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Tilting at Windmills

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November 15, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

NATIONAL SECURITY MISCELLANY....Via Heather Hurlburt, here's a UN Foundation report of key findings from focus groups and a national survey. This is one of those deals where they interview a bunch of people and then segment everyone into cute sounding groups — "Fortress America," "New Isolationist," etc. — and I confess that I'm always a little skeptical of these exercises. But for the sake of conversation, here are a few of their findings:

  • There's only one national security issue that resonates effectively with every demographic group: reducing America's dependence on foreign oil. It's not the top issue for most people, but it's the only issue that makes the top 3 for every single group, both left and right.

  • If you want to talk up the goal of getting America more engaged in the world, don't use the word multilateralism. It polls badly. Use international cooperation instead.

  • Among a group of qualities people want to see in the next president, the top response among Democrats, Republicans, and swing voters is the same: "Is committed to keeping America strong and secure around the world."

  • Among a set of different messages related to improving America's role in the world, here's the one that tested best:

    America can not face all of its enemies or solve the world's problems alone. We need help. But to gain help we have to work more closely with other countries around the world. We need to share the burden and not be the sole supplier of resources, finances, military forces, and diplomacy for peace in the world.

    This was the only message wording that tested well among all groups on both right, left, and center.

And since this whole thing wouldn't be complete without a graph, here's one about generational attitudes. When asked if America should be more actively involved in world affairs or whether we should focus more on issues at home, the answer broke down starkly by age group. Unsurprisingly, young people, who have witnessed the Bush misadventure in Iraq and not much else in their lives, have become pretty jaundiced about America's role in the world.

Kevin Drum 1:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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Among a group of qualities people want to see in the next president, the top response among Democrats, Republicans, and swing voters is the same: "Is committed to keeping America strong and secure around the world."

That's odd - my answer would be "is not a Republican."

Posted by: craigie on November 15, 2007 at 1:26 AM | PERMALINK

Whats the breakdown on age and voting? Do young people even matter in an election?

Posted by: jimmy on November 15, 2007 at 1:43 AM | PERMALINK

"Is committed to keeping America strong and secure around the world."

What exactly does it mean to be secure around the world?

Posted by: JS on November 15, 2007 at 1:47 AM | PERMALINK

It's unfortunate that the Bush administration has made being "more involved" abroad a proxy for "fight more wars".

Posted by: brooksfoe on November 15, 2007 at 1:56 AM | PERMALINK

brooksfoe: Yeah, that's pretty much my takeaway on this too. I suspect that some people interpreted "more involved" as "fighting more wars" and were therefore against it. (Or for it, in some cases.) Other people interpreted it in the more usual way. That's one of the reasons why I'm skeptical that this report is super reliable.

Still, it's not totally off base. There are some interesting tidbits here.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on November 15, 2007 at 2:00 AM | PERMALINK

There's only one national security issue that resonates effectively with every demographic group: reducing America's dependence on foreign oil.
How does conservation through driving a small car resonate? Probably not very well, though it is the same issue.

Posted by: Luther on November 15, 2007 at 2:35 AM | PERMALINK

Mordant chuckle as I contemplate the fact that few people grasp the the basic fact about energy independence that we've already burned up the large majority of our domestic oil reserves. So becoming energy independent means radically shifting the way we use energy.

Kiss your car goodbye, unless it's electric or biofuel-powered. Forget trying to heat the McMansion. In fact, we'd need to completely redesign our cites in order to concentrate the population enough to eliminate most daily travel. Goodbye suburbia. Food and goods of all sorts would become far more expensive, and locally produced. No more shipping cheap throwaway stuff all the way from asia. Whatever petroleum reserves are still left would need to be conserved for fertilizers and materials manufacture. No more burning the stuff to move hunks of metal around.

I suspect domestic energy independence would poll far less well if people had any idea what it actually meant.

