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Voters already love technology. They don’t need anti-China messaging to get there.

Poll: Americans are tech optimists.

US President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress in the House chamber of the US Capitol April 28, 2021. In the speech, he highlighted the need for increased investment in research and design and cast China as a key geopolitical adversary.
Melina Mara/Getty Images

In his address to the joint session of Congress on April 28, President Joe Biden made the case for reinvigorating the government’s role in technological investment, laying out a vision for what you could call “progressive tech optimism”: the idea that government investment in tech is the path forward to solving Democratic priorities like the climate crisis and developing treatments for illnesses like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer.

The president’s vision for the role of technology was striking given that both Republicans and Democrats have become incensed by the behavior of different big tech companies and their founders — from Amazon’s treatment of its workers and Twitter’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump. But while both sides of the aisle have been critical of tech companies lately, tech optimism resonates strongly with voters, according to a new poll with Data for Progress (DFP) and Vox.

The poll, conducted between April 16 and 19, surveyed 1,138 likely voters. It found 80 percent of respondents agreed with the relatively anodyne statement: “Technology is generally a force for good,” and then, when given both tech optimist and tech pessimist messages, voters again agreed that tech is a force for good.

Seventy-one percent of likely voters agreed with the tech-optimist statement: “Technology is generally a force for good. Large tech companies have provided innovations like vaccines, electric vehicles, bringing down the cost of batteries that store green energy, vegetarian meat options, and other ways that have improved our quality of life.” Only 19 percent agreed with the tech-pessimist statement: “Technology is generally a force for bad. Large tech companies are bad for workers, inequality, and democracy. The technological innovations they produce are not worth the cost.”

Republicans, perhaps scarred by the wave of tech companies that banned Trump and some of his allies from their platforms, are more likely to agree with the tech-pessimist statement: 30 percent of Republicans as opposed to only 12 percent of Democrats. Still, 59 percent of Republicans agreed with the tech-optimist message along with 78 percent of Democrats.

Traditionally, presidents of both parties have argued in favor of pursuing new technological advancements by citing America’s need to remain “first” in the world. And in their fight for increased funding for technological research and development, Democrats have repeatedly highlighted China as a growing adversary. This new survey data suggests specific appeals about the danger any one country poses to dominance are likely unnecessary in garnering public support.

Does public support for investing in R&D require anti-China rhetoric?

Bipartisan messaging pitting the US’s future against China’s has taken root. In his joint address, Biden warned that “China and other countries are closing in fast” as he urged Congress to increase public investments in research and development.

He’s not alone in this.

The Endless Frontier Act, a bill championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, seeks to “bolster US technology research and development efforts in a bid to address Chinese competition,” Reuters’ David Shepardson reported. Schumer himself has repeatedly warned of the threat the Chinese Communist Party poses as he urges his colleagues to support the legislation — in one statement, he references China three times.

Some commentators have criticized the rise in this oppositional rhetoric, pointing to the attacks on AAPI people over the past year; author R.O. Kwon called Biden’s remarks before Congress “absolutely fucking terrifying.” Trump has been widely excoriated for referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus” or “Kung flu” — rhetoric which may have fueled the flames of anti-Asian sentiment over the last year — and these critics feel Democrats’ language isn’t helping matters.

In the new poll, DFP and Vox tested whether this focus on China was necessary to build public support for new technological investments. Respondents were divided into two groups: In the first, respondents were told that increasing public investment in science and tech would help in “maintaining our competitive edge over China.” In the second, they were told it would help in “maintaining our competitive edge over Europe.” Support for the anti-China message was nearly indistinguishable from the anti-Europe one.

The study found 66 percent of respondents agreed that the US should “invest more in scientific and technological innovations” when they were told it would help the nation compete with China and 67 percent agreed with that statement when they were told it would help the nation compete with Europe. Looking at the partisan split, Republicans and Democrats are actually more motivated (4 percentage points and 2 percentage points, respectively) by competition with Europe.

In pursuit of drumming up public support for public investments in R&D, voters may be motivated by the desire to maintain American hegemony, but specific references to China do not appear to increase support for the policies.

But, as Vox’s Ella Nilsen and Alex Ward report, Democrats’ anti-China rhetoric may not be about convincing the public but rather a way to get Republican elected officials on board:

“The best way to enact a progressive agenda is to use China [as a] threat,” a Democratic congressional aide told Vox.

The theory that America is at its best when it’s united against a common adversary can motivate members of both parties, especially using the idea that the US will lose its competitive edge or cede ground to another country. Indeed, one of the few things both parties can agree on is the need to compete with China.

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