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High-profile research suggests that the likelihood of U.S. national policy adoption is strongly related to the share of affluent citizens and business interests who support the policy, but—after taking affluent citizens’ opinions into account—is unrelated to the opinions of the middle class. But those patterns of disproportionate influence are surprisingly strongest in foreign policy areas, including foreign aid, military conflict, international diplomacy, and trade agreements, rather than domestic economic or social issues. In line with some populist critiques of elite governance, business and affluent citizens largely succeed in advancing globalization and US international entanglements despite limited support from the middle class public. We investigate whether the positions of political parties, interest groups, or think tanks are responsible for this pattern and whether it is an outcome of the types of foreign policy proposals that make it to the policy agenda. We argue that foreign policy issues are usually complicated and hidden, traditionally handled by an insular elite that is both fearful of too much public involvement and motivated to separate their issues from traditional ideological conflicts before introducing proposals to the public and the wider policymaking community.
Our data enlarge Martin Gilens’ dataset of survey questions tied to policy proposals in American national government, reviewing 1,800 policy proposals since 1981; these data already included whether the policies were adopted, the level of support for them among the affluent and the middle class, and the positions of the business community. We add original information on the support for each proposal by each political party’s leadership in Congress and the White House and among think tanks and public interest advocates. We also code for the policy subtopics of the proposals, how far the proposals have advanced onto the policy agenda, and the ideological direction of each proposal. We find that foreign policy proposals are almost twice as likely to be adopted as economic or social issue proposals, in part because they generate more support from both parties and interest group sectors. Adoption is also more likely because the public is usually asked for their opinion after proposals are at an advanced stage (for example, after a trade agreement has been negotiated or after a foreign intervention is in progress). The apparent influence of the affluent public on these adoptions mostly arises after policy proposals advance toward imminent decisions, suggesting that affluent public views may respond to elite cues rather than independently influence decision-making. What appears to be the influence of rich individuals in the American public more likely reflects the influence of political elites ensconced in multi-national corporations, think tanks, and government.
But we find that the positions of businesses, think tanks, and Republican Party leaders are more influential on adoption than the positions of public interest advocates, Democratic Party leaders, or the public across all foreign policy subtopics and regardless of the ideological direction of a proposal or who controls Congress or the White House. Furthermore, these relationships are exclusive to foreign policy: economic and social issue areas do not show the same disproportionate business and Republican influence. Also unique to foreign policy, most proposals seem to reach the public and Congress only after generating widespread interest group support, overcoming typical status quo bias. The findings are consistent with the notion that political elites, especially Republican Party and business leaders, have been given wide latitude to expand America’s role in the world and its international obligations, even when their views are at odds with those of the wider public. These patterns may provide a rationale for the recent right-wing populist backlash against globalization generally and specifically against the conservative leaders who have been advancing it. We conclude by assessing how much these patterns are likely to change under President Trump.