A few weeks back, some striking poll numbers were making the rounds: Many Republicans suddenly said they liked Russian President Vladimir Putin — 35 percent, in fact.
It wasn’t hard to draw the line between Putin’s rising approval among Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump’s positive words about him — not to mention the intelligence community’s conclusions that Russia tried to help elect Trump. Partisanship, it seemed, had turned a very controversial foreign leader who has been accused of human rights abuses into something of an icon for pro-Trump Republicans.
But Republicans aren’t the only ones moving in a more polarized direction on Russia. New data show increasing polarization on both sides when it comes to Russia and — in some pretty remarkable findings — when it comes to Israel, too. Foreign policy appears to be far less immune from partisan politics than it once was.
The new Pew Research Center survey shows Democrats, whose president in 2012 scoffed at Mitt Romney’s suggestion that Russia was the United States’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” suddenly view it as a much bigger threat. While in April, just 37 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters viewed Russia’s “power and influence” as a major threat to the United States, today that number has risen to 67 percent. Meanwhile, the number has dropped slightly among Republicans, from 46 percent to 41 percent.
You can see the growing gap below:
The numbers confirm something we’ve noticed before: While Republicans suddenly do like Putin better — Pew’s poll shows his approval among GOP-leaning voters rising from 11 percent two years ago to 27 percent today — their overall view of Russia hasn’t changed much. A study from the Chicago Council of Global Affairs showed it last month. Now a Pew poll shows it.
Democrats, though, have changed their view of Russia substantially. Suddenly, Russia is a very partisan issue on which both sides have shifted.
But it’s not the only one. Pew’s new data also show unprecedented polarization when it comes to another top foreign policy issue: Israel. Similar numbers of Republicans and Democrats have sympathized more with Israel than with the Palestinians dating back to the late 1970s. Today, though, 74 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel, while just 33 percent of Democrats do the same.
And perhaps most notably, for the first time this century — if not ever — Democrats are now about equally split between sympathizing more with Israel (33 percent) and with the Palestinians (31 percent).
The change across the political spectrum is clear when you look at the chart below. The biggest shifts over the last 15 years have occurred among conservative Republicans, who have drifted toward a more pro-Israel view, and liberal Democrats, who have drifted more toward the Palestinians. The most politically polarized are driving the change.
While conservative Republicans favored Israel by a 44-point margin in 2001, the margin is now 70 points. And while liberal Democrats favored Israel by 30 points at the turn of the century, they now favor the Palestinians by 12 points.
The causes could be many. Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama haven’t exactly been buddies, and Pew’s data shows Democrats’ views of Netanyahu are pretty dim. Perhaps that has depressed support for Israel among Democrats.
And Democrats will argue that their shifting views of Russia are more legitimate than Republicans’ — especially given that Russia may just have exerted some real influence on an American election. That raises very significant questions about Russia’s “power and influence” that the intelligence community is still trying to answer.
But it’s also true that the polarization we’ve seen in these Russia numbers is completely unsurprising in the context of modern American politics. You take a foreign policy issue that isn’t inherently partisan, inject it into a political campaign, and suddenly we all start taking sides.
While partisan politics are supposed to stop at the water’s edge, that increasingly doesn’t appear to be the case — at least when it comes to these two very important foreign countries. And I wouldn’t expect it to shift back anytime soon.