Partisanship colors Democrats’ and Republicans’ views of the country’s most pressing foreign policy issues
Just as partisanship is increasingly shaping voters’ policy preferences on virtually all hot-button domestic issues, including abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration, so too goes U.S. foreign policy.
When asked to indicate the top five most important foreign policy challenges for the U.S. government to address, Democrats are wont to look outward, prioritizing global issues like combating climate change (their top issue by share) and preventing another pandemic or economic crisis. Republicans, by contrast, emphasize inward-looking issues, including U.S.-bound immigration (their top issue by share), drug trafficking and securing the country’s critical supply chains. Only two issues — cyberattacks and terrorism targeting the United States — feature among voters’ top five concerns regardless of party affiliation.
Democrats’ and Republicans’ Top Foreign Policy Issues
Voters’ attitudes are most polarized on climate change
Partisan gaps in voters’ attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy are most pronounced on climate change: Democrats rank the issue as their most pressing foreign policy concern, while Republicans rank it 13th, above only their interest in upholding global democracy.
Polarization Across Democrats’ and Republicans’ Top Foreign Policy Issues
This finding bodes poorly for companies and market participants that are involved in building and/or investing in efforts to green the economy, or that have begun preparing to comply with increasingly formalized (and potentially costly) climate-related disclosure requirements advanced by the Biden administration. Further policy efforts along these lines are unlikely to see the light of day under a divided Congress marked by greater GOP representation in the House of Representatives: Only 17% of Republican voters place climate change among their top five foreign policy issues, compared with a majority (54%) of Democrats.
Immigration and human rights are both poised to remain partisan flashpoints
Immigration policy is similarly polarized. Just over two-thirds of Republicans (67%) rank it among their top five issues, compared with only 22% for Democrats. The relatively wide gap and a newly GOP-controlled House suggests that state-level Republican legislators and governors will continue to find a permissive environment for migrant transfers to Democratic states come January. Conversely, the data suggests that while prevailing attitudes among GOP constituents would be conducive to national-level efforts to stem the flow of migrants across U.S. borders as an unprecedented wave of Venezuelans seek to enter the country, a Democratic Senate is unlikely to move as aggressively on the issue.
Noteworthy polarization is also visible when it comes to U.S. voters’ demands for protecting human rights globally, which Democrats rank seventh, compared with 12th for Republicans. The finding comes at a time when Americans are increasingly demanding corporate action on social issues, with a majority (58%) saying they “strongly” or “somewhat” prefer to buy from companies that reflect their social values, per our Global Corporate Purpose Tracker. In parallel, a nontrivial share of U.S. adults (39%) indicate they would consider no longer purchasing from companies that are complicit in human rights violations. The share rises to 46% for a closely related issue: the use of forced labor in corporate supply chains, an ongoing flashpoint in U.S.-China relations due to the Biden administration’s passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.
Companies should expect U.S. voters who care about these issues to lean even more heavily on them (and less so on government) under a divided Congress. GOP policymakers will have little incentive to address global human rights violations given their constituents’ limited concern about this issue. Instead, consumers who care about such allegations, and especially Democrats, will have added impetus to address them by voting with their wallets.
A divided Congress is likely to upweight China and Iran policy, downweight Russia policy
Voters’ top five foreign policy issues are also noteworthy for what they leave out: major geopolitical challenges confronting the United States, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S.-China relations and the Iran nuclear deal, all of which exhibit a moderate degree of partisan polarization.
If anything, companies and market actors should anticipate greater emphasis on addressing the latter two issues under a divided Congress. Republican voters rank both China and Iran policy more highly than Democrats, and by wide margins: The former place them in seventh and eighth place by share, compared with 13th and 14th for Democrats. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, ranks sixth among Democrats and 10th among Republicans. Its placement in the latter group’s ranking suggests that efforts to resolve the war and provide further economic and military aid to Ukraine risk being deprioritized, in line with recent media reporting.
U.S. efforts to constrain China’s rise are especially primed for escalation owing to Republican voters’ simultaneous upweighting of China policy writ large and securing critical supply chains, a strategy that is squarely intended to impede China. Although the latter issue ranks 10th among Democrats (compared with fifth for Republicans), the Biden administration has moved aggressively to shore up U.S. supply chains that present national security risks — visible in its rollout of heightened screening of inward Chinese investment, enhanced export controls and the CHIPS and Science Act, and facilitated in part by broad Republican alignment on the growing geopolitical threat that China poses.
Given this alignment, a divided Congress is unlikely to steer prevailing China policy in a dramatically different direction, nor should it stymie progress on existing initiatives. Those who see material risks in U.S.-China relations should plan for continued bilateral antagonism for the foreseeable future, in line with much of our recent work on the issue (see here and here).
