Partisan Divisions on Foreign Policy Widened in 2018

Summary of Study

Bottom LineHas the domestic partisanship of the last decade finally become ingrained in international decision-making? 2018 saw the most significant gap in decades between Democratic and Republican opinion of foreign policy issues. Will these blaring instances of increasing divisiveness be the new norm?

Increasingly divisive partisanship in the United States is not a novel revelation - especially over the course of the last decade - and explains why the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has sought to tackle this trend through the lens of a wide range of policy issues.

According to decades of Chicago Council research, partisanship in recent years has played an increasingly impactful, direct role in U.S. international affairs. As recent elections such as the 2018 midterms saw voters casting ballots on the basis of loyalty or affinity for a party or candidate, so too have Americans begun to voice foreign policy opinions rooted in partisan affiliation over, say, research or figures.

Seven of the starkest divides were showcased in this recent Chicago Council study:

1. Illegal Immigration

Do you think controlling and reducing illegal immigration is a key foreign policy goal?

A large percentage of Republicans and Democrats agreed controlling illegal immigration was crucial; that is, until 2004. The latter’s concern has only decreased since, hitting an all-time low in 2018 with only 20% of Democrats effectively disqualifying illegal immigration as an important foreign policy goal.


Do you think NAFTA is good or bad for the economy?  

Both parties remain staunchly pro-free trade, but Democrats have become increasingly more positive about trade agreements than their friends across the aisle in the last decade.

Since 2008, the gap between GOP and Democratic support for NAFTA has grown from mere single digits to a recent trend of 36 to 37 percentage points, with 79% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans saying NAFTA is good for the economy. 


Do you think we should increase, maintain, decrease, or withdraw our commitment?

2018 saw a 22% gap – the widest in Chicago Council history – between Republican and Democratic enthusiasm for NATO.

Though Democrats have increasingly favored maintaining and increasing support for NATO since 1986, the Chicago Council nonetheless attributes this growing divide to a potential reflection of the president’s criticism of U.S. expenditure for the alliance. 

4. Russia 

Rate your feelings towards some countries and peoples: Russia.

Americans in both parties have felt similarly about the Russians since the Cold War; that is, until the last few years. Out of a max positive feeling of 100 degrees, Republicans gave Russia a 39-degree rating in 2018, while Democrats gave a 25-degree rating.

Given that the shift began after the 2016 election, the Chicago Council has summarized that this recent gap – the widest since first surveyed in the Cold War – is due to attempted election interference, and the ensuing increased tension with Russia in past years.

5. U.S. Military Superiority

Maintaining superior military power worldwide – an important foreign policy goal?

With yet another record-high gap for 2018, Republicans top Democrats by 29 percentage points in the former’s desire to maintain military might worldwide.

Given that roughly 60% of both parties equally pushed for U.S. military superiority in 1998 and the shift happened soon thereafter, the Chicago Council surmises that 9/11 influenced the Democrats’ waning emphasis on maintaining the U.S. military might. 

6. United Nations Strength

Strengthening the United Nations – an important foreign policy goal? 

The years 1974 to 1998 saw an American public united in their belief that the U.N. was a powerful tool for foreign policy – via diplomacy. Since then, both parties have steadily grown apart, bolstered most recently by a Democratic spike in U.N. support in 2002. 

By 2018, 61% of Democrats believed that strengthening the U.N. is a very important foreign policy goal, while only 29% of Republicans and 24% of Independents said the same.

Given that 9/11 also coincides with the shift in sentiment for the U.N., the Chicago Council suggests that the Democrats perhaps sought diplomatic security for foreign policy rather than military superiority in the aftermath of the attacks.

7. Protecting Weaker Nations 

Protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression – an important foreign policy goal?

Yet another record gap for 2018: 42% of Democrats versus 24% of Republicans believe in the importance of protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression.

Though the Chicago Council places the responsibility for this shift on the last decade, two prior spikes in opinion are also noteworthy. In 1990-1991, Republicans, Democrats and Independents all jump roughly 20 percentage points to 57%. Another, albeit smaller, spike in 2002 brings the three groups collectively back up to the low 40% range.

To conclude, the polling on the U.S. military (Question 5) and the United Nations (6) respectively demonstrates how the 9/11 attacks may have seemingly influenced a shift in partisan identities, with the Right prioritizing the military and the Left, the U.N., as the more effective tool for foreign policy. In a similarly notable shift, the weaker nations survey (7) reveals a break in trend - this time, bringing the parties closer together. According to the charticle, at the time of the Gulf War, and again, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, both parties came together in agreement to protect weaker nations against foreign aggression. 

Read the full report here.

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