Progressives Need a New Way to Talk About National Security

Voters say they support cuts in defense spending—Democrats should, too.

A B-52 releases a test version of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) over White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, in 2009. Photo: Department of Defense

By lavishing billions of dollars on hundreds of weapon systems, the defense budget has itself become a weapon of mass destruction, decimating our social programs and infrastructure. Republicans have no problem with this arrangement. Democrats, though, are afraid to challenge these military costs for fear of being labeled “soft on defense.”

They need not worry. Our latest research shows that not only can Democrats oppose excessive defense spending, but they will benefit politically by doing so. The progressive position on America’s wars, military spending, and nuclear weapons outpolls the conservative position as much as three to one. We, not the conservatives, have the winning message.

Right now, the United States spends an estimated $1.2 trillion per year on defense. This includes the Pentagon budget, supplemental appropriations for hot wars, nuclear weapons hidden in the Energy Department budget, homeland security, 17 intelligence agencies, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and interest on the debt created by our modern habit of financing wars on a credit card.

Even if we just count direct US military spending, the figures are enormous. At $610 billion in 2017, US military spending accounted for more than a third of the world total. This dwarfs the $294 billion spent by our potential adversaries—Russia spent $66 billion; China, $228 billion. In addition, US allies spent an estimated $600 billion last year on their militaries. So America and its allies outspent our possible opponents by more than four to one. Yet the House Armed Services Committee just authorized raising the Pentagon budget to $716 billion. Pentagon spending now consumes nearly 70 percent of the discretionary federal budget.

The results? We don’t have money for college education for our young people; we don’t have money to rebuild declining schools; we say we can’t afford health care for everyone; we can hardly conceive of spending to house the homeless. Now conservatives are preparing a major assault on our social programs to—wait for it—balance the budget.

This would be bad enough if these expenditures were effective, but they’re not. Endless wars in the Middle East have only given birth to more virulent and dangerous forms of terrorism. A 2008 Rand Corporation study concluded that terrorism rarely ends by military means: “Military force was effective in only 7 percent of the cases examined; in most instances, military force is too blunt an instrument to be successful against terrorist groups.”

This hasn’t prevented many Democrats in Congress from continuing to agree with Republicans to squander trillions of dollars on unnecessary and often counterproductive defense spending just to seem “tough” on defense. Washington think tanks routinely hold conferences with breathless titles such as “Strategic Competition: Maintaining the Edge” as if we are on the verge of losing our military dominance.

What if the terms of this debate are wrong? What if voters know the War on Terror has been ineffective and, instead, want to rebuild America’s social systems and infrastructure?

In February, we commissioned a national poll by Public Policy Polling to find out if new frames based on progressive values were more popular with voters than the “red meat,” tough-on-terrorism conservative frames. We took a representative sample of 41 percent Clinton voters and 39 percent Trump voters. The poll surveyed 587 registered voters nationwide, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. The results surprised us.

We found that by margins of two to one, three to one, and even four to one, progressives could reframe the debate and prevail with voters.

We gave voters a choice of the best frames we could find for both positions. We tried not to tilt the scales in any way. For example, we asked voters which statement they agreed with:

  • Statement A: Some people say we have to hunt and kill terrorists over there before they get to the United States and strike our homeland.
  • Statement B: Others say that America should stop trying to police the world and invest, instead, in rebuilding America, including its crumbling infrastructure and social services.

By an astounding 44–14 percent, voters agreed with Statement B, the new progressive frame. About 38 percent responded “Some of both,” but even that works in our favor, as progressives are rarely as absolutist in their arguments as conservatives. We found that many Trump voters agreed with the new progressive frame. In this question, 26 percent went for Statement B, with 26 percent for the red-meat conservative frame of Statement A.

We tried asking the question a different way:

  • Statement A: Some say that America should hunt and kill terrorists wherever we find them. If others won’t deal with terrorists in their own countries, we should police the world to keep America safe.
  • Statement B: Others say that more than 16 years of the War on Terror have been a near-complete failure. Instead of trying to bomb our way to peace, we should work to address the root causes of terrorism and limit the civilian deaths that have fueled anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and increased terrorism.

By margins of more than two to one, voters agree with the new progressive frame in Statement B (43 percent) versus the conservative Statement A (19 percent).

