To some, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is a canary in the coal mine. A political realignment is underway, and Donald Trump is only illustrative of the forces remaking American politics before our eyes. Gabbard’s dovish foreign policy preferences seem wildly out of step with her party, though they are perfectly in line with the views of those on the right who favor retrenchment. But Gabbard’s desire to see a rapprochement with Russia on terms favorable to Moscow and her hostility toward America’s post-9/11 extroversion is not so revolutionary. She is representative of the Democratic Party’s status quo ante. After all, Nancy Pelosi stood with the despot in Damascus long before Tulsi Gabbard followed in her footsteps.
This is an age in which negative partisanship has become the defining feature of both political coalitions. If one side is for it, it is a safe bet that the other isn’t. So President Trump’s abandonment of some conventional conservative policy priorities he’s led Democrats to embrace policies they’ve spent decades opposing.
Today, an overwhelming number of self-identified Democrats support free trade. A new survey found that nearly six-in-ten Hillary Clinton voters oppose withdrawing U.S. troops from the ground in Syria. A plurality of Clinton’s voters—47 percent–oppose pulling American soldiers out of Afghanistan. A decade after Barack Obama’s ill-fated “Reset,” 81 percent of Democrats told pollsters in July that Russia is either “unfriendly” or an enemy of the United States. Forty-seven percent of Democrats said Moscow represents the “greatest immediate threat” to American national security—more than North Korea, China, Iran, and even ISIS.
Perhaps this paradigmatic transformation is genuine, but suspicion is more than justified. Particularly because this sea change on the left was a reaction to a sea change on the right.
According to Pew Research Center, Democratic views on free trade were relatively stable in positive territory for a decade leading up to 2016, but the GOP’s support for a classically liberal trade regime collapsed when Donald Trump won the party’s presidential nomination. A decade ago, when a Democratic president was imposing tariffs on imported Chinese tires, it was the GOP that overwhelmingly favored free trade while only a plurality of Democrats expressed similar sympathies.
In April 2016, Pew pollsters found that just 37 percent of Democrats described Russia as a major threat to the United States while 46 percent of Republicans said the same. By January 2017, the roles were reversed. Only 41 percent of Republicans called Russia a threat, but two-thirds of self-described Democrats agreed (other pollsters show a more pronounced turn toward Moscow from GOP voters).
In a pre-Trump environment, Democrats were cautious about what the aggressive containment of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria could accomplish. At the end of 2015, after Barack Obama reluctantly abandoned his opposition to deployments in Syria, Gallup showed that only 37 percent of Democrats backed boots on the ground in the fight against ISIS. By contrast, 54 percent of Republicans supported ground troops.
At the beginning of 2015, even as Barack Obama prepared to reverse his order ending combat operations in Afghanistan, about six-in-ten Democrats told ABC News/Washington Post pollsters that America’s first post-9/11 war had not been worth it. But Democratic opinion on the virtue of keeping a troop presence in Afghanistan had reversed itself.
In 2011, when Barack Obama pledged to pursue a plan to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the fall of 2012, 67 percent of Democrats backed total withdrawal. Even as late as 2014, 89 percent of Democrats said Obama was either too cautious in his approach to troop withdrawals in Afghanistan or moving just fast enough. But when Obama reversed himself in 2015 and committed to a long-term troop presence in Central Asia, a majority of Democrats agreed that full withdrawal from Afghanistan would be premature.
This isn’t simply blinkered partisanship. It’s understandable that voters would defer to their elected leaders to heuristically navigate complex matters of public policy and geopolitics. But if there was a true realignment of public opinion underway on these issues among Democrats, it is reasonable to expect Democratic political officials to mirror the opinions of their voters. They are not.
The polls show Democrats now oppose excessive protectionism, and pundits say that only makes sense. After all, as CNN’s Ron Brownstein noted, the counties Hillary Clinton won in 2016 account for nearly 60 percent of all American exports. And yet, only a handful of centrist Democrats in Congress and precisely one likely Democratic presidential candidate—former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe–has joined congressional Republicans in admonishing Trump’s unilateral imposition of tariffs on America’s allies and adversaries alike.
Similarly, Democrats’ newfound appreciation for an extroverted foreign policy has yielded only patronizing toleration from the party’s political class. In a speech on foreign policy that set the stage for the launch of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential exploratory committee, the Massachusetts Senator was critical only of the speed with which Donald Trump promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan—not the mission. She pledged to pare back America’s “unsustainable and ill-advised military commitments,” cut the “bloated defense budget,” and redirect those funds to make “investments at home.”
Democratic 2020 hopefuls in Congress have signed onto an effort to sever America’s links to Saudi Arabia over its conduct of the war in Yemen, where U.S. efforts to contain an Iranian proxy and conduct drone strikes on Islamist militants are ongoing and remain a paramount national security priority. That would seem to conflict with Democratic voters’ sudden respect for America’s commitments abroad. But, as Bernie Sanders said in a 2017 foreign-policy speech, “the Global War on Terror has been a disaster for the American people and for American leadership.”
Perhaps the Democratic Party’s political class is a lagging indicator. Maybe they will catch up with their voters on issues like trade and foreign affairs. Or maybe they’re betting that the Democratic Party has not become a party of free traders and hawks. Maybe they see this as a temporary deviation from the party’s consensus on policy driven entirely by Donald Trump’s unconventionality. And maybe they think their voters will return to form when Trump is out of office. Given the polling on these issues over the last decade, that doesn’t seem like a risky gamble.