Are Republicans really turning back to isolationism?

On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center released “America’s Place in the World – 2013” and the alarm bells began going off. The survey, conducted every four years, charts the attitudes of the American public toward a wide array of foreign policy issues. The Associated Press proclaimed “Americans’ Isolationism on the Rise.” The Washington Post announced “American Isolationism Just Hit a 50-Year High.” The Guardian helpfully added, “Most Americans Think US Should ‘Mind Its Own Business’ Abroad.”

The real story here is more complicated and even somewhat reassuring. When you look at Pew’s preferred indicators of support for disengagement, there has been no change in Democratic sentiment. It is the wild gyrations of Republican opinion, along with the gradual evolution of independents’ response, which has driven the isolationism index to its historic high. Yet the questions Pew uses to gauge isolationism are problematic. Rather than abandoning the GOP’s internationalist tradition, its voters ferociously disapprove of President Obama’s foreign policy, but are less than confident in their own party’s leadership. Republicans remain convinced of the importance of overwhelming strength, but seek reassurance that it can be employed to prevent wars, rather than just fighting them for years on end.

‘Isolationism’ is a loaded term. It carries with it connotations of parochialism, chauvinism, and ignorance. This characterization is unfair, even of those in the 1930s who fought to prevent the United States from coming to blows with Hitler. Those isolationists rejected the term as pejorative, yet history was not on their side. Today, even those who richly deserve the label, such as Pat Buchanan, vehemently denounce anyone who applies it. Even so, news anchors and correspondents casually apply the label, most often to Rand Paul, presumed leader of “the GOP’s tea-party-led isolationist wing.”

So given the difficulty of applying the term ‘isolationist’ in an impartial manner, how does the Pew Center gauge Americans’ supposed aversion to foreign engagement? In its latest report, the Center emphasizes how, for the first time in five decades of polling, a majority of 52 percent says “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” But what exactly does it mean to agree with this proposition? In 2005, 55 percent of Democrats agreed with it, but only 27 percent of Republicans. Now, only 46 percent of Democrats agree but the Republican tally has almost doubled, to 53 percent. Is simple partisanship one element of the story? Do Republicans favor a policy of strength, but fear entanglement in civil wars? Does minding our own business really amount to a call for retreating from the world?

The second finding highlighted by Pew is that, “For the first time in surveys dating back nearly 40 years, a majority (53 percent) says the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago.” In three rounds of polling over nine years, the number of Democrats agreeing with this statement has only risen from 27 to 33 percent. Yet in July 2004, a mere 8 percent of Republicans perceived the US to be “less important and powerful”, whereas the number today stands at an astounding 74 percent. Pew suggests that Americans want to mind their own business because they believe their country is in decline.

Yet the evidence for such a conclusion is thin. The simplest explanation for Republican fears of decline is that they think the current president is doing a terrible job. Near the end of his first year in office, only 50 percent said the US was weaker than before. If the Pew hypothesis were correct, additional data ought show to that Republicans are unhappy with Obama because he hasn’t disengaged from the world enough. Yet the main complaint against the President seems to be that he is “not tough enough”. Fifty-one percent of Americans are now concerned about Obama’s weakness, as opposed to just 38 percent in mid-2009. (No partisan breakdown is given.)