Americans have come to believe that spending government revenues on U.S. citizens here at home is usually a bad thing and should be viewed wth suspicion, but spending billions on vast social engineering projects overseas is the hallmark of patriotism and should never be questioned. This position makes no sense, but it is hard to think of a prominent U.S. leader who is making an explicit case for doing somewhat less abroad so that we can afford to build a better future here at home.
This sounds really good, but I'm not entirely sure that it's true. Personally, I've heard more than my share of people complain that the United States spends more on "those people over there" than it does on Americans (indeed, some variation on this was a pretty big applause line for John Kerry, if I remember correctly). What's more, when asked about national spending priorities, defense almost always comes up as a second-tier spending priority. In a Pew Research poll conducted at the beginning of this year, only 44 percent of Americans listed "the military" as a "top priority for 2009." Terrorism was higher up at 76 percent, but it's not clear that that includes Afghanistan. By contrast, the economy and jobs ranked as the highest priorities, with education and energy close behind.
In a similar poll conducted this June, Pew asked voters what they would "increase spending for," "decrease spending for," or keep the same. 67 percent of Americans said that they would increase spending for education, followed by 61 percent for health care, 44 percent for unemployment benefits, and 40 percent for defense. Indeed, if we go by Pew's results, the only time in recent memory that Americans have consistently wanted to spend more on the military was in the years immediately following 9/11. Prior to that, Americans seemed to have little appetite for higher defense spending, and have even been willing to cut it.
So if Americans don't view increased domestic spending with suspicion -- and aren't terribly enthusiastic about spending more on the military -- why is it that defense budgets continue to inflate, and Washington continues to operate with a seemingly unlimited mandate for foreign interventionism? The best explanation I can come up with is that the dynamic Walt outlines best describes the attitudes of the punditry, who as a class are generally enthusiastic about wars and interventions, but mostly hostile to increased domestic spending. What's more, this attitude seems to be very prevalent among legislators, hence their willingness to exempt defense spending from the considerations and rules that constrain every other form of spending.
Granted, it would be nice if there were a major political figure calling for a serious re-evaluation of our spending priorities. But even if she were successful in mobilizing voters against higher defense spending, there would remain a powerful buffer against any imaginable popular backlash in the form of an incredibly broad elite consensus for higher defense spending.