“Everyone has fear,” Nonresident Senior Fellow Shibley Telhami said earlier this week, during a particularly timely discussion of Americans’ attitudes on refugees from the Middle East. Telhami, who is also the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, presented his findings on American attitudes from his new national public opinion survey.
Following his presentation, the conversation continued with Indira Lakshmanan, a contributor to POLITICO Magazine and The Boston Globe, and Will McCants, director of the Brookings Project U.S. Relations with the Islamic World and a senior fellow at Brookings. The discussion also had a heavy focus on the upcoming presidential election, the distinctly different views of the leading candidates’ vis-à-vis refugees, and the politics of fear—especially in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando on June 12.
Telhami’s public opinion survey findings reveal Americans’ attitudes about refugees from the Middle East as seen through their political identification and presidential candidate preferences. Democrats are more likely to favor acceptance of refugees, while Republicans are less so. Seventy-seven percent of Democrats support strongly or support somewhat the U.S. taking in refugees from Middle Eastern conflicts after security screening; only 38 percent of Republicans feel the same, while 43 percent of Republicans oppose this policy strongly. For Donald Trump supporters, only 22 percent strongly or somewhat support the policy, compared to 80 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters and 81 percent of Bernie Sanders supporters.
A majority of Americans believe the U.S. played a part in creating the current refugee crisis. However, this has not translated into a sense of moral obligation to welcome refugees to America. As Telhami said, “Americans care but they rationalize an easy way out,” preferring to send aid abroad or push the responsibility of taking in refugees to Arab and European countries. When Telhami asked respondents what concerns them most about “absorbing refugees,” 46 percent said it was the possibility of terrorism. Forty-one percent expressed a concern about refugees creating an economic burden, and 9 percent were just generally concerned about having more Muslims in the U.S., “even if they are peaceful.”
This intersection of the politics of fear and moral obligation was the focus of the discussion among Telhami, Lakshmanan, and McCants. Lakshmanan commented that the reality of today, “in a post-9/11, post-CNN, post-Twitter world,” is one in which Americans are overwhelmed by what they see in the media; this has affected their sense of moral obligation and has been a catalyst for the spread of “wild misperceptions.” These misperceptions, she said, range from the amount of money the U.S. government pledges to foreign aid annually, to the number of people arrested for terrorism since 9/11.
McCants echoed this observation, confessing that “it is hard not to succumb to the media,” particularly during the lead-up to presidential elections. Yet Telhami highlighted the positive fact that—despite often over-sensationalized media and the politics of fear, and even after the acts of terror in San Bernardino and Orlando—more people still held a positive view of Muslims than those who had negative opinions of Muslims.
McCants posed the question: did President Obama set a precedent by pledging to bring in 10,000 refugees by the end of 2016, and is this number too low? While much lower than the number of refugees that European and Arab countries have been taking in, 10,000 is the median number that Republicans think America should bring in over the course of 2017 (Republican’s mean figure is just over 35,000); and for Democrats, that number is 15,000 (Democrats’ mean figure for refugee resettlement in 2017 is over 64,000). Particularly in the very near future, the panelists said, the presidential candidates will continue to lead the conversation about refugees. As Telhami said about American voters:
They are either anti Trump or pro-Trump, for Hillary with the Democrats or Sanders. And on many issues they don’t have a strong opinion, they don’t know much about the Middle East, they don’t know much about Islam and Muslims. And so at some point they make a leap of faith and it’s not about making necessarily a rational argument, but linking themselves up to the world of Bernie Sanders or to the world of Hillary Clinton or to the world of Donald Trump. That’s why the cues they get from these leaders matter a lot in the middle of a campaign. … They’re linking themselves, their identity, to these people and philosophies and ideologies. And when they don’t want to make an opinion or don’t want to take the time to learn the issues and don’t have a strong opinion, they’re going to take the cues from them. And these cues matter a lot. And so I think leadership is central.
Lakshmanan noted that we may not hear as much about numbers of refugees who may be admitted, as the general public either is not concerned with these numbers, or the candidates will not want to risk losing votes by making specific pledges about refugees, given the fact that the country seems to be very much split on the issue.