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Few Democratic voters back Syria bombings. So why do so many Democrats in Congress?

Demonstrators Protest Over President Trump's Airstrikes In Syria
Demonstrators hit the streets of New York City in opposition to Trump’s strike in Syria.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A majority of Democratic voters don’t see eye to eye with their party’s leaders on Capitol Hill over President Donald Trump’s strikes in Syria.

A new poll released by Gallup on Wednesday found that 61 percent of Democrats nationally opposed the strikes, with just 33 percent expressing their approval. (The remaining 6 percent said they weren’t sure.)

By contrast, only five Democratic senators have come out in opposition to the attacks, according to a tally compiled by FiveThirtyEight. The top-ranking Democrat, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), called punishing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad “the right thing to do.”

Meanwhile, House Democrats have been equally willing to give Trump’s strikes bipartisan cover. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called last week’s attacks a “proportional response,” in addition to calling for Congress to reconvene in order to debate Trump’s decision.

Dozens of Democrats in both the House and Senate have demanded that Trump’s administration come up with a coherent strategy on Syria and seek congressional authorization before expanding the scope of its operations. But only a handful of the most left-leaning House Democrats — Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Ro Khanna (D-CA), and Ted Lieu (D-CA) — have publicly condemned the attacks themselves, even if most of their voters believe it’s the right thing to do.

What explains the gap between Democratic officials and their voters on Syria?

Senate Votes On Nomination Of Judge Neil Gorsuch To Become Associate Justice Of Supreme Court Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images

There are a few possible explanations for the disconnect between Democratic Party officials and their voters on the Syria strikes. One is that voters are simply reacting to their personal partisan preferences about the president — after all, support for strikes in Syria surged among Republican Party voters from when they were being considered under President Obama to when they were launched by Trump.

Still, Democrats are about as supportive of the strikes as they were under Obama, with 38 percent backing them in 2013 and 37 percent agreeing with them now, according to the Washington Post. Now 86 percent of Republican voters back the strikes, compared with the just 22 percent who did so in 2013.

As Michigan State University political scientist Matt Grossmann notes, liberals have in general grown more consistently dovish over the past decade. Meanwhile, many Democrats in Congress have developed longstanding positions on foreign affairs that make it difficult to change without veering close to hypocrisy. Top Senate Democrats defended Obama’s strikes in Libya, and shielded him from accusations — similar to those now being lobbed at Trump by some Democrats — that he should have consulted with Congress before acting.

“People in Congress have real policy preferences and real attitudes toward foreign policy,” Grossmann said. “There’s a long-running, more hawkish willingness to accept the consensus among the generals with Democrats in Congress.”

Another possible factor is age. Young voters are consistently reliable Democratic Party supporters — the only age demographic Hillary Clinton won was voters under 44. By contrast, voters over 45 broke for Donald Trump by an 11-point margin.

But Democratic Party representatives on Capitol Hill much more closely resemble the Republican Party’s base in age. The average age of senior Democratic leadership in the House is 72, and at least three of the House Democrats holding key committee spots are over 85. The average age of top Senate Democratic leadership is 68, and the average age of a Democratic senator is 60.

And, overwhelmingly, young voters are much more skeptical of foreign adventurism than their elders, according to YouGov polling. More than 40 percent of those ages 18 to 29 thought the Syria strikes were “too aggressive” — compared with just 8 percent of those over 65. Just 4 percent of young people want further military intervention, compared to 12 percent of Democrats overall want more aggressive strikes, according to YouGov polling.

This divide reflects one pollsters have long seen. In 2016, Pew found that 57 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 believe the biggest concern with US military action in Iraq and Syria would be going too far. More than 61 percent of voters older than 65 thought the bigger concern was not going far enough to stop militants.

Whatever the cause, progressive activists see a disconnect between party leaders’ positions on foreign policy and that of their voters.

“We are calling on all congressional leaders to call for emergency deliberations on Trump’s illegal escalation in Syria. Anything short of that will show that Democrats are completely out of touch with the base of their party,” said Murshed Zaheed, political director at CREDO Action, a left-wing grassroots advocacy organization, in an interview last week.