Posted by: jimBOB on November 15, 2007 at 3:10 AM | PERMALINK

OFF TOPIC:
This evening I discovered the theme to the Portal video game, "Still Alive" by Jonathan Coulton. He can't sing particularly well and is somewhat folky, but I LOVE the version that is sung on the video game. You can find it on YouTube and it is so superbly well produced, great to listen to and charming and funny and lovely. It's kind of a love song of regret, or rather "no regrets," sung by the computer game to you, her former lover, her vanquisher.

Posted by: Anon on November 15, 2007 at 3:12 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, I agree that there is interesting stuff here. In particular the use of "international cooperation" for the m-word, which I vow never to use again. And "We need to share the burden and not be the sole supplier of resources, finances, military forces, and diplomacy for peace in the world" is a line that could almost turn a Buchananite into a UN supporter.

Posted by: brooksfoe on November 15, 2007 at 4:01 AM | PERMALINK

Well, that's depressing.

1) Oil is a nearly perfectly fungible commodity. It matters not one whit to total world demand or Saudi pockets where we get our oil from. Our dependence on oil may be a problem, but "foreign" has little to do with it unless you buy into some of the wackier conspiracy theories. People get a lot of silly policy ideas--sanctions, boycotts, tariffs, etc.--in their heads when they ignore this reality.

2) All candidates for President are, of course, committed "to keeping America strong and secure around the world." Pretty much all American politicians are. The disagreement is almost exclusively over which policies best achieve those goals. I want a president committed to policies that will actually achieve those goals--i.e. not Giuliani, who, while being at least as committed to American strength and security as is any other candidate, is also a crazy person who proposes policies absolutely certain to undermine those goals.

One of the great failings of American politics is the elevation of the rhetoric of lofty goals over the formulation of sound policy aimed at securing necessary and achievable goals.

3)And, as already noted by other commenters, we should, of course, be differently involved internationally, with more or less involvement being a factor of relatively and absolutely minor concern at best.

This survey doesn't say much good for either the people who designed it or the people who were surveyed, I'm afraid.

Posted by: R Johnston on November 15, 2007 at 4:09 AM | PERMALINK

While politicians on both sides of the aisle talk a lot about national defense, the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 showed us we have little or no national defense. Almost all of the trillions of our tax dollars spent on the U.S. military go to maintain an extensive network of international bases and weapons for offensive power projection, like aircraft carriers.

The U.S. has essentially no border defenses and could not even muster armed fighter jets to intercept Flight 93 or the other hijacked planes on 9-11. President Bush had to be shamed by the Democrats in Congress into passing the most flimsy of port security measures in 2006, five years after 9-11.

There is also no "war on terror". Al-Qaeda and many other terrorist groups in the world were originally formed or funded by the CIA to attack communists, prevent socialism or stymie international labor unions from succeeding. What we now have is a vast bullying machine dedicated to acquiring resources and guarding property for a greedy corporate billionaire elite. If our government was serious about ending terrorism and spreading democracy or freedom then it would stop funding state terrorism practiced by countries like Israel and the numerous dictatorships which have been installed and continue to receive aid from the U.S. This, of course, won't happen because these neofascists rely on war, terrorism, torture and dictatorial means to maintain their multinational, corporate kleptocracy. Their goal is not free enterprise or democracy but the continuing concentration of more and more of the world's resources into fewer and fewer hands, the taking of resources from indigenous peoples by force, ownership of the media by a like-minded few, and the subversion of democratic government through corporate campaign financing, electoral fraud and violence against those who would count all the votes.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on November 15, 2007 at 5:57 AM | PERMALINK

This outfit has no credibility whatsoever. They failed to focus test the most important detail of all -- chart labels.

I mean, WTF! I liked being a member of Gen X a lot better than being in the 13th Generation. Not that I suffer from triskaidekaphobia, but shouldn't a public opinion firm of all places know it is just plain poor form to number anything 13?

