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When voters hear about foreign policy, they yawn

Many voters don’t care much about it, and that’s a problem.

A view of tents in a sit-in along the Tigris river near the Senak bridge erected by anti-government protesters in the capital Baghdad on Dec. 25.AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

In a recent speech on foreign policy, former vice president Joe Biden was highly critical of President Trump, asserting that he has “bankrupted our credibility and alienated friends.” If you read the foreign policy platforms of most Democratic presidential candidates, their views are fairly similar. They all express an urgent need to restore America’s moral leadership, to rebuild our alliances, and to regain our respect in the world.

Most voters don’t care much, and that’s a problem.

“Honestly, I am so far removed from all of this,” said Michelle from North Carolina. “I am a new mom and just focused on trying to keep myself together, and I can’t worry about Syria.” Added Morgan from California, “My foreign policy creds are de minimis, but it seems that the issue with the Kurds has been going on for centuries — and so we should just stay out of it and worry about our own country.”

When I asked my panel of 500 voters about foreign policy, most told me they don’t have a lot to say, independent of educational levels or party affiliation. This is corroborated by a poll by Ipsos and FiveThirtyEight in which voters were asked about the issues most important to them in the 2020 presidential election. Democrats overwhelmingly chose “ability to beat Trump,” followed by health care, the economy, income inequality, and climate change. Foreign policy was not even in the top 10.


James, a Republican from Pennsylvania, put it to me in concrete terms: “I have relatives from South Philly who sent my cousin to West Chester University (about 30 miles away.) They packed a bag and stayed with my parents in Broomall to break up the trip. Do you think they know where Ukraine is?”

Sol Gittleman, my favorite professor from my days as a student at Tufts University, said in an interview that most Americans can’t find Afghanistan on a map, no less Ukraine.


This is concerning because the president has significant freedom to act when it comes to our relationships and policies abroad. Whereas Congress can block domestic legislation, on the foreign front it mostly has only the power to declare war and ratify treaties. Thus, given that our president has enormous power when it comes to global issues, it should be more on voters’ minds.

Even some Democrats who support Biden for president don’t care much that 133 foreign affairs experts recently endorsed his candidacy. As Shari from Delaware told me, “My friends and I like Biden mostly because he is a moderate, a steady hand, and a high-integrity individual, but I haven’t really considered his foreign policy experience.”

For many Trump supporters and some Democrats, the key to foreign policy seems to be hunkering down and staying out of the world’s business. We have our own issues to worry about, said Alden, a Republican from Illinois. “Bring our guys home, let the Kurds deal with ISIS on their own, and let the other NATO countries pony up.” Robert from Massachusetts said, “With our debt, we can no longer carry the rest of the world, even at the price of giving up our role as the undisputed global leader. It’s the Trump doctrine.”

This isolationist view and general lack of interest in world leadership is coloring how voters are thinking about impeachment. Although polls say that more than half of Americans wanted the president to be impeached, most Americans are less engaged with the issue than they were last fall, and the pundits are already talking about "impeachment fatigue.'' (The 13.8 million people who watched the impeachment proceedings represented a 31 percent drop from the number of viewers who watched when FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.) The decision of the Democrats to focus narrowly on Ukraine may be partially to blame: An electorate that isn’t passionate about foreign policy is relatively disengaged about who said what to whom in Ukraine — and it’s not as spicy as a break-in at Watergate headquarters or a sexual liaison in the Oval Office.


The disinterest in foreign policy raises several questions: Can America really go it alone? Can our country be “great again” without knowing we can count on our allies? Can our economy be strong without the ability to leverage global markets? Can we address climate change without working across borders? Are walls and tariffs and isolation going to make Americans safer, happier, and more prosperous? Can we avoid terrorist attacks and war without a clear and experienced engagement with other countries?

Disengagement from the rest of the world may be dangerous, but Americans report that they are struggling to manage their own lives. Nearly half do not have enough money set aside to cover expenses for three months, and 137 million say they are struggling to pay health care bills. To them, a focus on the rest of the world is a luxury they cannot afford.


Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.