November 5, 2003

The 2004 Political Landscape

Part 3: Foreign Policy, International Threats and Patriotism

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks profoundly affected the way Americans view national security threats and their own sense of personal safety. But for the most part, the public’s views about global engagement and the role of military power have stayed fairly stable since the Center began its values surveys 16 years ago.

The public is united on the need to stay globally engaged: Nine-in-ten say it is better for the future of the country to be active in world affairs, and half completely agree. These numbers have varied little since the late 1980s. That opinion is tempered by the solid majority (76%) who believe less attention should be paid to overseas problems and more focus on problems at home. However, the percentage holding that view has declined since the mid-1990s.

Behind the general stability in opinion, however, there have been significant political and demographic shifts, particularly over the past two years, in fundamental values relating to the relationship between military strength and peace, internationalism and patriotism. Republicans and Democrats have never been further apart on many of these issues, while the gender gap over national security has narrowed considerably.

The terrorist attacks of two years ago did affect public opinion on a few issues. Notably, there is heightened concern about international threats. Three-quarters of Americans believe the world is a more dangerous place than it was a decade ago; in a Pew Center survey conducted in early September 2001, days before the Sept. 11 attacks, far fewer (53%) expressed such concern.

Moreover, while the public has long supported tighter immigration controls by wide margins, the intensity of that opposition has risen in the aftermath of the attacks. Overall, about eight-in-ten Americans (77%) believe that “we should restrict and control people coming into our country to live more than we do now.” That is down slightly from last year (80%) though it marks a modest increase from 1999 (72% agree). But the number who completely agree with that statement rose from 38% in 1999 to 49% in 2002, before settling at 46% in the current survey.

Growing concern over terrorism also resulted in a dramatic, but short-lived, changes in other attitudes ­ views of the concept of “peace through strength” and whether it is right to take revenge on enemies. But in both cases, opinion has returned close to historical norms after rising sharply in the wake of the attacks. Last year, for instance, 62% of Americans agreed that “the best way to ensure peace is through military strength;” that is the highest percentage holding that view since 1989 (61%). But this year, a much narrower majority (53%) expressed that opinion.

In 2002, fully 61% of Americans endorsed the idea that the U.S. should “get even” with nations that take advantage of it ­ by far the highest number holding that opinion since Pew began its values surveys. But after two wars in the past two years, that sentiment has clearly receded; fewer than half (48%) now say it is appropriate to take revenge on other countries that take advantage of the U.S.

Yet 9/11 has had a more enduring impact on how Americans feel about their own country. The United States has always been a highly patriotic country, but over the past two years there has been a significant increase in the intensity of that sentiment. Consistently, nine-in-ten agree with the statement “I am very patriotic.” In the past, about half said they completely agreed with that sentiment, but the percentage in strong agreement increased to 54% in 2002 and again to 56% this year.

Military Strength: Iraq Shapes Democratic Views

Dating back to the late 1980s, Republicans have been more supportive than Democrats of the idea of peace through military strength, but the differences have never been this significant. In the current survey, 69% of Republicans agree that “the best way to ensure peace is through military strength, ” which is largely unchanged since last year (72%) and 1999 (70% in 1999).

By contrast, throughout the 1980s and 1990s only about half of Democrats embraced the idea that a strong military forms the basis for peace. In 2002, 55% of Democrats backed this idea, which was in line with the findings in previous years. But in the current survey, that number has dipped to 44% ­ the lowest percentage ever. Consequently, the gap between Republicans and Democrats on this issue ­ 25 points ­ has never been wider.

Political independents are much closer to Democrats than Republicans on this issue. And, like Democrats, independents have become much less supportive of peace through strength in the past year. In 2002, 62% of independents said they believed the best way to ensure peace is through military strength. Today, only about half of independents endorse that idea (51%).

Clearly, the war in Iraq has influenced Democratic views on this issue. In the political values survey, conducted July 14-Aug. 5, Democrats were divided over the decision to attack Iraq ­ 46% thought it was right, while the same number said it was the wrong decision. Democratic opponents of the war overwhelmingly rejected “peace through strength” ­ fully 72% disagreed compared with just 27% who agreed. By comparison, a majority of Democratic supporters of the war (55%) said that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength.

In the October survey that updated opinion on the presidential election (conducted Oct. 15-19), Democratic support for the war declined significantly. More than half of Democrats (54%) felt that going to war was the wrong decision compared with just 35% who thought it was the right thing to do. Independents (59% right decision) and Republicans (85%) remained much more supportive of the war.