Partisan polarization on specific foreign policy issues masks shared sentiment on how to manage them
Despite pronounced polarization on which foreign policy issues Americans care most about, Democrats and Republicans are more closely aligned when it comes to their appetites for American involvement in global issues more generally, and how they want the U.S. government to address them.
Isolationism, not engagement
When it comes to the overarching principles that guide America’s foreign policy, more Republican voters than not (46%), and a near plurality of Democrats (32%), would like to see greater isolationism, marked by more limited U.S. engagement on various fronts and more pronounced economic closure.
Our data establishes this point by assessing voters’ preferences for increased or decreased American engagement across three core aspects of U.S. foreign policy — soft power and foreign aid, global military operations, and economic openness — and aggregating them into a series of indexes. The table below provides a summary of voters’ preferences by party affiliation.
Voters’ Demand for Isolationism in U.S. Foreign Policy by Party Affiliation: A Summary of Attitudes
Voters’ attitudes toward U.S. soft power — and foreign aid specifically — exhibit the largest partisan gaps, in turn driving Democrats’ slight overall preference for maintaining current levels of U.S. engagement, though the margins are slim (32% prefer that option, compared with 31.6% who prefer greater isolationism, per our U.S. Foreign Policy Tracker).
Per the figure below, near majorities of Republican voters (48%) support decreasing U.S. involvement in other countries’ affairs and reducing foreign aid provision, substantially outpacing the shares who prefer the status quo. Democrats, by contrast, are nearly evenly split as to whether they would prefer the U.S. government decrease its involvement in other countries’ affairs or maintain the status quo. A slim plurality of Democrats (34%) also prefer to maintain the status quo in foreign aid provision — only 1 percentage point above the share who at present would prefer to increase it, but with larger gaps observed more consistently over the past several months.
Voters’ Demand for Isolationism in U.S. Foreign Policy by Party Affiliation: Soft Power and Foreign Aid
Democrats’ and Republicans’ preferences are somewhat more closely aligned when it comes to their attitudes on America’s military activities overseas. A substantial plurality of Republicans (41%) would prefer that U.S. foreign policy involve more limited deployment of U.S. troops, and would like to reduce American participation in military conflicts beyond the country’s borders. For Democrats, the margins are slimmer on both fronts at present. But they have trended more closely on the side of isolationism over the past several months, placing them more squarely in the Republican camp.
Voters’ Demand for Isolationism in U.S. Foreign Policy by Party Affiliation: Overseas Military Engagement
A similar degree of alignment is visible when it comes to voters’ preferences for U.S. openness to global trade and capital flows. At present, a plurality of Democrats (37%) and roughly half of Republicans would prefer that the U.S. government increase tariffs on foreign goods entering the country, and pluralities of each support additional barriers on inward foreign investment.
On both accounts, the shares of Democratic voters who prefer to maintain the status quo are close behind. But the baseline is telling. The Biden administration has largely maintained Trump-era tariffs on a huge range of imports from China — one of America’s largest trading partners — and has accelerated efforts to limit Chinese investment in U.S. companies when national security is at stake, such that even the status quo entails a relatively high level of economic closure to inbound trade and capital flows. Democratic voters’ wavering between the status quo and even more economic closure should be interpreted with this elevated baseline in mind.
Voters’ Demand for Isolationism in U.S. Foreign Policy by Party Affiliation: Economic Openness
Looking ahead, companies and market participants seeking to gauge the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy should not mistake moderate policy alignment among Democrats and Republicans — specifically with respect to overseas military engagement and economic openness — as implying that a divided Congress with greater GOP representation in the House will exhibit strict policy continuity.
The figure below, which visualizes the shares of Republicans who favor greater isolationism in U.S. foreign policy relative to Democrats, makes this clear. Across all issue areas, Republicans outpace Democrats in their desire for greater isolationism by 7 to 27 percentage points.
Given these gaps, corporations and market actors should, if anything, anticipate a shift in the degree to which U.S. foreign policy will lean further into isolationism under such a Congress, but not necessarily a shift in the overall tone of U.S. engagement abroad.
More Republicans Than Democrats Favor Greater Isolationism in U.S. Foreign Policy
Multilateralism, not unilateralism
If the U.S. government does engage in issues overseas, Democratic and Republican voters show a similar degree of alignment when it comes to addressing them multilaterally — marked by policy coordination with U.S. allies and partners — as opposed to unilaterally. Pluralities of voters from both parties (46% and 33%, respectively) prefer the former approach.
As above, our data establishes this point by assessing voters’ preferences for increased or decreased multilateralism in U.S. foreign policy across three issue areas — American involvement in international organizations, as well as the resolution of global military and economic disputes — and aggregating their preferences into a series of indexes. The table below provides a summary.
