What America First Foreign Policy Means to Young People

Market Research Foundation’s study of Generation Z, young people between the ages of thirteen and twenty-three, included a series of foreign policy questions to discover how the next generation views America’s foreign and domestic priorities. As a group, young people across the political spectrum are supportive of an America First agenda that includes reducing foreign military involvement and limiting foreign aid.

There is Bipartisan Support for a Reduced Foreign Focus and a Renewed National Focus

A full 73% of Generation Zers supported the following statement: “Some politicians support an “America First” idea. This means the primary goal of any law or policy must be to focus on the needs of Americans, even if they are not in line with the interests of foreign nations and allies.”

Questions framed in terms of the financial tradeoff between domestic economic concerns and intervening in foreign affairs earned overwhelming support for non-interventionalist policies. Eighty-two percent of young people agreed with the statement: “If the government spent as much time dealing with economic problems at home as it does on the problems of foreign nations, our economy would be much better off.” Sixty-eight percent of young people agreed with the statement: “I don’t like seeing money that we can be using on our country’s needs being used on another country.”

However, Generation Z’s concerns with foreign meddling were not confined to the realm of economic tradeoffs. A full 70% of young people agreed that U.S. involvement in other nations often results in chaos for Americans and other nations. Notably, less than half of young people said they could support a candidate who supported foreign war efforts. Forty-seven percent said they could consider a candidate who supported foreign wars, while 53% said they could not support such a candidate.

Below is a summary of Generation Z’s views on a series of foreign policy statements.

There was broad support for non-interventionalist policies across political groups. In fact, affinity for the Democratic and Republican parties was a surprisingly irrelevant factor in determining support for non-interventionalist policies.

Sixty-eight percent of young Republicans, an equal share of young Democrats (68%) and 71% of young Independents agreed with the statement: “The United States should stay out of international conflicts and only become involved when we are forced to.” Below is agreement with the non-interventionalist statement by party.

Of those who were eligible to vote in 2016, 66% of Trump voters and 65% of Clinton voters agreed with the statement. Nearly equal shares of those who expressed non-interventionalist preferences approved and disapproved of the President.

The ‘Humanitarian Justification’ for Foreign Meddling Draws Regional, Racial and Class Contrasts

The language and political framing of foreign policy questions had a significant impact on responses. For example, while 73% of young people agreed that almost every time the U.S. becomes involved in other countries’ conflicts, we create chaos, that position was somewhat contradicted when a similarly-worded question referenced America’s humanitarian “duty” to other nations. Sixty-two percent of young people agreed with the statement, “America has a duty to help other nations keep peace and fight off aggressors.”

There were significant regional differences of opinion on whether America’s ‘duty’ to other nations justified foreign involvement. Support for the humanitarian justification was lowest among young people from New England, specifically New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, at just 53%. Support for the humanitarian justification was highest among young people from East South Central states, specifically Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, at 73%. Below is a graph showing regional support for the humanitarian justification for foreign meddling.

In terms of disagreement, just 29% of East South Central Generation Zers objected to the humanitarian justification for foreign intervention, versus 47% of New Englanders who objected. This is notable considering New England is more progressive politically than the rest of the country, and the humanitarian justification has more recently been adopted by progressives. However, drawing a definitive correlation between deep-blue states and anti-foreign meddling would be premature. While New Englanders were the least likely to be swayed by a humanitarian justification for foreign meddling, their neighbors in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, were receptive to the argument.

One factor that could explain these differences is the relatively high proportion of whites in New England compared to neighboring states. White young people were less likely than Hispanics to support the humanitarian justification. That said, Black young people were the least likely of all racial groups to support the humanitarian justification. The humanitarian justification appealed the most to young Hispanics. Sixty-six percent of young Hispanics agreed the United States has a duty to help other nations keep the peace, versus 58% of young Blacks. Sixty-three percent of Other ethnicities agreed with the statement, and 62% of whites agreed with the statement. In terms of disagreement with the humanitarian justification, 42% percent of Blacks disagreed that the United States has a duty to other nations that justifies foreign involvement, versus 38% of whites, 37% of Other ethnicities, and 34% of Hispanics. Throughout the series of questions on obligation to other nations versus prioritizing American needs, young Black respondents were more receptive to an America First agenda than young Hispanics.

The consistently anti-foreign meddling young American is not necessarily more likely to be liberal or conservative. By party identification, a larger share of young Republicans rejected the humanitarian justification when compared to young Democrats, but young Independents rejected the proposal at the highest rate. Forty percent of Independents disagreed with the humanitarian justification statement, versus 37% of Republicans and 34% of Democrats. Of those who disagreed with the humanitarian justification, nearly equal shares of Trump, Clinton, and third-party voters rejected it. Thirty-nine percent of Trump voters, 39% of Clinton voters, and 40% of third-party voters rejected the humanitarian justification. Of those who disagreed with the humanitarian justification, 33% approved of President Trump and 39% disapproved.

Beyond regional, racial, and party identification deviations, young people from the lowest income families were the least likely to support a humanitarian justification for foreign involvement. Forty-four percent of Generation Z members from households with an income below $25,000 disagreed with the humanitarian justification, versus 27% of those from households with income greater than $200,000. In terms of education, college graduates and postgraduates were the most receptive to the humanitarian justification, while young people with some college or a high school diploma were less receptive. In addition, young people who indicated they never attended church, and individuals from households that owned a firearm were less likely than church-attendees and non-firearm households to accept the humanitarian justification.

Market Research Foundation’s analysis of the foreign policy views of thirteen to twenty-three-year-olds reveals a group of young people wary of the costs of foreign intervention. However, there are significant regional, racial, and economic class deviations that affect Generation Z’s views on the role the United States should play in foreign conflicts. Young Independents and third-party voters, lower income groups, young Black Americans, and young New Englanders are less likely to support a humanitarian justification for foreign involvement. Young Democrats, higher income groups, Hispanics, and young people from deep Red states are more likely to hold a conventionally neo-conservative view of America’s role in peacekeeping abroad.