What is the American public thinking?

From my perch at the prestigious Brookings Institution (PBI), I am not, to put it mildly, in touch with the American voter. I spend most of my time in Washington, D.C. or abroad and rarely go to America. Indeed, I generally only venture across the Potomac on my way to the airport. And in D.C., the taxi drivers are mostly from foreign countries so I have fewer direct insights into the American mind than Thomas Friedman.

This is a common problem for Washington foreign policy experts, who as a general rule find vast parts of the American hinterland to be confusing and alien places. But understanding the mind of “the American public” in all its inconsistent and ignorant complexity is an important part of the job—it preoccupies the mind of our political leaders and defines the universe of acceptable policy options. 

So, for a long time, political analysts have relied on that hallowed tool of the pundit craft, the public opinion poll, to understand the mind of the voter. The public opinion poll has several advantages. You can use it without actually talking to any voters—indeed without leaving your desk. You can point it to its apparent scientific authority and precision to increase the credibility of your point. And, best of all, the use of numbers and confusing terms like “margin of error” tends to scare off amateurs and interlopers. 

Unfortunately, the polls have been betraying us of late. They keep telling us things that can’t possibly be true. They say that voters might actually nominate Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders as the major party candidates for president. These poll results are clearly outrageous lies, even if ones perpetrated by a scientific method that we so rely on. We keep trying to explain that it is too early for polls to mean much or that enthusiasm for these candidates is merely a passing fad. But as time passes and Trump’s support only increases, we are fast losing faith in the polls and in ourselves. Soon, we will cease to be able to tell policymakers that they don’t understand how the American people really think.

What to do after such a betrayal by the evidence we love most? I have a radical solution. Let’s move beyond these treasonous polls. Let’s find new research methods that will give us more, um, nuanced answers to the question of what the American public thinks. 

One such idea is to treat the presidential candidates as a research method. These people spend their days crisscrossing the country from Iowa to New Hampshire and back again, talking endlessly to voters and imbibing the zeitgeist of the heartland. They have a big incentive to understand the public’s views and, for the best ones, an intuitive feel for the mood of their constituents. Perhaps by listening to their consensus views, we can actually understand the public better than by reading the polls. 

So, following that method, what does last night’s Republican debate tell us about how the Republican electorate thinks about foreign policy? Among the disagreements, a consensus emerged on many ideas about foreign policy that probably better reflects how the Republican electorate thinks than the polls. (It is worth noting that Rand Paul is usually not part of this otherwise fairly broad consensus). A few conclusions seem clear:

  • America once was great, especially during the Reagan era of the 1980s, but now it is kind of a sh**hole. It is besieged by job-stealing immigrants, isolated from its allies, and disrespected by its enemies. It can be, according to Donald Trump, “great again” and is, in Jeb Bush’s words, “on the verge of its greatest century”, but only if there is a radical (yet conservative) change in course.
  • Washington is the principal impediment to restoring American greatness. The Democrats are a big part of this problem, but more broadly the problem is the political establishment as a whole, including—as Bobby Jindal took pains to emphasize—the Republicans in Congress. Reflecting their astute sense of the population, the politicians forcefully conveyed the Republican electorate’s view that the political establishment is out of touch with the American people.
  • The world is a very scary place. The candidates reflected a profound sense of anxiety and danger from a multitude of foreign sources: Russia, China, the Islamic State (or ISIS), Iran, immigrants, and jihadi terrorism at home and abroad. This fear culminated in Ben Carson’s view that global jihadism is an existential threat and Lindsay Graham’s promise that, if steps are not taken, ISIS will arrive on American shores. These are apparently, in the words of Marco Rubio, “extraordinarily dangerous times.”
  • The principal cause of these dangers is the weakness displayed by President Obama. In Ted Cruz’s words, “We’ve seen six and a half years of President Obama leading from behind. Weakness is provocative.” Overall, Obama’s lack of leadership, his tendency to prefer diplomacy over military force, and his efforts to disengage from the world have created security vacuums, emboldened American enemies, and alienated American allies.
  • The solution therefore is strength, leadership, and in particular the return to a strong military that Obama has, according to Marco Rubio, “eviscerated.” Nearly all of the candidates advocated for greatly increased military spending and Carly Fiorina got quite specific in promising what amounts to $500 billion in additional military spending over the next 10 years. More than that, part of the solution is using the military for prospective wars on Iran, ISIS, and conceivably Russia. The candidates also advocated delegating a lot of the decision-making power over questions of strategy from the political establishment that the public does not respect to the generals that it does.
  • Israel is far and away America’s favorite ally. Its security is the single most important foreign policy interest of the United States. As Jeb Bush promised, reflecting nearly all of the others on the stage, “the first thing that [a new President would] need to do is to establish our commitment to Israel.” 

What are we to make of this? Overall, to judge by the candidates, the Republican electorate is scared, insubordinate, bellicose, and philosemitic. Interesting, but, alas, I still don’t understand why Trump is winning.