The Magazine

The Peace Party vs. the Power Party

The real divide in American politics.

Jan 1, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 16 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The polarization that has characterized American politics since the presidency of Ronald Reagan has extended its reach to foreign affairs. Never have the differences between the two parties on issues of war and peace been so distinct. At no time since World War II has the divergence of partisan support for an ongoing war been as great. Nor have attitudes toward power--its origins, nature, and application--reflected ideological and partisan identification to the extent they do today.

The great divisions in American life--between low- and upper-income voters; those who attend religious services weekly and those who do not; people who are married and people who are single; voters with a postgraduate education and those without--are often less predictive of voting patterns than one's stance on the use of American power abroad. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press concluded in 2005 that "foreign affairs assertiveness now almost completely distinguishes Republican-oriented voters from Democratic-oriented voters." Together, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the March 20, 2003, invasion of Iraq seem to have accelerated a shift begun some 30 years ago: The Democratic party is increasingly linked with the attitudes, tendencies, and policies of peace, whereas the Republican party is increasingly linked with the maintenance and projection of American military power.

This is not to say that one party is entirely composed of doves and the other entirely of hawks. A look at our national politicians reveals exceptions to the dominant foreign policy tendency in either party. Nor can one say that the American electorate, taken as a whole, is bitterly divided over questions of foreign policy. Public opinion research has revealed that most Americans support similar foreign policy goals and share similar beliefs about the world and America's place in it. Most favor strengthening relationships with U.S. allies. Most prefer diplomacy to the use of arms, but will support the use of arms as a last resort. Most believe that America's global responsibilities extend beyond its own security. "Most Americans want security for themselves first," write political scientists Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton in their new book The Foreign Policy Disconnect, "but they also want justice for others."

But this general consensus is only superficial. Look at the large majority of voters who are reliable partisans, and it begins to vanish. Furthermore, the attitudes and opinions of the partisan publics, Democrat and Republican, are reflected in the words and policies of each party's leaders. The Democratic party, its congressional delegation in particular, has embraced withdrawal from Iraq and, in its approach to the world, emphasizes negotiation without the threat of force. More than half the House Democrats in the outgoing Congress are cosponsors of Rep. John Murtha's resolution to "redeploy" American troops from Iraq at the "earliest practicable date." And the number of Murtha's cosponsors will almost certainly grow in the incoming Congress.

Visitors to the campaign websites of the 30 Democratic House freshmen will find that the incidence of Murtha's name is second only to that of George W. Bush--and Murtha is mentioned in a much more positive way. Of those Democratic House freshmen, only two use the word "victory" to describe their goal in Iraq. Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi knows where her caucus is headed. Shortly after the November election, she told the Fox News Channel's Brit Hume that Iraq is "not a war to be won but a problem to be solved." To Pelosi, the solution to the problem of Iraq--American withdrawal--is self-evident.

If Democratic senators have not embraced peace to the same extent as their colleagues in the House, the reason is that they each represent millions of people who look at the world in diverse ways, not hundreds of thousands of people chosen by a computer or judge in order to guarantee a particular partisan outcome in a given district. Yet even in the Senate, the same partisan distinctions on foreign policy that we find elsewhere apply. And here, too, the results of the 2006 election guarantee that debate in the Senate over foreign affairs will swing toward peace and away from power. Democrats in favor of withdrawal from Iraq will replace Republican war supporters who currently hold seats from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Montana, and Virginia. Sen. Carl Levin will chair the Armed Services Committee. And majority leader-designate Harry Reid has said he will back sending more combat forces to Iraq in 2007 only if it means that American troops will be leaving that country in 2008.

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