, what we have is one large group, Indycrats (two-thirds of the public), on one side and a much smaller group, Republicans (one-third of the public), on the other.

That’s polarization, all right, but polarization that pits a big center-left majority against a small right-wing minority (inverting the claims of many after the 2004 election that the U.S. had become a center-right nation). And it’s polarization that raises a vexing question: why can’t this big majority – the Indycrats – get more of what they want? Why do the policies and priorities of the country seem skewed toward the minority, not the majority?

That’s a huge question and certainly part of the answer lies in GOP manipulation of cultural issues and the war on terror to promote their narrow agenda. But that’s by all means not the whole story of how the public and public policy got so divorced from one another. The other part of the story is about a GOP leadership increasingly responsive to its own base and increasingly clever about circumventing the popular will to promote that base’s agenda. For that story, I refer you to the important new book, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

In the meantime, we shall see how long the Bush administration is able to keep the Indycrats at bay. Given the way the Bush administration is currently unraveling, even all the clever tricks described in Hacker’s and Pierson’s book may not be enough to save them this time.

Has the Public Turned Away from Internationalism? (Part Two)

Last week, I examined public opinion on America’s role in the world to see whether the move toward unilateralism in American foreign policy could be traced to shifts in public opinion. The verdict was: no, not really.

But perhaps that examination was looking in the wrong place for the relevant change. Maybe the real shift has been in the realm of the economic, as the public has shifted from a pro-free trade to anti-free trade stance. There is little evidence of this either. We lack a consistent time series, but in 1953, Gallup found a 54-33 majority favoring a policy of free trade. Almost half a century later, in 2000, the Pew Research Center found a 64-27 majority in favor of the idea that free trade with other countries is good for the United States.

If anything, support for free trade, at least in principle, may be increasing, not decreasing. When posed as a question of whether tariffs across countries should be eliminated to bring the costs of goods down for everybody or are necessary to protect manufacturing jobs, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) surveys recorded a steady drop from 1978, when 57 percent thought tariffs could be justified in that way, to 49 percent in 1998.

Finally, in the 2004 CCFR survey, 64 percent described the process of globalization as mostly good for the U.S., compared to just 31 percent who said it was mostly bad. And in the same poll, the public said, by a 73-22 margin, that international trade is good for “consumers like you,” by a 65-29 margin that it was good for “your own standard of living,” by a 59-37 margin that it was good for American companies and by a 57-39 margin that it was good for the U.S. economy.

Nor do Americans wish to stop or even slow down the process of globalization. Surveys invariably find large majorities favoring the continuation of the globalization process and little support for opting out of that process.

Again, it is hard to know for sure, but these data do not suggest there has been a substantial decline in public support for the principle of free trade in recent decades – certainly not enough to be a significant factor in the decline of internationalism. And it is possible that there has been no decline at all in pro-free trade sentiment and that change has actually been in the opposite direction.

On to other factors, then. What about salience? It is possible that support for internationalism has remained about the same, but the salience of internationalism to the average American has declined, perhaps drastically. This is the argument of James Lindsay in his 2000 Foreign Affairs article, “The New Apathy: How an Uninterested American Public Is Reshaping Foreign Policy.” While Americans’ views continue to support multilateralism, international institutions like the U.N., etc=, these views matter much less to them than they once did, so politicians feel free to ignore these views when they form policy. They know they won’t be punished by an American public in the grip of an “apathetic internationalism.”

This is a more promising line of analysis. It is true, for example, that Americans’ tendency to describe some foreign policy problem as the nation’s most important problem has declined over time. Political scientist Mark Smith has found that, from 1950 to 1972, an economic problem was the dominant problem mentioned by the public just 5 percent of the time, while from 1973 onward, an economic problem was the dominant problem 65 percent of the time. Consistent with this shift, the number naming a foreign policy issue as the most important problem declined from 10-20 percent or even more of the public to 2-3 percent in the late 1990s.

But there has been a resurgence, naturally, of the tendency to name a foreign policy problem since 9/11, so this point seems less sharp than it once was. On the other hand, since internationalism’s problems accumulated over decades, perhaps a long-term decline – even if now partly reversed – in the apparent salience of foreign policy to the public did play a role in eroding internationalism.

Lindsay also argues that Americans follow foreign affairs less closely than they once did, contributing to the decline in foreign policy salience. This seems a more difficult case to make. The first CCFR survey in 1974 found 50 percent saying they were “very interested” in following news about the relations of the U.S. with other countries and the last one, in 2004, found 53 percent expressing that level of interest (after a spike to 62 percent in 2002, the first survey after 9/11).

But if attentiveness to foreign affairs has not declined, perhaps the aspects of foreign affairs that most engage the public have changed. A clue is provided by Smith’s data on the extraordinary post-1973 surge in importance of economic issues to the public. And it does appear that these concerns have spilled over into foreign affairs. Since 1974, concern about jobs has been very high in the CCFR survey and, in the 2004 survey, 78 percent thought “protecting the jobs of American workers” was a “very important” goal of U.S. foreign policy. This was higher than for any other goal, including combating international terrorism. This apparent rise in the importance of economic foreign policy goals in the eyes of the public may have contributed to the erosion of internationalism, at least in its classic post-World War II form.

This discussion suggests some ways in which shifts in the composition and intensity of public sentiment about foreign affairs may have contributed to the decline of internationalism. But it is worth asking the question at this point: how much does the public really influence foreign policy anyway? If there is little connection there, then, logically, even if there have been significant shifts in the structure of public opinion on foreign affairs, these shifts could not have played much of a role in the demise of internationalism.

Some evidence for a lack of connection between the public and foreign policy is provided in a 2005 American Political Science Review article by Lawrence Jacobs and Benjamin Page. Jacobs and Page examine data from CCFR surveys of the public and of policymakers, labor leaders, business leaders and foreign policy experts between 1974 and 2002 and find that it is primarily business leaders and, secondarily, experts that exert influence over the preferences of policymakers, not the public.

The Jacobs and Page work is hardly definitive. It covers a limited period and leaves open the possibility that public sentiment may set the overall agenda for foreign policy within which business and experts exert the most direct influence. But it should add to our doubts that changes in the structure of public opinion on foreign affairs have had much to do with the fading of post-World War II internationalism and the rise of Bush-era unilateralism.

For the latter trend, we probably need look no further than the occupant of the White House and his allies in the Congress. But the public can justifiably plead innocent.

Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.