What Does the U.S. Public Think of Its Government Arming and Bombing the World?

Data for Progress for quite a while appeared to be yet another U.S. PEP group (Progressive Except for Peace). They were producing useful polling reports on all sorts of topics as if 96% of humanity didn’t exist. Foreign policy just couldn’t be found. They told me they were just getting around to it. You still can’t find it from the homepage of their website (or at least it’s beyond my navigational skills), but Data for Progress has now published a report called “Voters Want to See a Progressive Overhaul of American Foreign Policy.”

They used “1,009 interviews of self-identified registered voters, conducted by YouGov on the internet. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, US Census region, and 2016 presidential vote choice. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s panel to be representative of registered voters.” This was a question:

“According to the Congressional Budget Office, the United States is expected to spend $738 billion on its military in 2020. That’s more than the next seven countries combined and more than the U.S. budget for education, federal courts, affordable housing, local economic development, and the State Department combined. Some say that maintaining a dominant global military footprint is necessary to keep us safe, and is worth the cost. Others say that money could be better spent on domestic needs like health care, education, or protecting the environment. Based on what you’ve just read, would you support or oppose reallocating money from the Pentagon budget to other priorities?”

A majority of 52% supported or “strongly supported” that idea (29% strongly supported it), while 32% opposed (20% strongly). If the sentence beginning “That’s more than . . . ” was left out, 51% supported the idea (30% strongly), while 36% opposed (19% strongly).

Of course there’s a major problem with the common pretense that the Pentagon budget is the military budget, namely the hundreds of billions of dollars going to “Homeland Security,” and the nukes in the “energy” department, and all the secretive spy-and-war agencies, and the military spending by the State Department, and the Veterans Administration, and so forth adding up to $1.25 trillion per year, not $738 billion. There’s a problem with opposing the State Department’s budget to the military budget when much of what the State Department does is in the service of militarism. There’s a problem with suggesting that money be moved to healthcare, namely that people in the United States already spend twice what they need to on healthcare; it’s just spent wastefully on sickness profiteers. There’s a problem with the choice being militarism or domestic spending. Why not militarism or peaceful spending? Both imperialists and humanists believe that the United States should share its wealth with the world in some ways other than militarism. “Protecting the environment” is hardly a “domestic need” — it’s a global project. The idea of militarism keeping people safe is best opposed not only to other priorities but also to the awareness that it actually makes people less safe. Etc.

Nonetheless, this is finally some U.S. polling data that is helpful in the project of ending war. That it accurately uses the term “military” rather than “defense” and that it asks about moving the money to useful things is a cut above the usual corporate polling, rare as even that is, on whether so-called defense spending should go up or down.

That the one sentence that was aimed at informing people of the extent of the trade-offs had limited impact is probably not because it was a bad idea but because it was only one sentence. As I noted eight years ago, we have polls showing that only 25% in the U.S. think their government should spend three times as much on militarism as the next most militarized nation, but only 32% (not 75%) think it currently spends too much. U.S. military spending across multiple governmental departments far exceeds three times Chinese military spending. A bill in Congress to restrict US military spending to three times the next most militarized nation might carry big popular support, but Congress would never pass it in the absence of intense public pressure, because it would require major cuts to the U.S. military that could trigger a reverse arms race.

When the University of Maryland, years ago, sat people down and showed them the federal budget in a pie chart (a more significant education than a single sentence) the results were dramatic, with a strong majority wanting to move serious money out of militarism and into human and environmental needs. Among other details revealed, the U.S. public would cut foreign aid to dictatorships but increase humanitarian assistance abroad.

Data for Progress also asked this question: “The United States currently spends more than half of its discretionary budget on military spending, which is considerably more than it spends on other foreign policy tools such as diplomacy and economic development programs. Some argue that maintaining U.S. military superiority should be the top foreign policy goal, and we should continue spending levels as they are. Others argue that rather than pouring money into war we should invest in preventing wars before they happen. Do you support or oppose a proposal to spend at least ten cents on non-military war prevention tools for every dollar we spend on the Pentagon?”

This question gets the percentage of the discretionary budget right and offers a progressive alternative. And the finding is that the U.S. public strongly prefers the progressive alternative: “A clear majority of voters support the ‘dime for a dollar’ policy, with 57 percent somewhat or strongly supporting and just 21 percent opposing the policy. This includes a plurality of Republican voters, 49 percent of whom support and just 30 percent of whom oppose the policy. The dime for a dollar policy is overwhelmingly popular among Independents and Democrats. A net +28 percent of Independents and a net +57 percent of Democrats support the dime for a dollar policy.”

I wish Data for Progress had asked about foreign military bases. I think a majority would be in favor of shutting some of them down, and that bits of education would raise that number. But they did ask about some important topics. For example, a plurality (and a strong majority among Democrats) want to withhold free weapons from Israel to curb its human rights abuses against Palestinians. A strong majority wants a no-first-use nuclear policy. A strong majority wants more humanitarian aid to Latin America. A strong majority wants to ban all use of torture. (We should properly say “re-ban” given how many times torture has been banned and re-banned.) Notably, the U.S. public, by a significant majority, wants a peace agreement with North Korea, but the group that wants it the most is Republicans. Obviously, that last fact tells us more about partisanship and presidential powers than about views on war and peace. But the collection of views listed here tells us that the U.S. public is far better on foreign policy than the U.S. corporate media will tell it, or than the U.S. government ever acts on.

Data for Progress also found that huge majorities want to end the endless U.S. wars in Afghanistan and across the Middle East. Those who support continuing these wars are a tiny fringe group, plus the U.S. corporate media, plus the U.S. Congress, President, and military. Overall we’re talking about 16% of the U.S. public. Among Democrats it’s 7%. Look at the deference that 7% receives from the numerous presidential candidates who have not declared that they will immediately end all of those wars. I’m not aware of any candidate for U.S. president in the history of the United States producing a basic pie-chart or outline of even the roughest sketch of a desirable discretionary budget. Try listing the current candidates for U.S. president in order by what they think military spending should be. How could anyone do it? How could anyone even get anyone to even ask one of them that question? Maybe this data will help.

Bernie hinted at it on Saturday in Queens, and the crowd started yelling “End the wars!” Perhaps the more some of the candidates begin hinting at it, the more they will recognize how strong the secret public opinion is on these matters.

Data for Progress also found a strong majority against allowing U.S. weapons sales to governments that abuse human rights. Public opinion is crystal clear. Total U.S. government refusal to act is as well. Much less clear is the concept of a government that buys deadly weapons and uses them for something other than abusing human rights — nobody ever explains what that can possibly mean.

Data for Progress reports on three other questions they asked. One opposed isolationism to engagement, but they don’t tell us the words they used. They just describe what sort of question it was. I’m not sure why any pollster, knowing how much depends on the words, would report something that way, especially when the result was a near-even split.

Another was a question about U.S. exceptionalism, which — again — they don’t give us the wording of. We just know that 53% agreed with “a statement recognizing that the US has strengths and weaknesses like any other country and has in fact caused harm in the world” as opposed to an exceptionalist statement. We also know that the 53% dropped to 23% among Republicans.

Finally, Data for Progress found that a plurality in the U.S. said that the United States faces primarily non-military threats. Some things are of course so painfully obvious that it’s painful to realize that they really do need to be polled on in hopes of getting them reported on. Now, how many would say that militarism is itself a threat and the primary generator of military threats and of the risk of nuclear apocalypse? And where does nuclear apocalypse rank in the list of threats? There is polling yet to be done.

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