Posted by: Clem G. on November 15, 2007 at 6:29 AM | PERMALINK

This couldn't be a better illustration of how useless these things are, and how damaging they are to our politics.

As R Johnson says, what's the point of identifying wording about America's involvement in foreign that everybody agrees with? What possible use is there in finding a sentence that both Rudy Giuliani and Dennis Kucinich would be happy to agree with. The question is not whether there is someone who wants America to be weak and vulnerable, but how you go about becoming strong and secure. Kucinich and Paul (in different ways) say you do so by dramatically reducing US military capability and restoring the Constitution. Giuliani wants to set up a police state.

It's not helpful to come up with language that doesn't differentiate candidates. The problem we have is parsing statements like this to try to figure out what the candidates' real positions are. This is true not just of Clinton, who specializes in anodyne formulations like this, but also to people like Romney, who has changed his position on key issues. Who knows what these people think?

And there's the last question--what should America's role be? First, the claim that these views by young people is about the Iraq war is entirely unwarranted; that may seem plausible, but they didn't poll that question so they shouldn't be positing it.

Moreover, their claim shows how useless this question is. If they had asked a bunch of questions about American involvement with the UN and humanitarian assistance in Darfur, they would have gotten very different responses from young people. Perhaps.

This kind of question is invariably going to be interpreted as "in the way the US has recently been involved in world affairs." And who would want that? I mean if you want to ask a question like this, you need to be clear what you mean by "involvement." Because if my choice is ruining America's image around the world, wanton killing of civilians and undermining public health outreach on everything from AIDS to clean water and doing nothing, well sign me up for doing nothing.

This is a silly, meaningless exercise that, if paid attention to, will make our political discourse worse.

Posted by: jayackroyd on November 15, 2007 at 6:51 AM | PERMALINK

"reducing America's dependence on foreign oil"

Is there any way to do this that polls well? Reforming the tax code polls well too, but people don't agree on how to reform it, so it is a silly slogan. Carbon taxes poll poorly, CAFE standards poll so-so, alternative energy sources poll well but can't be expected to do much more than prevent our oil demands from increasing.

I know that Kevin has done a good job over the years blogging about this issue, but what's the point in saying that we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil if every politician has said it for the past thirty years and not one has done anything about it? It's popular to say it, but your opponent is going to use the exact same line.

Posted by: reino on November 15, 2007 at 7:57 AM | PERMALINK

I think the graph means that people whose entire adult memory of foreign affairs is the series of George Bush screwups think we should not do any more of that. As memories go back to previous presidents and foreign initiatives, more people remember some good stuff, too. Not to write a full list, but America has done a number of good things under better presidents (which means all the way back to the Articles of Confederation), including the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps within living memory of some.

Posted by: anandine on November 15, 2007 at 8:30 AM | PERMALINK

I was born in 1962... I thought I was a boomer. Now I'm not? I... I... feel my identity shifting; my attitudes changing. I feel a little dizzy. I better go lie down until it passes.

I was *so* looking forward to burdening you all when I retired, too!

Posted by: steverino on November 15, 2007 at 9:03 AM | PERMALINK

I have to agree with Clem.

What the hell is the 13th generation? And where's Generation X? Or has Douglas Coupland copyrighted that?

Posted by: Whispers on November 15, 2007 at 9:27 AM | PERMALINK

Checking Google:

"13th generation" has a whopping 33,600 hits, while
"Generation X" has a mere 1,890,000 hits.

Bad. Labeling.

Posted by: Whispers on November 15, 2007 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK

What does it say about a mindset regarding relationships with the rest of the world when a values statement on the subject begins with:

"America can not face all of its enemies . . . ."

For G-d's sake, in what other country in the world would people think of "enemies" first?

Why not just say, "Look, we recognize we are more than 100% xenophobic and have no real interest in getting along with the rest of the world . . . ."

Posted by: PowerOfX on November 15, 2007 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

So:
- Americans of all stripes are still feeling delusional anxiety about security, are terribly and personally afraid of another act of terrorism.
- Americans of all stripes are completely delusional about the sustainability of our resource-intensive lifestyle.

