On Monday afternoon, the Pew Research Center released its annual report on how Americans see foreign policy — which focused, appropriately, on Russia. Its findings are striking.
The report’s findings make a very compelling case that Donald Trump’s victory has, single-handedly, transformed the way Americans see Russia. Republicans are more friendly to Vladimir Putin’s regime, and Democrats more hostile, than at any point in Pew’s decade-plus of polling. It’s a testament to just how powerfully partisan politics shapes the way Americans see the world.
What Pew found
Between April 2016 and January 2017, the percent of Democrats in Pew’s sample who saw Russia as a “major threat” to the US nearly doubled. Among Republicans, the number fell by 5 percentage points:
This finding would be striking enough on its own. It shows that, before Trump officially won the Republican primary in June, Republicans were still more hostile to Russia than Democrats. But over the course of the election, that flipped.
This finding, in broad strokes, is corroborated by other pollsters. A July 2014 poll by YouGov found that Russian President Vladimir Putin had a -66 approval rating among Republicans; in November 2016, that number was -10 — a 55 percentage point increase, at a time when Putin’s government was slaughtering civilians and American-backed rebels in Syria.
But Pew has the benefit of more than a decade of polling on American views of Russia to compare with. When you look back, you find that — since Pew began polling on this in 2005 — Republicans have always seen Russia as a bigger threat than Democrats have. 2017 is the sole exception:
That chart also shows that previous spikes in American hostility towards Russia, in 2009 and 2015, were bipartisan and happened in the wake of major wars: Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Clearly, Americans are sensitive to news about Russia — but usually the effect is bipartisan.
The presidential election was the only major news event involving Russia in the past year that could plausibly have had such a partisan effect. Donald Trump’s repeated praise for Putin’s Russia, and Russia’s intervention on behalf of Trump in the election, caused Democrats to hate Russia and Republicans to warm to it.
Look, for example, at the findings on cybersecurity. In both 2013 and April 2016, Republicans were more concerned than Democrats about the threat from cyberattacks. But by January 2017, their relative positions had flipped — almost as if a major hack had benefitted Republicans and hurt Democrats:
When you divide the results by ideology — separating self-described “conservative” Republicans from “moderate” and “liberal” ones, and liberal Democrats from conservative and moderate ones — the picture becomes clearer. When it comes to threats from cyberattacks and Russia there’s a clear partisan spectrum — with conservative Republicans at one end and liberal Democrats at the other:
This is the opposite of what you’d expect, at least theoretically.
In most opinion polling, conservative Republicans are the most hawkish Americans, seeing a world full of threats and dangers. Liberal Democrats are traditionally the least hawkish, believing America to be relatively secure from foreign threats — with moderates of both stripes falling somewhere in between. Indeed, that’s the pattern you see on most of the other issues in the chart. The clearest exception aside from Russia and cybersecurity is climate change — obviously a hugely partisan issue.
“Partisanship is a hell of a drug”
The election of Donald Trump isn’t so much responding to changing American public opinion, at least when it comes to foreign policy. It’s actively reshaping it.
Political science research on ideology and partisanship, which Vox’s Ezra Klein has surveyed extensively, shows it plays a profound role in shaping how people think about the world — even about basic issues of truth and falsehood.
For example, in one study Klein examined, researchers gave people a tricky math problem to solve. Some people got a version of the problem framed around a skin cream study, while others got a version about gun control data. Liberals and conservatives given the skin cream version of the problem performed roughly equally as well, with most people in both groups getting the answer wrong.
But when you manipulated the question so that getting the mathematically correct answer “proved” something about gun control, everything changed. Liberals did way better when the answer “proved” that gun control reduced crime, conservatives did way better when it “proved” that it didn’t. People were tailoring their answers on something as objective as a math problem to fit their political biases.
The point, then, is that our political identities don’t respond to facts — the facts respond to our political identities. People want the truth to fit with the ideological and partisan story they tell themselves, so they adjust their opinions about facts to be more comfortable.
So when Putin and his cyberespionage became a threat to Democrats, and a boon to Republicans, hardcore partisans of the two parties switched their ideas accordingly. For some voters, this partisan identity even overrode their ideology — the traditional Republican hawkishness and Democratic dovishness. What mattered was the raw sense of threat or benefit to their political tribe.
In the long run, this could even lead to changes in the ideological stories people tell themselves. Republicans could start to follow the lead of some paleoconservatives, like Pat Buchanan, in seeing Putin as a kind of ideological ally — a social conservative leading the fight against godlessness and secular values.
“In 2013, the Kremlin imposed a ban on homosexual propaganda, a ban on abortion advertising, a ban on abortions after 12 weeks and a ban on sacrilegious insults to religious believers,” Buchanan writes. “In the culture war for the future of mankind, Putin is planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity.”
This kind of outright support for Putin is common on the alt-right, the online racist subculture that’s been vocally pro-Trump, and other fringe groups. But four years of Trump could help mainstream it — and create a new generation of Russia hawks on the left.
“Partisanship,” as Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan puts it, “is a hell of a drug.”