May 21, 2009

Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era

Section 6: Foreign Policy and Global Engagement

Despite the economic crisis, there is no indication that isolationist sentiment has increased among the public. An overwhelming proportion of Americans believe the United States should be active in world affairs. Support for free trade agreements has increased over the past year, and opinions about immigration are generally stable.

Fully 90% agree that “it’s best for our country to be active in world affairs,” which has changed very little over the past two decades. Notably, the proportion that completely agrees with this statement has rebounded after declining in 2007: 51% completely agree, up from 42% two years ago and roughly the same percentage as in 2003 (50%).

As other Pew Research Center surveys this year have found, the public clearly believes that domestic concerns should take precedence over foreign matters. More than three-quarters of Americans (78%) agree that “we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.” Yet that percentage is no higher than it has been the past two values surveys in 2007 and 2003.

In general, opinions about immigration and the impact of immigrants on traditional values also have changed little. And by nearly two-to-one (63% to 34%), most favor a way for illegal immigrants in the United States to gain legal citizenship if they meet certain conditions, including passing background checks and paying fines.

Support for NAFTA and other free trade agreements has recovered over the past year after declining in 2008. In addition, while a majority of Americans (55%) believe that China “has taken unfair advantage of the United States,” the proportion concurring with this sentiment is far below the percentage that said Japan took unfair advantage of the United States in the early 1990s.

The public continues to be divided over the role of a strong military in maintaining peace and there is not much change in the proportion agreeing that “the best way to ensure peace is through military strength.” Currently, 53% agree with this statement while 42% disagree. In 2007, 49% agreed and 47% disagreed – the highest proportion disagreeing since the question was first asked in 1987.

Support for Activist Global Role

As in the past, there is broad agreement across demographic and political groups that it is best for the future of the United States to be active globally. But there has been a sharp rise in the proportion of Democrats who completely agree with this sentiment from two years ago.

Currently, 55% of Democrats completely agree on the need for the United States to be active globally, up from just 39% in 2007. Among independents, half completely agree, compared with 43% two years ago. Republican views are largely unchanged (44% in 2007, 47% today).

A greater proportion of women also completely agree that it is best for the United States to be active in the world (from 37% to 50%), while opinions among men have not changed significantly.

While the public overwhelmingly favors an activist role for the United States globally, a large majority (78%) also says that “we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.” In the early 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, larger percentages believed the United States should focus more on problems at home (88% in 1992, 85% in 1993).

Large majorities across the spectrum agree with this statement, but as with views of the U.S. global role, there are sizable educational differences in opinions about whether we should concentrate less on problems abroad and more on problems in this country.

Roughly two-thirds of college graduates (67%) agree that we should focus more on domestic concerns, and even larger percentages of those with some college education (77%) and those with no more than a high school education (85%) agree. Nearly half of those with a high school education or less (48%) completely agree with this sentiment, compared with only about a quarter of college graduates (24%).

Peace Through Strength

The Sept. 11 terror attacks and the war in Iraq clearly affected fundamental opinions about whether a strong military posture is the best way to ensure peace. But the effect was short-lived. The proportion agreeing that “the best way to ensure peace is through military strength” peaked at 62% following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, fell to 53% a year later and declined to 49% in 2007. In the current survey, support is again at 53%.

Three-quarters of Republicans agree that peace is best ensured through military strength compared with just 43% of Democrats. The partisan gap over this issue is among the largest for any of the values items in the survey.

There also are larger age differences in views about this issue than in recent values surveys. Young people are far less likely than older people to say that peace is ensured through military strength. Currently just 38% of those younger than 30 agree with this statement, compared with majorities in older age groups. The belief that military strength is the best way to ensure peace is most prevalent among those 65 and older – fully 67% agree.

In 2007, 45% of those under 30 said that peace was best ensured through military strength. Since then, the proportion of young people in agreement with this statement has declined slightly (38%), while an increased share of those 65 and older agree that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength (56% in 2007 to 67%).

Fight for U.S., Even When Wrong?

A narrow majority (53%) agrees that “we all should be willing to fight for our country, whether it is right or wrong;” 41% disagree. As with views about peace through strength, general opinions about this issue have changed little in recent years, but there are increasing partisan and age differences.