Gender Gap Disappears

For the first 12 years of the Pew values survey, there also was a consistent gender gap over peace through strength. Four years ago, for example, 61% of men said that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength, but just half of women agreed. But those differences disappeared in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In 2002, equal numbers of men and women (62%) endorsed the principle of peace through strength, the first time that has occurred. For women, this represented a significant shift in opinion: Over the previous decade, no more than 52% of women had expressed this view. The current survey shows that fewer men and women now hold this opinion than in 2002, but that the gender gap remains negligible (54% of men, 52% of women).

The events of the past two years have affected public opinion on this issue in other ways as well. In 2002, for the first time since 1989, a majority of Americans under age 30 (51%) endorsed peace through strength. But the percentage of young people expressing this view fell to 43% in 2003. Older Americans ­ particularly those age 65 and older ­ have consistently been more supportive of the idea that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength (61% in 2003).

College Grads Skeptical of ‘Peace Through Strength’

Americans with different educational backgrounds have long held divergent views on foreign policy and security issues. But these differences have deepened over the past few years, especially on the issue of peace through strength. College graduates have grown much more skeptical of the idea that peace is grounded on military strength.

Just 41% of college graduates agree with that statement in the current survey, a 17-point decline over the past year alone (58% in 2002). The current measure is the lowest among college graduates on this question since the Pew values surveys began. By comparison, those with a high school education or less have remained consistently supportive of peace through strength. Roughly six-in-ten (58%) of those with high school or less agree, a modest decline from last year (66%). Differences between those with a high school and college educations have never been wider (17 points).

Views on Military Strength, Preemption Related

As might be expected, opinions on whether military strength ensures peace are related to attitudes toward the preemptive use of military force against potential enemies. Overall, 20% of Americans believe that the use of military force is often justified against countries that may threaten the U.S. but have not attacked, while 43% say such force is sometimes justified. About a third (32%) say it is rarely (19%) or never (13%) justified.

A solid majority (73%) of those who believe that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength say preemptive military action is often or sometimes justified. Those who disagree that military strength provides the basis for peace are more divided: 51% say the use of preemptive force is at least sometimes justified; 46% say it is rarely or never justified.

As is the case regarding attitudes toward peace through strength, Republicans and Democrats disagree over preemptive attacks on potential enemies. More than eight-in-ten Republicans (83%) believe such attacks are often (34%) or sometimes (49%) justified. A narrow majority of Democrats (52%) agree, with just 13% saying the use of force against countries that may threaten the U.S. is often justified.

The ideological gulf on this issue is much larger. Nearly four-in-ten conservative Republicans (39%) believe preemptive attacks on enemies are often justified, compared with fewer than one-in-ten liberal Democrats (9%). A majority of liberal Democrats (53%) say preemptive military action against potential enemies is rarely (34%) or never (19%) justified.

Nuclear Concerns Persist

The public’s increasing wariness of global threats is seen in a number of values. Three-quarters say the world is a more dangerous place than it was a decade ago, while 64% think the U.S. faces greater danger of biological, chemical or nuclear attack (up from 51% in 2001). (See “Two Years Later, the Fear Lingers,” Sept. 4, 2003).

Americans also have expressed consistent concern over the prospect of nuclear war. Throughout the 1990s, about half the public consistently said they often worried about the chances of a nuclear war, down about 10 points from the final years of the Cold War (61% in 1988). Concerns rose a bit last year, to 56%, and stand at 53% in the current survey.

While there is only a modest partisan gap in concerns over other foreign threats, Democrats have consistently expressed more anxiety over nuclear war than have Republicans. In the current survey, six-in-ten Democrats and four-in-ten Republicans say they often worry about the chances for nuclear war. The partisan gap in nuclear war fears has increased since the late 1990s and now is comparable to differences in surveys 10 to 15 years ago.

Women and African Americans also voice more concern over nuclear war than do men and whites. Again this has been a fairly consistent finding in Pew values surveys dating back to the 1980s. In the current survey, 58% of women and 48% of men say they often worry about a possible nuclear war. An even larger gap divides blacks and whites (69% of blacks, 54% of whites).

