Political polarization the critical threat to US, foreign policy experts say

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It’s not North Korea’s nuclear weapons or Iran’s attempts to get its own that ranks as the most critical threat facing the United States. Nor is it Russia’s influence in U.S. elections or China’s rise as a superpower. Instead, It’s political polarization, according to a new survey of nearly 600 foreign policy opinion leaders by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Texas National Security Network.

In the weeks preceding the midterm elections, a period in which news coverage of a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the movement of Central American migrant caravans, and Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination sharpened national divisions, nearly three-in-four foreign policy opinion leaders rated political polarization as a critical threat to U.S. national security.{mosads}

Not only was partisanship viewed as the highest threat overall, but it was also consistently high among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, making it nearly unique among the threats assessed in the survey. On the danger partisanship poses to the United States, at least, there is a bipartisan consensus.

Yet there is a great deal of daylight between Republicans and Democrats on other possible threats. For example, Republican opinion leaders are much more likely than Democratic or Independent leaders to consider Iran’s nuclear program and the rise of China a critical threat. Democrats are much more likely to view Russian influence in US elections and the decline of democracy around the world as critical threats.

While several GOP political ads played up the dangers of immigrants crossing US borders, relatively few among even GOP experts consider immigration a critical threat.

North Korea’s nuclear program is the only threat other than partisanship to earn notable levels of concern across political affiliation.

foreign policy opinion leaders

The leadership survey was conducted between August 2 and October 16, 2018 among 588 foreign policy opinion leaders from executive branch agencies, Congress, think tanks, academia, the media, interest groups, business leaders, religious groups, and NGOs. These particular groupings of opinion leaders were weighted to match the weights applied to previous Chicago Council opinion leader surveys going back to 1974.

Some of President Trump’s bold foreign policy actions, such as withdrawing the United States from the Paris agreement on climate change and the Iranian nuclear deal, also elicit polarized reactions across party lines. Nearly all Democratic opinion leaders support U.S. participation in both agreements (99 percent for the Paris agreement, 100 percent for the Iran deal) as do a majority of Independent leaders (86 percent Paris agreement, 74 percent Iran deal).  By contrast, only minorities of Republican opinion leaders favor these accords (36 percent for the Paris agreement, 46 percent for the Iran deal). That said, John Bolton, Trump’s fiercely unilateralist national security advisor, might recoil at the finding that more than a third of Republican foreign policy elites support U.S. participation in these agreements.

While political polarization is a top threat for leaders, it is a lesser, but still substantial, concern for the American public. A July 12-31, 2018 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey of the US public found that 50 percent of Americans consider political polarization a critical threat, behind only international terrorism (66 percent), and North Korean (59 percent) and Iranian (52 percent) nuclear programs.

Americans’ concern about polarization is more acute among self-identified Democrats (57 percent) and Independents (50 percent) than Republicans (41 percent).

The comparatively greater sense of alarm among foreign policy leaders versus the public about the threat presented by polarization may reflect leaders’ greater awareness of how polarization is eroding America’s international standing and weakening its ability to address various global challenges.

As with substance abuse and other addictions, identifying the problem is the first step toward remedying it.

The good news is that foreign policy leaders and much of the public express deep concern about rising polarization. As the United States moves on from a highly divisive election, the key challenge facing Americans is to go beyond giving lip service to the problem. This will require rewarding leaders who engage in civil discourse and seek to work across the aisle, rather than employing hateful rhetoric and partisan attacks that sharpen political divisions. 

Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Follow her on Twitter @RoguePollster.

Joshua Busby is an associate professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow him on Twitter @busbyj2.

Jordan Tama is Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University. Follow him on Twitter @ProfJordanTama.

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Donald Trump Foreign relations of the United States John Bolton National security Polarization Politics

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