In 1999, about half of Republicans (52%), Democrats (48%) and independents (48%) agreed that one had a responsibility to fight for the United States, whether it is right or wrong. Over the past decade, however, there has been a large increase in the proportion of Republicans agreeing with this statement, while opinions among Democrats and independents have not changed substantially.

Currently, 68% of Republicans agree that a person should fight for this country right or wrong; that equals an all-time high among the GOP reached in 1990. Only about half of independents (52%) and Democrats (47%) agree that one has an obligation to fight even when the country is wrong.

Slightly more than four-in-ten (43%) of those younger than 30 agree that a person should fight for the United States right or wrong, the lowest percentage of young people to agree with this statement in a values survey. By contrast, most people older than 30 (56%) say that everyone should fight for the United States, right or wrong.

Since 2007, there has been a sharp increase in the proportion of African Americans who believe that everyone should be willing to fight for the United States, even when it is wrong. Currently, 45% of blacks express this view, up 15 points since 2007 and the highest percentage in a decade. The percentage of whites agreeing with this statement has remained stable in recent years.

Immigration Policy

The public continues to overwhelmingly support limiting the number of immigrants entering the country, and a slight majority agrees that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries threaten traditional American customs and values.”

Nonetheless, most Americans (63%) say they favor providing a way for illegal immigrants currently in the country to gain legal citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs. The proportion favoring such a proposal has ticked upward, from 58% in December 2007.

Support for providing citizenship for illegal immigrants, if they pay fines and meet other conditions, has increased sharply among those ages 30 to 49 (by 16 points), Democrats (11 points) and college graduates (10 points). Among Republicans, half favor giving illegal immigrants a way to become citizens under these circumstances, compared with 56% in 2007.

The change among Democrats has come entirely among the party’s moderates and conservatives: 70% currently support a way to provide citizenship for illegal immigrants under certain conditions, up from 53% in December 2007. As in 2007, more liberal Democrats than conservatives and moderates in the party support this idea (82% in 2009 and 83% in 2007), but the ideological gap among Democrats has narrowed.

Most Want Tighter Immigration Controls

Currently, 73% agree that “we should restrict and control people coming to live in our country more than we do now,” which is little changed from recent values surveys; just 23% disagree with the goal of limiting the flow of newcomers to the United States.

While overall opinions about this issue have changed only modestly in recent years, fewer Democrats agree with this statement than did so in 2007 (64% now, 74% in 2007). By contrast, slightly more independents believe there should be greater restrictions on people coming to live in the United States; 77% say that now, up from 72% two years ago. As a result, the gap between Democrats and independents on this issue, which was negligible in recent values surveys, is now 13 points. Slightly more than eight-in-ten Republicans (83%) favor greater restrictions on immigrants, which is little changed from previous surveys.

People in the youngest age group – those younger than 30 –are less likely than older people to say that there should be greater restrictions on people entering this country. There is an even bigger – and growing – age difference in views about the impact that immigrants have on traditional American values.

Currently, 35% of those younger than 30 believe that the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values. That compares with 50% of those 30 to 49, 57% of those 50 to 64 and nearly two-thirds (65%) of those 65 and older. The gap between the youngest and oldest age groups on this issue, which had narrowed to 11 points in the 2007 values survey, has approximately tripled, to 30 points.

China Trade Concerns

Overall public support for free trade agreements has recovered after declining in 2008. Currently, 44% say that free trade agreements like NAFTA and the policies of the World Trade Organization are good for the country, up from 35% a year ago. Slightly more than a third (35%) say that such agreements and policies are bad for the country, down from 48% in April 2008. (For more information see April 2009 Support for Free Trade Recovers Despite Recession).

And while most Americans (55%) agree that China “has taken unfair advantage of the United States,” there is less resentment against China today than there was against Japan in the early 1990s; in 1992, 69% said that Japan had taken unfair advantage of the United States.

Trade is far less of a partisan issue than either foreign policy or immigration. Roughly equal numbers of Republicans (61%) and Democrats (55%) say China has taken unfair advantage of the U.S. There are, however, substantial educational differences in views of whether China is taking unfair advantage of the United States; 62% of those with no more than high school education express this view, compared with 46% of college graduates. In addition, while majorities in age groups 30 and older agree that China has taken unfair advantage of the United States, only 38% of those younger than 30 concur.