Polling the Right Questions on Defense – Voters Get It Right

Americans who despair of Washington ever cutting waste from its trillion dollar defense/homeland security budget can take heart from pollster Scott Rasmussen’s book The People’s Money. The author argues that the public is always ahead of the politicians and that the time is ripe for an effective leader to win election with real budget cuts. His polling shows that most Americans believe that the greatest threats to America are cyber warfare and deficit spending. This is amazing if one thinks how most TV just constantly bombards Americans that Iran or China or Arabs or Russia or other nebulous foreigners are out to get us, that they irrationally hate us because we are so good, as former President Bush used to claim. Today 82% of Americans believe economic threats are greater than military ones.

In a speech at Cato, Rasmussen used the analogy of the Battle of Lexington in 1775, the first in our Revolutionary War, which came 18 months before the Declaration of Independence by America’s political leaders. He cited case after case where public opinion was way ahead of Washington’s policies.

Rasmussen’s book is full of interesting statistics and rebuttals of prevailing Washington wisdom. Only 35% of Americans share the Republican view of cutting everything except defense. He explains that “respect and admiration for our troops exists alongside doubts about the jobs they’ve been asked to do.” He cautions that Americans are turned off by attacks on the military such as those during the Vietnam War. But attacking Washington for misuse of the military could sell very well. Washington has made commitments to defend 56 nations, but the public only supports protecting 12; indeed, only four garner over 60% support. These are Canada with 80%, England with 74%, Australia with 65%, and Israel with 60%. Half of the 12 are in Western Europe; the others include Mexico (53%), South Korea (59%), and Panama and the Bahamas (58%).

Other interesting statistics: 75% believe that no American troops should be stationed overseas except for “vital national security interests.” Only 11% support an American role as “global policeman.” The national security budget pays for 800,000 civilians in addition to the military personnel, but these people are not viewed as favorably as soldiers themselves are.

Most Americans are not isolationists. Sixty percent think America should remain involved with international institutions such as the United Nations, but 55% want us to withdraw our troops from Western Europe (only 28% support keeping them there). The author repeatedly compares the public’s thinking with that of the political class in Washington and New York. For example, he says, “no one in the political class has advocated such a policy.”

“Protect America First,” rather than “Send Americans First,” is the preferred policy by far of most voters. Troops must only be committed as a last resort and only with clear, feasible objectives. The author sees vast potential savings in a defensive rather than offensive military, as does, for example, candidate Ron Paul. Aircraft carriers, of which we have about 20 squadrons, for example, are now very vulnerable to new anti-ship weaponry. Medical insurance for veterans for life is costing some $45 billion yearly. About 700,000 men and women who served in the First Gulf War are now getting disability benefits that add up to more billions. An Air Force more focused on defense rather than offense would save tens of billions each year.

The book anticipates that only the leadership is lacking for big cuts in the Defense/Homeland Security budget and that a new candidate who is able to articulate the issues (and has military credentials, I would add) will gain vast political support in the future. I do recommend that readers actually watch Eisenhower’s farewell address about the military-industrial complex. It is an extraordinarily well-crafted and erudite speech, far, far above the kind of talks given by most politicians nowadays.

Rasmussen is especially interesting in that his polling asks the right questions. Reading his conclusions makes one wonder if most polling by the political class is actually designed to obfuscate the real beliefs of voters, which are opposed to most of what Washington does. His polling shows that voters are intelligent people when asked more profound questions. The author covers much more than just defense spending, including how voters would reform health care, corporate welfare, taxes, and so on. The constant theme is that voters are not dumb — he comments about how the political class deprecates most voters — but Washington’s system prevents logical reforms.

Here are several points:

  • 69% want competition in health care and 78% of Americans want competition in coverage between insurance companies, but Washington is focused on preventing anything that would cut into the profits of the medical establishment (and the lawyers who sue them).
  • 68% prefer a government with fewer services and lower taxes; just 22% want more services and higher taxes.
  • 79% of mainstream voters think Americans are over-taxed.
  • Voters overwhelmingly believe their so-called representatives listen more to party leaders and lobbyists than to voters in their districts; 59% believe that most are re-elected because the rules are rigged in their favor.
  • 56% believe that growth in government spending should be limited yearly to reflect only the growth in population plus inflation.
  • Voters overwhelmingly believe the game in Washington is a form of legalized extortion and that businesspeople give money to politicians because they’re afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t.
  • The majority always vote for candidates promising to lower or not raise taxes; they are almost always betrayed by the political class of both parties.
  • Whether kings or elected politicians rule, wars and crises have always been an excuse for more taxes, which then remain after the war is over. As Thomas Paine wrote, “I know not whether taxes are raised to fight wars, or wars are started in order to raise taxes.”

In summary the author’s polling shows that Americans have pretty realistic views of the world and realistic assumptions about American strengths and weaknesses. However, he may still underestimate the power of the political class to continue its rule. Wars are very profitable for many interests and an easy way to channel money from defense contractors to politicians through political donations to their re-election campaigns. (Anywhere else in the world this would be thought of as bribery). The Roman and British Empires saw vast poverty among most of their citizens (see Trade Guilds of the Latter Roman Empire). Empire was mainly supported by their “political classes” too, not the mass of their people, but then their citizens didn’t have much voice. In 19th-century England, only 4% of people could vote for parliament. Anyway, optimists can take heart from this book that America is not on the road to ruin.

Originally published by The American Conservative.

Author: Jon Basil Utley

Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative. He was a foreign correspondent in South America for the Journal of Commerce and Knight Ridder newspapers and former associate editor of The Times of the Americas. He is a writer and adviser for Antiwar.com and edits a blog, The Military Industrial Congressional Complex.