Democrats Need to Say a Farewell to Arms

Voters support cuts in defense spending—progressives should, too.

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With its billions of dollars lavished on hundreds of weapon systems, the US defense budget has itself become a weapon of mass destruction, decimating our social programs and infrastructure. Republicans have no problem with this arrangement. Democrats, however, are afraid to challenge these military expenditures for fear of being labeled “soft.”
They need not worry. Our latest research shows that not only can Democrats oppose excessive defense spending without fear, but they will benefit politically by doing so. The progressive position on America’s wars, military spending, and nuclear weapons outpolls the conservative position by 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, 17 intelligence agencies, the Department of Veterans Affairs, homeland security, the nuclear weapons buried in the Energy Department’s budget, and interest on the debt created by our modern habit of financing wars on credit.
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’s 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 of Representatives just authorized raising the Pentagon budget to $716 billion. Pentagon spending now consumes nearly 70 percent of the discretionary federal budget.
The results? We can’t pay 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. And now conservatives are preparing a major assault on our social programs to—wait for it—balance the budget. This would be bad enough even 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 is rarely ended 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.”
Despite this fact, many Democrats in Congress continue to agree with Republicans in squandering trillions of dollars on unnecessary and often counterproductive spending just to seem “tough” on defense. Washington think tanks routinely hold conferences with breathless titles like “Strategic Competition: Maintaining the Edge,” as if we are on the verge of losing our military dominance.
But what if the terms of this debate are wrong? What if voters know the War on Terror has been ineffective and, instead, want to restore or even expand America’s social systems and infrastructure?
In February, we commissioned a national survey percent Clinton voters and 39 percent Trump voters (20 percent either didn’t vote or voted for another candidate). 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 summaries 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 to 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, since progressives are rarely as absolutist in their arguments as conservatives. We found that many Trump voters agreed with Statement B: 26 percent, versus 26 percent for the red-meat conservative frame of Statement A.
Then 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 a margin of more than two to one, voters agreed with Statement B (43 percent) versus Statement A (19 percent). We also asked voters directly whether they thought the War on Terror had been successful: 40 percent said no, while only 10 percent said yes. Even among Trump voters, only 17 percent thought the War on Terror had been a success, compared with 29 percent who thought it hadn’t.
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 also probed voters’ beliefs about nuclear weapons, on which the US government plans to spend some $1.7 trillion over the next few decades. By more than a two-to-one margin, 47 to 23 percent, voters supported having fewer nuclear weapons. Even 32 percent of Trump voters wanted to reduce the amount of nuclear arms.
We then gave voters a specific choice on the nuclear-arms 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 margin 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 and want Congress to take a much more active role in such decisions. We asked whether Congress should vote to authorize any new wars, as required by the US Constitution.
By 61 to 17 percent, voters said yes.
We concluded with questions about President Trump, his national-security policies, and the role of Congress. As it turns out, Americans are afraid of what Trump might do. A strong majority of voters—53 percent—”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 for 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, 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 the consent of Congress. Among Clinton voters, 78 percent wanted their candidates to restrain Trump.
Interestingly, we also found that there wasn’t much of a gender difference: Men and women largely agreed, with just a couple of exceptions.
Those politicians who vote whichever way the wind blows 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 that President Trump wants to put on submarines, making it easier to use in a conflict.
Our polling indicates that voters are likely to support such efforts. They are also likely to oppose the new authorizations for the use of military force that some lawmakers are shopping around. Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Bob Corker (R-TN) have a bill that would retroactively authorize all of the US military deployments now under way across the globe. The Friends Committee on National Legislation calls it “a new blank check for war.” If our poll is any indication, the public would strongly oppose this dangerous expansion of the president’s war powers.
We visited with over a dozen progressive senators and representatives last month, and found that all of them are looking for a new “transformative” message, as one leader put it. They had great suggestions for how we could improve our questions, probe deeper into voter attitudes, and expand the polling. We have posted the polls on the Ploughshares Fund website (, along with pie charts of the key questions.
Our bottom line: Progressives shouldn’t fear a debate on national security or move to Trump’s right to prove their virility. It is possible for Democrats to frame their positions as core American values. Bipartisanship does not have to mean agreeing to right-wing positions or budgets. Democrats can stand up for tough, realistic national-security policies that protect the United States while cutting excessive spending and excessive weapons. Doing so will win them votes.
By Joe Cirincione and Guy T. Saperstein