We asked voters directly whether they thought the War on Terror had been successful and 40 percent of voters said no, while only 10 percent said it had been successful. Even among Trump voters, only 17 percent thought the War on Terror had been successful, while 29 percent thought it had not been.

The Trump administration has recently announced plans to dramatically expand its arms sales abroad. We asked voters if they agreed that the United States should continue to sell arms to the world. Again, by more than two to one, voters said no.

We probed voters’ beliefs on nuclear weapons, as the government plans to spend some $1.7 trillion on nuclear weapons over the next few decades. What do voters think: more or fewer nuclear weapons?  If you guessed fewer, you are correct, and by a more than two-to-one margin, 47 percent to 23 percent. Even 32 percent of Trump voters wanted to cut nuclear arms.

We gave voters this specific choice on the nuclear budget, arguing the best case we could for both sides:

  • Statement A: Some people say we have to spend whatever it takes to make sure that the US nuclear arsenal is the best in the world. Nuclear weapons only take up a small percentage of the Pentagon budget. They are affordable and necessary.
  • Statement B: Others say that spending on nuclear weapons takes money away from the conventional military programs that we actually use, like ships, planes, tanks, and troops. Current plans call for us to spend $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years on new nuclear weapons. We can’t afford this. We should scale back and buy only the weapons we truly need.

Again, voters agreed with Statement B by more than two to one.

The margins of approval for the progressive position increased when we came to the fundamental issues of war and peace. Americans, it appears, are sick of war. They want Congress to take a much more active role. We asked them whether Congress should vote on any authorizations for new wars, as required by the US Constitution. By 61 to 17 percent, voters said yes.

We concluded with questions about President Trump. We wanted to know what voters thought about his national-security policies and the role that Congress is playing. It turns out, Americans are afraid of what Trump might do. A strong majority of 53 percent of voters “fear that, without control by Congress, President Trump could start a nuclear war in some place like North Korea or Iran.” Only 36 percent disagreed. Among Clinton voters the fear was palpable, with 81 percent, the highest results of any question, saying they believed Trump might start a nuclear war. Even 17 percent of Trump voters felt that way.

So you will not be surprised that in our final question of the poll, voters said by two to one that they would be more likely to support a candidate who promised to place restrictions on Trump’s ability to start a war without consent of Congress. Among Clinton voters, 78 percent wanted their candidates to restrain Trump.

Interestingly, we found that there was not much of a gender difference. Men and women largely agreed, with just a couple of exceptions.

Those politicians who vote whichever way the wind is blowing should know that the wind is with us. Unfortunately, Congress has already mortgaged our future with the massive $160 billion defense increase for the next two years in the omnibus spending bill passed this March. But there will still be votes on authorization bills for the coming fiscal year where members can oppose particularly wasteful and dangerous weapons programs. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA), for example, are trying to kill a new “low yield” nuclear weapon Trump wants to put on submarines, making it easier to use in a conflict. Our poll shows that the public would likely support efforts to rein in nuclear spending.

Similarly, the public is clearly tired of endless, global wars. They would likely not support the kinds of new authorizations for the use of military force some senators are shopping around. Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Bob Corker (R-TN) have a bill that would retroactively authorize all the military deployments in all the nations now under way. The Friends Committee on National Legislation calls it “a new blank check for war.” If our poll data is any indication, the public would strongly oppose this dangerous expansion of the president’s war powers under the guise of congressional oversight.

We visited with over a dozen progressive senators and members of Congress last month, and all of them are looking for a new “transformative” message, as one leader put it. They had great suggestions for how we could improve the questions, probe deeper into voter attitudes, and expand the polling. We have posted the poll on the Ploughshares Fund website, along with pie charts of the key questions.

Our bottom line: Progressives should not fear a debate about national security. They should not shunt it aside or try to get to the right of Trump to prove their virility. It is possible for Democrats and progressive Republicans to frame their positions as core American values.

Bipartisanship does not have to mean Democrats agreeing to right-wing positions and budgets. Democrats do not need to continue as Republicans-lite on defense. They can stand up for tough, realistic national-security policies that protect America while cutting excessive spending and excessive weapons. By doing so, they will gain, not lose, voters.

By Joe Cirincione and Guy T. Saperstein