Bigger Partisan Gap on Internationalism

Partisan divisions on other values have also grown in recent years. Solid majorities in both parties have long agreed that the U.S. should pay less attention to overseas problems, although this has coexisted with overwhelming bipartisan support for an activist U.S. global role.

Since 1999, there has been a significant decline in the percentage of Republicans who agree with the statement: “We should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.” In each of the past two surveys, about two-thirds of Republicans have expressed this sentiment (66% in 2003, 67% in 2002), down from 77% in 1999. In 1992, when Pew first asked this question, 84% of Republicans agreed.

The percentage of Democrats who believe the U.S. should pay less attention to overseas problems also declined between 1999 and 2002 (from 86% to 77%), but climbed again in the past year to 82%. The gap between the two parties, which ranged from 3% to 10% in the 1990s, now stands at 16%.

More Intense Opposition to Immigration

In general, there are only modest partisan differences in opinion on tighter immigration controls. About eight-in-ten Republicans (82%) and somewhat fewer independents and Democrats (76% each) agree with the statement “We should restrict and control people coming into our country to live more than we do now.”

But there is a growing gap in the intensity of these attitudes. More than half of Republicans (54%) completely agree that immigration controls should be tightened, little change from last year (53%), but a 16-point increase since 1999. Among independents and Democrats, intense opposition to immigration also grew in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, although it has subsided a bit in the current survey.

In 2002, about half of Democrats (49%) and nearly as many independents (46%) said they completely agree that immigration controls need to be beefed up, a significant increase from 1999 (35% of Democrats, 38% of independents). This year, slightly fewer Democrats and independents express strong support for tougher immigration controls (45%, 43%).

Education is an even more important factor in these attitudes. Fully 55% of those with a high school education completely agree that immigration restrictions should be tightened, up from 44% four years ago. By comparison, among college graduates there has been a much more modest increase in strong support for more tighter immigration restrictions (31% now, 26% in 1999).

The Patriotism Gap

Nearly every American agrees with the statement “I am very patriotic,” but there is a large and growing division in the intensity with which Republicans and Democrats express this sentiment. Currently, 71% of Republicans and just 48% of Democrats say they completely agree with that statement.

The percentage of Republicans strongly voicing feelings of patriotism has risen sharply in the past year, from 63% to 71%. By comparison, Democratic opinion on this value has changed little in recent years. Since 1999, about half of Democrats have said they completely agree with the statement “I am very patriotic.” The events of the past two years have had little impact on those attitudes.

By contrast, many more independents strongly agree with that statement than did so four years ago (54% completely agree now, 40% in 1999). But the views of independents still are much closer to those of Democrats than Republicans: There is a six-point gap in patriotic intensity between independents and Democrats (54% vs. 48%), and a 17-point gap between Republicans and independents (71% of Republicans vs. 54% of independents).

Race and Patriotism

The vast majority of African Americans express patriotic sentiments, though there long have been differences between blacks and whites on this issue. During the 1990s, about three-quarters of blacks said they agree with the statement “I am very patriotic,” compared with about 90% of whites.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, there was a sharp rise in the percentage of African Americans expressing patriotism. In 2002, fully of 88% of African Americans agreed with the statement “I am very patriotic,” up from 75% in 1999; 45% completely agreed, compared with 32% three years earlier. Whites were still somewhat more likely than blacks to identify themselves as very patriotic, with 94% in agreement and 57% completely agreeing, but the gap between the races was narrower it had been in more than a decade.

But in the current survey the attitudes of blacks and whites toward patriotism once again diverge. There has been a 10-point decline the percentage of blacks who identify themselves as very patriotic (from 88% to 78%), while the percentage in complete agreement has dropped from 45% to 38%. By comparison, white sentiments have changed very little over the past year; 93% say they are very patriotic while 59% completely agree.

Even among Democrats, there are clear differences among whites and blacks in intensity of patriotic feelings. Roughly half of white Democrats (52%) completely agree that they are very patriotic, little changed from past years. That compares with about four-in-ten black Democrats (38%) who express strong patriotism.

Democrats Less Confident

While feelings of patriotism are nearly universal, Americans are less expansive in other views of the country. Two-thirds (66%) agree with the statement “As Americans we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want.” That is a decline from 2002 (74%), but in line with opinions throughout the late 1980s and 1990s.

The partisan divide has widened over the past year, in this case because fewer Democrats and independents believe Americans can find a way to overcome their problems. Roughly six-in-ten Democrats say that now (63%), a decline of eight points in the past year. Similarly, somewhat fewer independents endorse this idea (66% now, 74% in 2002).

