Peace is Popular. Run on It.

By Andrew Leber

A recent poll from ReThink Media demonstrates that congressional Democrats can successfully pitch their supporters on rolling back a runaway reliance on military solutions and defense spending if only they…

Just kidding. Democratic voters are already sold on the need to pare back the Pentagon no matter how US militarism is framed: as financially unsustainable (73% find this at least somewhat convincing); fueling unwinnable wars (78%); responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians (76%); or sapping our ability to contain the present pandemic (82%).

Put another way, peace is popular, and Democrats should be running on the idea of steering spending away from defense while paring back the dense thicket of US security commitments the world over. Championing popular policies is smart politics, and even Joe Biden has read the room enough to pay lip service to ending “forever wars.” 

The United States cannot end the war nationalism that launched Trump’s political career without ending the endless wars that fueled it. Democratic voters, intuitively, know this.

Yet the temptation for Democrats is to ramp up the hawkish rhetoric as we head into the general election. “National security hawks choose Biden” is the kind of headline that can play well among DC politicos even as it does precious little to burnish the party’s broader appeal. And it only makes it easier for Trump to run on the idea that he’s the peace candidate in this election, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, public support for higher defense spending (which never enjoyed support from a majority of Americans) was waning in response to inflation-adjusted defense spending rising to a higher point than at any time since the Second World War. Clear majorities of self-styled Democrats (72%) and Independents (59%) wanted the US to prioritize economic and diplomatic efforts to protect US interests.

The ReThink poll also points to some obvious gimmes, suggesting that foreign-policy progressives would be wise to continue efforts to restrict presidential war powers (86% want to see it happen) and restrict arms sales to “to human rights-abusing authoritarians” (87%). 

The House and Senate have started to find their legs on these issues: Rep. Ro Khanna sought to restrict US arms sales to Saudi Arabia; Rep. Ilhan Omar proposed guidelines to rein in indiscriminate US sanctions; and even not-particularly-dove-ish Sen. Tim Kaine attempted to restrict presidential warmaking powers after Trump’s volatile year-long “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. 

To be sure, many politicians shy away from taking a stance on foreign policy because they don’t believe that many voters care. Most respondents (55%) in the ReThink poll, for example, had no opinion or no understanding of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, despite those 60 words being at the heart of an endless Global War on Terror. 

Yet proposals to “end endless wars” won’t lose their appeal anytime soon, and Democratic leaders should look to outflank Republicans’ hollow rhetoric rather than outbidding the GOP in lining defense contractors’ pockets. 

* * *

This winning strategy of advocating for peace has already produced electoral results. 

The recent primary victory of Sen. Ed Markey in Massachusetts, defeating challenger Joseph P. Kennedy III, points to the very real electoral dividends for politicians willing to champion a progressive platform – including foreign policy positions – with broad appeal to Democratic voters. 

As numerous election re-caps have pointed out, Markey’s foreign and domestic policy positions have certainly evolved over time – supporting criminal justice reform long after supporting the infamous 1994 crime bill; voting for the war in Iraq before becoming one of the Senate’s few reliable votes for cutting the Pentagon’s ever-growing budget.

Yet Markey arguably took his most pivotal step toward re-election years before Kennedy even filed his candidacy papers by co-authoring Green New Deal (GND) legislation with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The weight of his endorsement as a consummate Democratic insider made it harder for Democratic leadership to continue dismissing comprehensive climate legislation as a radical, unworkable proposal.

Plenty of polling from early 2019 showed that the GND was a winner among Democratic Party voters, with at least some support from conservatives for particular aspects of the policy.  

Co-authoring the GND allowed Markey to lay claim to progressive bona fides that made it hard for Kennedy to argue he’d do anything better for Massachusetts or the country (no matter what policy positions he adopted). 

Support for the GND also allowed Markey to call in some favors – Ocasio-Cortez signalboosted the Senator’s campaign among engaged young Massachusetts voters while progressive and environmental organizations like the Sunrise Movement made thousands of calls to voters across the state.

* * *

Now (I hear you say) this is a Democratic primary in a reliably Democratic state – how much can we really learn from this for competitive elections around the country?

One clear takeaway is that Democratic candidates need to appreciate the electoral appeal of dovish stances that address popular concerns. Unfortunately, ever since FDR the party’s leadership has suffered from a pathological obsession with appearing “tough” on foreign-policy issues. Dukakis on a tank, anybody? 

When it comes to demonstrating foreign-policy leadership, Markey emphasized long-held positions on nuclear non-proliferation and environmentalism while downplaying past hawkish views on defense. Again, popular policies are rarely a bad idea – Democrats and Independents want to see action on climate change but see little national-security value in more nuclear weapons, wanton economic sanctions, military interventions, or arms sales abroad (see pages 32-34 of this Chicago Council survey).

Even more conservative congressional candidates with national security backgrounds can see an electoral appeal in winding down wars and restraining the imperial presidency. Max Rose of Staten Island went on Fox News to point out that a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan was a “simple and unequivocal right move”; Elissa Slotkin from Michigan, introduced the House version of War Powers legislation to ward off military action against Iran (though Rose opposed this).

The other takeaway is that voters in a winning Democratic coalition care about a non-IR kind of “credibility” – whether politicians actually follow through on campaign talking points. Kennedy ran on a decently progressive platform when it came to environmentalism, but could never overcome the contradiction of running against the Senate’s most forthright advocate of the Green New Deal.

Shying away from clear commitments on just how a Biden administration would “end endless wars” makes it easy for the Trump campaign to poke holes in Democrats’ mixed messages on foreign policy. As the president gears up to rebuild the mythic image of, “Donald the Dove,” the Biden campaign and Democrats writ large should know better than to play right into the GOP’s hands.  


Andrew Leber is a graduate student at Harvard University’s Department of Government, where he studies the politics of policymaking in authoritarian regimes and dabbles in foreign-policy research.

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