The Ebb and Flow of Interventionist Feelings

On the Cato Institute’s blog, the results from a Chicago Council Survey which includes data on partisan differences in hawkishness is headlined under the pessimistic “The Interventionist Itch.” Fundamentally, though Republicans lead the pack in terms of pro-intervention, Democrats are not very far behind, and Independents are at their best half hawkish. Every type of political inclination leads to war, it seems.

Too, acceptance of the supposed need to intervene abroad is going up. After a few years of exhaustion with empire thanks to the double quagmire of Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS has encouraged people to get back into the swing of wanting to have America meddle, tweak, or bulldoze its way through world affairs. The last two years have seen a steep increase in support for this. The most interesting detail from the chart, however, is that Republican support for an American with “an active role in world affairs” has actually diminished more than you might guess (though it has gone up in the last year), while Democrat support has increased steadily since 2010. They have only two degrees of support difference now, peaking with 69 percent for Republicans.

The Chicago Council also found that fears of radical Islam constituting a “critical threat” have increased 15 percent just between 2014 and 2015, and that at 66 for Republicans, 56 for Democrats, and 48 for Independents, these numbers are “currently at the highest level since the 2002 survey – the first conducted after the attacks of September 11, 2001.”

There is nothing terribly surprising in the results of this survey. We either know or could have guessed based on everyday life that Republicans are the most interested in intervening abroad. And we should know that Democrats are often a small amount better, but not nearly as much as they like to think. Not enough to make a difference when a war is in preparation. Not enough to be actually committed to antiwar principles.

What then of independents? They seem to be the least interested in intervention, but unfortunately they are also the most tenuous of categories. An independent is simply not a Democrat or Republican, or someone not satisfied with the current state of those parties enough to self-describe as a member. Ideally, the commitment to warmongering is one reason that some people are not willing to consider themselves part of the mainstream political process.

(But that is an optimistic reading, and a biased one since I am neither R or D.)

Polls are such limited tools. They confirm that a disturbingly large number of people may answer a question horribly. This means you can either be cheered by the fact that two weeks after 9/11 most people didn’t say yes to Muslim internment or special Muslim IDs or you can be horrified by the fact that some 31 percent of people supported the former and 49 percent the latter. (And hell, maybe it’s a nice cosmopolitan sign that more people supported broadly-targeted horrible policies according to that poll, such as the 77 percent of people who thought IDs should be mandatory for entrance into “public place[s] or office buildings.”)

It’s the same with this Chicago Survey. Cato writer A. Trevor Thrall writes as if this shows humans will always be lead back to war after a few years of being bored by it. He writes as if this is bad news and that is all. There’s something to that. He is correct that everyone is “far too supportive” of intervention and never-ending wars.  But you could always focus on the fact that so many people are more open to anti-interventionism. A three quarters majority from every group is okay with air strikes, but only Republicans are gung-ho about boots on the group in response to terror attacks. There is far too much support for airstrikes, drone strikes, and (interestingly) assassinations of foreign leaders. However, the lack of desire to see Americans getting killed in another country may hold people off from supporting another full war.

(Or it may just confirm that America has found the perfect style of warfare: drone.)

There are reasons to despair over polls like this – or any poll on support for horrible things – and there is always a redeeming factor. Americans are easily lead into war, especially when press and politicians suggest that is vital to their very survival. Yet, the more distant the cause of the war, and the less politicians sell the war, the lower the support for it is. Kosovo and the first Gulf War had low support. Iraq was 64 percent support. Afghanistan, unsurprisingly, began with 82 percent support because it was presented as a direct response to the attacks of September 11. And in 2013, when intervention in Syria felt inevitable for the fearful pessimists, it just…didn’t happen. The September Gallup poll registered a measly 36 percent of people saying they were for that war. Nobody wanted it, except for the people who for a few moments made it feel unstoppable.

Yes, it’s harder each time a new group like ISIS appears on the scene. Though America has a habit of toppling dictators, the stability of a bad man doesn’t seem to worry people as much as a black-clad would-be caliphate. Americans are primed to fear the newest, baddest threat. Our media teaches us that. It’s only through deliberate propaganda that a war to take out a stable strongman like Saddam Hussein can be sold.

If wars can be sold, can’t they be unsold? Americans do not support intervention in a vacuum. Nor do they have the stomach for long fights, really. They are pushed into wars by the people who want wars.

Our ADD about the fighting that follows these trumped-up wars is both good and bad. The bad comes from the fact that nobody ever seems to appreciate how dire going to war truly is, and how unplannable the length of the fighting is without exception. We are drummed up into war support, and then our eyes glaze over at bad news. We want something happy instead. The media is happy to oblige with cheap, easy celebrity gossip.

Our behavior suggests that we don’t want war after all, but we fear for our families and our homes, and when someone tasked with authority swears that no, no, this time, we have to do something, we take their word for it. Enough of us take that word, and none of us punish the architects of these wars when they fall out of favor afterwards, and so it continues forever and ever amen.

There are no easy solutions to changing that. But we start by refusing to elect the same people year after year, the same people who will put war on the table when it comes to engaging with other human beings across the world. Maybe “the people” en masse will never be principled enough to stay antiwar. They just need reminding – endless reminding – that war is not in their self-interest, even if its first victims are always thousands of miles away.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.