Republicans generally are much more upbeat about national conditions ­ and the future ­ than are Democrats. Fully seven-in-ten Republicans agree with the statement “I don’t believe that there are any real limits to growth in this country today,” while barely half of Democrats concur (51%). Again, this gap is wider than it has been in the past.

Fight for U.S., Right or Wrong?

A similar partisan split is seen in opinion on whether someone has an obligation to fight for the United States, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. Overall, about half the public (52%) agrees with the statement “We should all be willing to fight for our country, whether it is right or wrong.” Views on this issue have been generally stable for about a decade; in the early 1990s, somewhat more Americans felt people had an obligation to fight for the U.S. whether it was right or wrong.

Partisan differences on this question have fluctuated over the past 16 years. Four years ago, the gap had almost disappeared as roughly half of those in both parties (52% of Republicans, 48% of independents, 48% of Democrats) agreed that everyone had an obligation to fight for the country, right or wrong.

But over the past two years, differences have reemerged, as Republicans have become significantly more supportive of a person’s obligation to fight, regardless of whether the country is right or wrong, while opinion among Democrats and independents has been stable. In the current survey, 62% of Republicans say everyone should be willing to fight for the U.S., regardless of the circumstances, compared with about half of independents (49%) and fewer Democrats (46%).

Democratic attitudes toward a person’s military obligation also are closely related to opinion of the Iraq war. Nearly six-in-ten Democrats (57%) who believe the United States made the right decision in going to war against Iraq feel people have a duty to fight, regardless if the country is right or wrong. Just 30% of Democratic war opponents agree.

Races Divide Over Obligation to Fight

Attitudes toward a person’s obligation to fight have never been more racially polarized. Fully 55% of whites think that everyone has an obligation to fight for the U.S., even when it is wrong, but just 30% of African Americans agree. That is by far the biggest racial division over this issue since the Pew values survey began. In 1999, 46% of African Americans said that one had an obligation to fight for the U.S. right or wrong and the racial gap was a modest five points.

There also has been a decline in the percentage of college graduates who believe that everyone has an obligation to fight for the U.S. right or wrong. About four-in-ten (39%) say that now, compared with 47% last year. The current figure is more in line with historical norms, suggesting last year’s rise was a response to Sept. 11. Opinion among those with a high school education has been more stable: 58% say a person should fight no matter what, compared with 54% last year and 55% in 1999.

Fewer Say ‘Get Even’

Through the late 1980s and 1990s, the public was divided over whether the U.S. should “get even” with nations that take advantage of it. During this period of relative peace, there seems little doubt that most respondents viewed the issue in an economic context.

But the context changed completely in 2002, and so too did opinion on this issue. In the 2002 survey, less than a year after the 9/11 attacks, 61% agreed with the statement “It is my belief that we should get even with any country that tries to take advantage of the United States.” Three years earlier, just 42% expressed agreement with that idea.

In the 1990s, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to endorse getting even with other countries, which reflected greater Democratic reservations over free trade. Partisan differences all but disappeared in 2002, as more than six-in-ten in each party (64% or Republicans, 62% of Democrats) ­ as well as 60% of independents ­ said they believed the U.S. should take revenge on nations that take advantage of it. These attitudes have moderated with the passage of time. In the current survey, 52% of Republicans and 46% of Democrats ­ and the same number of independents ­ say they believe the U.S. should take revenge on adversaries.

Points of Agreement

Although the public has a strong sense of patriotism, most people reject the notion that American lives are worth more than those of people in other countries. Only about one-in-five (19%) agree with the statement “American lives are worth more than the lives of people in other countries.” That is largely unchanged from past years, and roughly the same percentage of Republicans, independents and Democrats subscribe to this view (21% of Republicans, 19% of independents and Democrats).

Political partisans also are united by their belief that most countries that have “gotten help from America end up resenting us.” Two-thirds of Americans (67%) hold this view. Opinion on this issue has changed little in recent years, but somewhat more people expressed this view in 1988 (76%) and 1994 (72%). Similar percentages of Republicans, independents and Democrats believe countries that receive U.S. help end up resenting the United States.

Cite this publication: “The 2004 Political Landscape.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (November 5, 2003) http://www.people-press.org/2003/11/05/the-2004-political-landscape/, accessed on July 22, 2014.