The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liberal Democrats are more hawkish than you might think

They’re the ones who endorse military support for Ukraine, Taiwan and other places when there’s a threat to human rights or democracy.

Staff Sgt. Cody Brown checks shells bound for Ukraine on April 29 at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. (Alex Brandon/AP)

While election officials are still counting ballots in many midterm races, most observers expect Republicans to win a slim majority in the House.

While funding for aid to Ukraine has thus far received bipartisan support in Congress, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently indicated that a Republican-led House would reduce that funding. Democrats were quick to criticize McCarthy’s stance. But a week later, the House Democrats’ Progressive Caucus released — and almost immediately retracted — a letter urging President Biden to pursue diplomacy alongside delivering military support.

Republican and Democratic leaders’ approaches are backed by their voters’ attitudes, the 2022 Chicago Council Survey finds. Liberal Democrats are far and away Ukraine’s strongest American supporters. And while moderate Democrats, Republicans and independents are more “pro-military” in the abstract, the liberals are most willing to intervene and aid allies under threat around the world.

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Liberal Democrats express greatest support for Ukraine

Across party lines, Americans have supported Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February. Yet liberal Democrats, who account for about 6 in 10 Democrats overall, consistently stand out in the strength and near-unanimity of their support for Ukraine’s military defense.

The 2022 Chicago Council Survey was conducted by Ipsos using its online KnowledgePanel from July 15 to Aug. 1 (around the time the Progressive Caucus drafted its letter) among a nationally representative sample of 3,106 adults living in the United States, with data weighted to match Census Bureau demographic estimates of gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, region and income. We found that 8 in 10 liberal Democrats think that the United States should support Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” even if that brings higher food and fuel prices. Modest majorities of moderate Democrats (55 percent) and independents (55 percent) and half of Republicans (50 percent) agree. But significant minorities of those last three groups think the United States should encourage Ukraine to settle for peace, even if it means it will lose territory to Russia.

This division extends to a variety of policies aimed at helping Ukraine. While majorities across party lines endorse such policies, a significantly larger proportion of liberal Democrats support them than we find in any other group.

For instance, 9 in 10 liberals support accepting Ukrainian refugees into the United States, increasing sanctions on Russia and providing economic assistance to Ukraine. Between about two-thirds and three-quarters of moderate Democrats, Republicans and independents agree. Liberals also support sending arms and military assistance to Ukraine at a rate over 10 points higher than any other group. Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans (34 percent) or independents (37 percent) to support sending U.S. troops to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia, although there is little difference between liberal (43 percent) and moderate (41 percent) Democratic support.

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Liberals aren’t afraid to use force

Our data suggest that liberals’ bigger appetite for U.S. intervention extends to many other potential conflict flash points around the globe.

Majorities of liberal Democrats say they would support sending U.S. troops to intervene if Russia invaded a NATO ally; if North Korea invaded South Korea; or if China invaded Taiwan. Liberal Democrats are the only group that would favor U.S. intervention in Taiwan. But even when a majority of moderate Democrats, Republicans and independents support intervention, liberals do at significantly higher levels.

So are liberal Democrats the new foreign policy hawks? Not exactly.

While a higher proportion of liberal Democrats support U.S. intervention around the world, moderate Democrats and Republicans think more highly of the military in general. Among moderate Democrats, 42 percent say that they have “a great deal of confidence” in the leaders of the U.S. military. That’s a larger proportion than among their liberal counterparts (26 percent), Republicans (37 percent) or independents (24 percent).

Moderate Democrats also have more positive attitudes toward defense spending. A plurality (44 percent) would favor keeping the defense budget the same; more would favor increasing it (30 percent) than cutting it back (19 percent). By contrast, a plurality of liberal Democrats would prefer to see the defense budget scaled back (44 percent), with smaller portions of the group electing to keep it the same (37 percent) or expand it (14 percent).

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Who sees the U.S. military as the world’s police?

While liberals have historically been thought of as antiwar or anti-military, our findings suggest that liberal Democrats’ lower confidence in U.S. military leaders and their preference for defense cuts may be confined to the abstract. Liberals tend to support putting U.S. boots on the ground around the world at equal or higher rates than moderate Democrats, Republicans and independents, particularly when they sense a threat to human rights or democracy.

And with a steadily growing portion of Democrats, especially young Democrats, identifying as liberal, Democratic leadership may increasingly need to take the views of the party’s left seriously on this and other issues.

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Dina Smeltz (@RoguePollster) is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Emily Sullivan (@emksullivan_) is a research assistant in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.