Which Americans are most isolationist? It may not be who you think

A course taught by Diana Mutz is designed to teach and implement research methodology, discovered a major shift in young Americans’ isolationist views on foreign aid.

There are plenty of commonly-held stereotypes in American politics. For example, conventional wisdom dictates that Republicans are more “America first” than Democrats, and older generations are more isolationist than open-minded younger generations. After all, younger people have grown up in a smaller world, where global communications and transportation make knowing about and caring about international affairs far easier.

Humans spread out in groups, clusters, and individuals conveying varying degrees of connectivity.

Diana Mutz, who has been studying American political attitudes for decades, thought young people would be especially internationalist and concerned about global problems as a result. But research she conducted last semester with her undergraduate students turned that idea on its head.

Mutz’s course Media, Public Opinion, and Globalization asked students to design studies that investigated Americans’ opinions on globalization—examining attitudes toward issues like immigration, international trade, and foreign aid. Their initial data, collected by students conducting individual interviews, surprised Mutz: It found that American adults ages 18-30 tend to favor isolationist foreign policy, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, when compared with Baby Boomers, aged 60+.

“At least for the last half of the 20th century, Americans 60 and older were more isolationist than younger adults,” says Mutz, the Samuel Stouffer Professor of Communication and Political Science and director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics at Penn. “But now things have reversed. So what happened and why?”

The students noted that the version of isolationism for Americans 18-30 is not the typical “America First” worldview of the past, although they are more likely to think the U.S. should generally stay out of world affairs. Instead, their isolationism based on the idea that imposing American-style democratic values abroad is racist and arrogant. But it also stems from their seriously low levels of trust in the U.S. government, far lower than for older Americans. For example, younger people felt that America’s efforts to “help” other countries through foreign aid were more about its own self-interest than the well-being of foreigners.

“It’s the paternalistic, condescending sense that the U.S. knows what other countries need more than the countries themselves do—that the U.S. is arrogant in their assumptions about what it means to help,” says Mutz.

This story is by Hailey Reissman. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.