Public opinion is a critical stakeholder in any democratic society. It determines who will be elected and what policies are likely to be successful.
Biden has a numbers problem. This is bad news for the Democrats and his electoral chances. The explanations vary. But one of the more frequent ones is that his position on the Israel-Hamas conflict has run afoul of the sensibilities of younger Americans—Gen Z and millennials to be precise.
But the fixation on Biden’s numbers misses the point. Here, we are confusing correlation with causation. This story is not about Biden’s young person problem. It is about younger America’s rejection of military conflict as a foreign policy option. Let’s take a look at the numbers.
To begin with, Biden’s numbers on the Israel-Hamas war aren’t good. According to a recent Ipsos/ABCNews poll, younger Americans’ (between the ages of 18 and 29) approval ratings for Biden’s handling of the conflict are at only 28 percent compared to 45 percent of their older counterparts. In an Ipsos/Reuters poll, a majority of younger Americans (56 percent) believe that the U.S. should not be involved in the conflict versus just 39 percent among older Americans.
But, this is not just specific to this war. Take Ukraine—an ongoing conflict; Biden’s handling of that conflict also receives only a lukewarm nod from younger Americans. A recent Ipsos poll shows that only 37 percent of younger Americans (18-29) approve of Biden’s job in Ukraine. Like their views on the war between Israel and Hamas, they are also more likely to believe that the U.S. should have nothing to do with the conflict (57 percent and 38 percent).
This is not just limited to these two specific conflicts. Indeed, when asked in a 2022 Pew poll, younger Americans were less likely than older Americans to say that the U.S. should be involved in foreign conflicts (25 percent vs. 11 percent).
The young of past generations were more bullish toward military intervention. A Gallup poll in 1971 shows that younger Americans, at the time, were more likely to support military involvement in Vietnam—this, of course, changed by the end of the war. There is a similar age effect in the lead up to the Iraq war in 2003: younger Americans were more supportive of the war than older ones. And, in the generic ANES ballot, younger Americans (18-29 years of age) between 1992-1998 were no more willing to support troops abroad than other Americans. Something is different about young folks today. So, what is it?
Some people might say that young people have always been more idealistic and resistant to military solutions regardless of era. But surveys show that the youth of past generations were more bullish than the current cohort toward military intervention in certain cases. By idealism, we mean the belief that America is exceptional, different, or superior to other countries.
For them, America is no longer “a shining beacon on the hill”. A 2011 Pew poll shows that 91 percent of Americans saw America as one of the greatest countries in the world; this dropped to 75 percent in 2021. Among younger Americans the decline is even more stark. In 2011, 86 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 saw America as great, compared only 58 percent in 2021. Belief in American exceptionalism has significantly eroded in just a decade.
Polls from the Chicago Council of Global Affairs point in the same direction. Both Gen Z and millennials are less likely than past generations to agree that the U.S. should take an active role in the world and to believe that America is exceptional. For instance, only 39 percent of Gen Z (19-25 years of age) see America as exceptional compared to 68 percent of baby boomers. They are also less likely to trust other people and institutions. Idealism appears to be dead.
It would be a stretch to say that younger Americans are nihilists. The polling suggests that they are more like skeptical pragmatists. As mentioned, they don’t trust institutions. And they don’t see defense as a foreign policy priority; instead, they are focused on international cooperation on global problems and economic gain through cooperation.
So, what does this all mean?
The sands are shifting. Young people’s response to the wars in Ukraine and Israel have shown this. The Biden debate only buries the lead. Younger Americans want a different kind of foreign policy. This potentially portends a shift in American foreign policy as older generations die off and younger ones come into their own. We can expect one that is less characterized by idealism, American exceptionalism and national defense to one more focused on economic gain and cooperation. Policy makers no longer have the same license to operate as they once enjoyed when Americans were both more trustful and idealistic.
We are between two worlds—one idealistic; the other less so. Will this distinction stick? We will see. Events do have a way of changing our perspective. But, for now, America should expect a different flavor of foreign policy as the young mesh with the old.
Clifford Young president of polling at Ipsos.
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