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Analysis | Liberal Democrats are more aggressive than you might think

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While election officials are still counting the votes in many midterm races, most observers expect Republicans to win a slim majority in the House.

While funding for aid to Ukraine has so far received bipartisan support in Congress, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently indicated that a Republican-led House would cut that funding. Democrats were quick to criticize McCarthy’s position. But a week later, the House Democrats’ Progressive Caucus released a letter—which was retracted almost immediately—urging President Biden to pursue diplomacy in addition to military support.

The approaches of Republican and Democratic leaders are supported by the attitudes of their constituents, according to the 2022 Chicago Council Survey. The Liberal Democrats are by far the strongest U.S. supporters of Ukraine. And while moderate Democrats, Republicans, and Independents are more “pro-military” in the abstract, the Liberals are the most willing to step in and help allies under threat around the world.

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The Liberal Democrats express their strongest support for Ukraine

Across party lines, Americans have supported Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February. Yet liberal Democrats, who account for about 6 out of 10 Democrats overall, are consistently notable for the strength and near unanimity of their support for Ukraine’s military defense.

The 2022 Chicago Council Survey was conducted by Ipsos using its online KnowledgePanel from July 15 to August 1 (around the time the Progressive Caucus drafted its letter) of a nationally representative sample of 3,106 adults living in the United States, with data weighted to match Census Bureau demographic estimates of gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, region, and income. We found that 8 in 10 liberal Democrats believe the United States should support Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” even if that means higher food and fuel prices. A modest majority of moderate Democrats (55 percent) and independents (55 percent) and half of Republicans (50 percent) agree. But significant minorities of the last three groups believe the United States should encourage Ukraine to make peace, even if it means losing territory to Russia.

This division extends to a variety of policies aimed at helping Ukraine. While majorities across party lines endorse such policies, a significantly higher proportion of liberal Democrats support them than in any other group.

For example, 9 out of 10 liberals support taking Ukrainian refugees into the United States, increasing sanctions against Russia and providing economic aid to Ukraine. Between about two-thirds and three-quarters of moderate Democrats, Republicans, and independents agree. Liberals also support sending arms and military aid to Ukraine at a rate more than 10 points higher than any other group. Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans (34 percent) or Independents (37 percent) to be in favor of sending US troops to help Ukraine defend against Russia, though there is little difference between liberals (43 percent) and moderates (41 percent) democratic support.

Will NATO go to war with Russia after the explosion in Poland? Probably not.

Liberals are not afraid to use violence

Our data suggests that liberals’ greater appetite for US intervention extends to many other potential hotbeds of conflict around the world.

Majorities of the Liberal Democrats say they would support sending US troops to intervene if Russia invaded a NATO ally; if North Korea invaded South Korea; or if China invaded Taiwan. The Liberal Democrats are the only group in favor of US intervention in Taiwan. But even when a majority of moderate Democrats, Republicans and Independents support intervention, liberals do so at significantly higher levels.

So be liberal Democrats the hawks of the new foreign policy? Not exactly.

While a higher proportion of liberal Democrats support US intervention around the world, moderate Democrats and Republicans have more appreciation for the military in general. Among moderate Democrats, 42 percent say they have “a lot of faith” in the leadership of the US military. That’s a larger share than their liberal counterparts (26 percent), Republicans (37 percent), or independents (24 percent).

Moderate Democrats are also more positive about defense spending. A majority (44 percent) would prefer to keep the defense budget the same; more people would choose to increase it (30 percent) than decrease it (19 percent). In contrast, a large number of liberal Democrats would prefer to see the defense budget cut (44 percent), while smaller segments of the group choose to keep it the same (37 percent) or expand it (14 percent).

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Who does the US military see as the police of the world?

While liberals have traditionally been viewed as anti-war or anti-military, our findings suggest that the liberal Democrats’ lower confidence in US military leaders and preference for defense cuts may be limited to the abstract. Liberals tend to ground American boots around the world at equal or higher rates than moderate Democrats, Republicans and independents, especially when they feel a threat to human rights or democracy.

And with a steadily growing proportion of Democrats, especially young Democrats, identifying as liberal, the Democratic leadership will increasingly need to take seriously the positions of the party’s left on these and other issues.

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Dinah Smeltz (@RoguePollster) is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Emily Sullivan (@emksullivan_) is a public opinion and foreign policy research assistant at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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