Posted by: joel hanes on November 15, 2007 at 9:57 AM | PERMALINK

Now you know why so many young people support Ron Paul

Posted by: Sean Scallon on November 15, 2007 at 9:57 AM | PERMALINK

PowerOfX...that was pure poetry.

Posted by: Eason on November 15, 2007 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK
What exactly does it mean to be secure around the world?

It's a focus-group-tested slogan. It doesn't have substantive content, its something that people with different substantive preferences can project their own values into.

Posted by: cmdicely on November 15, 2007 at 10:19 AM | PERMALINK

It's just a nit, but the chart has baby boomers as being ages 47 to 64. Steverino, above, laments that at age 45 he's being denied his heritage as a boomer. Having been born in May of 1945, I have the exactly opposite complaint: I am not a baby boomer. My high-school class had 320 graduates; the next year's, from exactly the same area, had 650. Boom.

The boom is usually thought to be the result of troops coming home after the war and making babies. Given the built-in lag, 1/1/1946 at the earliest. On the other end of the range, it's more a state of mind.

Posted by: Bob Munck on November 15, 2007 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK

I think the graph means that people whose entire adult memory of foreign affairs is the series of George Bush screwups think we should not do any more of that.
Posted by: anandine on November 15, 2007 at 8:30 AM
---------
LOL Yes, I think that is rather telling...

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on November 15, 2007 at 10:44 AM | PERMALINK

"Is committed to keeping America strong and secure around the world."

My guess is a similar poll of Germans, Japanese and even the British would not provide this answer for their own nations. These people understand from experience being strong militarily does not result in national security. Americans have yet to learn that valuable lesson, which seems to only be learned through unconditional defeat or long economic decline.

Posted by: Brojo on November 15, 2007 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK
These people understand from experience being strong militarily does not result in national security.

The word "militarily" is not in the phrase. It may be part of what people who focus on hard power see in it, but people who focus on soft power probably see it in those terms. Just because people think the same words are important doesn't mean that the words have the same substantive meaning to all those people.

Posted by: cmdicely on November 15, 2007 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

committed to keeping America strong and secure around the world

What's it mean to be strong? Secure?

Posted by: Carl Nyberg on November 15, 2007 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

The word "militarily" is not in the phrase.

That is correct. But committed and strong are in the phrase. Those words combined with the past sixty years of history, the rhetoric of almost every nationally recognized politician to 'rebuild' the Army and continue America's military hegemony would seem to indicate most people recognize the phrase expresses a continued use of American hard power is the means to national security.

My view is that continuing our pursuit of 'strength' diminishes our national security and that this point of view is very difficult to achieve as public policy without first suffering the consequences of defeat, which I would prefer to avoid. My dream is that America renounce its hard power strength while it still can. I think that would greatly enhance its security and standing in the world.

Posted by: Brojo on November 15, 2007 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

Oil is a nearly perfectly fungible commodity. It matters not one whit to total world demand or Saudi pockets where we get our oil from.

Yes and no. The only plausible way for us to get to "energy independence", or even close, is to dramatically cut our consumption (all the corn we grow, if converted to ethanol, would only cover about 20% of our gasoline consumption. What's the ETA on quintupling the fuel efficiency of our autos?). If we cut our consumption that much, it would reduce world demand. Any technological improvements that we make towards energy independence could be used by other countries, and that would also act to reduce demand.

That much demand reduction, would also have an effect on prices, which would matter to Saudi pockets.

Posted by: dr2chase on November 15, 2007 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

That is true, in the early 80's we cut the amount of oil consumed modestly (mainly through CAFE standards) and there was a price collapse in oil. With our wasteful habits and consuming 25% of the world's oil production, it wouldn't take that much effort and too big of a cut in demand to get prices back in line.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on November 15, 2007 at 3:50 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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