Voters’ Demand for Multilateralism in U.S. Foreign Policy by Party Affiliation: A Summary of Attitudes
Voters’ attitudes toward U.S. involvement in international organizations like the United Nations exhibit the sharpest polarization. Per the figure below, a near majority of Democrats (49%) support greater involvement, while a plurality of Republicans (34%) favor decreased engagement, though the share of Republicans who prefer to maintain present levels of engagement is close behind.
Voters’ Demand for Multilateralism in U.S. Foreign Policy: Attitudes by Issue
By contrast, Democrats and Republicans are more solidly aligned on their support for increasing U.S. efforts to resolve global military and economic disputes in coordination with America’s allies and partners instead of going it alone. While the margins between the shares of Republicans who favor increased multilateralism versus the status quo are slim on both fronts, they have been more pronounced over the past several months on average, with the shares preferring multilateralism more consistently ahead.
As was the case with Democratic voters’ preferences related to economic openness, the baseline is worth noting. Few watchers of U.S. politics would argue that America’s foreign policy under the Biden administration has been less multilateral than under the previous administration. Whereas former President Donald Trump entered into numerous trade disputes with some of America’s largest trading partners — including Canada, the European Union, Japan and Mexico, among others — and threatened to withdraw from NATO, the Biden administration has moved firmly in the opposite direction. Its reversal of Trump-era tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, which hit major U.S. allies, and its vigorous support for NATO amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are collectively a case in point.
The fact that most Republican voters prefer to either increase multilateralism above and beyond current levels or maintain the status quo — which already entails a fair degree of it — is notable against this backdrop. Crucially, this finding implies that U.S. foreign policy is unlikely to U-turn toward Trump-era unilateralism under a divided Congress come January. This will benefit companies and investors who depend on cordial U.S. relations with major partners and allies to ensure global market access and guard against supply chain and financial market instability induced by geopolitics.
For watchers of U.S. politics seeking to forecast whether a GOP-controlled House will continue favoring multilateralism as opposed to unilateralism, the question is again one of degree. The figure below, which reports partisan gaps in the shares of voters who prefer multilateralism across each issue area, makes this clear. Among those who would prefer U.S. foreign policy to be more multilateral, Democrats outpace Republicans by 8 to 24 percentage points. But Republican voters’ lack of enthusiasm for engaging with international organizations — a clear outlier relative to the other data series — drives the high end of the range. By contrast, when it comes to resolving overseas economic and military disputes, the partisan gap is less pronounced, at only 8 to 10 percentage points.
More Democrats Than Republicans Favor Multilateralism in U.S. Foreign Policy
Given these trends, companies and market participants should cautiously expect U.S. foreign policy to remain rooted in multilateralism under the next Congress, albeit to a lesser degree than under a fully Democratic legislature.
A mantra for U.S. foreign policy: isolationism over engagement, and multilateralism over unilateralism
Amid pronounced partisan polarization over which issues to prioritize, American public opinion on U.S. foreign policy is characterized by alignment on guiding principles.
If public opinion is any guide, domestic and foreign companies, multinationals with globally integrated supply chains, and financial market participants all stand to benefit from stability in the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy, owing to moderate alignment among Democratic and Republican voters on how often, and in what capacity, to engage overseas. Regardless of who controls Congress, the most likely trajectory in the coming years remains one that is broadly isolationist but nonetheless leaves room for multilateral coordination with U.S. allies and partners when American involvement overseas is necessary. Companies and market actors that prioritize stability should cheer these findings, even if they disagree on the particulars.
U.S. multilateralism, should it persist, would bode well for many of today’s largest companies and financial market actors whose operations are global in scope, if decreasingly so. Amid a rising tide of deglobalization and geopolitical risks, the prospects for stable business and market conditions are increasingly dependent on U.S. efforts to address two pressing challenges in ways that do not unduly upend the fabric of the global and domestic economies: managing relations with Russia and China, both per the U.S. government’s 2022 National Security Strategy. Notable initiatives in line with these efforts include American attempts to build momentum for “friend-shoring” supply chains, impose a cross-country price cap on Russian oil and limit China’s access to advanced technology with national security implications originating in the United States and Europe. Each is de facto more likely to falter if the United States goes it alone, adding uncertainty to global supply chains and markets.
Despite moderate alignment on principles, corporations and investors should not lose sight of the degree to which partisanship colors the foreign policy issues that Republicans and Democrats — as both voters and consumers — prioritize. Partisan divides will continue to serve as a signpost for anticipating which issues are more or less likely to gain traction, and which ones could land companies in hot water as a function of the positions they adopt.