Skip to main content

Liberal and Moderate Democrats: How Different Are They in Views on Foreign Policy?

RESEARCH Public Opinion Survey by Dina Smeltz and Emily Sullivan
Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, speaks with Senator Gary Peters, a Democrat from Michigan

Chicago Council data show that some key foreign policy issues have the potential to disrupt Democratic Party unity.

Progressive and moderate Democrats have struggled to find agreement on a range of issues during the Biden administration. Fiscal policy, voting rights, and immigration have all been contentious, but the divisions have been most glaring in the negotiations over the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed in November and the larger Build Back Better “social infrastructure” bill.

With these domestic policy divisions in the limelight, foreign policy differences among Democrats have been less visible. Public opinion among supporters of the moderate and liberal wings of the party suggests that divisions are sharpest on issues around American exceptionalism, climate change, defense spending, and immigration. While the growing polarization between Democrats and Republicans has received ample attention in the media and in policy discussions, these data also show that some key policy issues have the potential to disrupt intraparty Democratic unity, including when to militarily intervene on behalf of allied nations.

Key Findings

  • In the 2021 Chicago Council Survey, 60 percent of self-identified Democrats say they are at least slightly liberal versus 40 percent total who say they are either moderate (33%) or conservative (7%). Over the past 17 years, an increasing proportion of Democrats identify as liberals.
  • There are sharp differences on the idea of American exceptionalism. A majority of moderate Democrats (66%) believe the United States has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world. Liberal Democrats are more apt to believe the United States is no greater than other countries (58%).
  • A majority of moderates believe maintaining US military superiority is a very important goal (55%) compared to just a third of liberals (31%).
  • While moderate Democrats are also more likely to favor defense spending increases, liberal Democrats are more likely to favor using US troops to help defend allies and partners under threat.
  • This might be related to the finding that liberal Democrats (65%) are more likely than moderate Democrats (39%) to think that promoting and defending human rights in other countries is a very important foreign policy goal.
  • Concern about climate change has been growing among both sets of Democrats, but it is more of a burning concern for liberals (88% a very important foreign policy goal) than for moderates (64%).
  • Across the board, few Democrats think limiting immigration should be a top priority. But liberals (65%) are more likely than moderates (36%) to support an unconditional pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
About the Authors
Vice President, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Headshot for Dina Smeltz
Dina Smeltz, a polling expert, has more than 25 years of experience designing and fielding international social and political surveys. Prior to joining the Council to lead its annual survey of American attitudes on US foreign policy, she served in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department's Office of Research from 1992 to 2008.
Headshot for Dina Smeltz
Emily Sullivan
Former Research Assistant, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Headshot for Emily Sullivan
Emily Sullivan joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021 and was a research assistant on the Public Opinion team.
Headshot for Emily Sullivan