There is also some truth behind these fears. In a 2014 paper, Martin Gilens and Chicago Council Survey veteran Ben Page argue that the US public is merely ‘semi-sovereign’, achieving their goals when they align with the powerful, falling short when they diverge. The argument touched such a nerve that the two academics were invited on the Daily Show. Their paper does not stand alone: other work has shown that while the public does not always get its way, some groups within the public are more likely to get what they want than others.
The public and foreign policy
In the most recent 2014 Chicago Council Survey of American public opinion, (1,877 respondents, fielded May 6-29, 2014) Americans were asked their impressions of how large a gap, if any, exists today between American public opinion and decisions taken by American political leaders. A majority described the gap as large, with 42 percent saying it is “very large,” and another 45 percent saying it is “somewhat large” (10 percent say it is “somewhat small,” and just 2 percent say “very small”).
Americans were also asked to rate various groups’ influence on US foreign policy on a scale from 0 to 10, with ten being the most influential. When asked about the American public, the public rated its influence at an average of 4.8 out of 10, tied for second-lowest.
Who runs the world? Who should?
So if Americans do think they are not influential, who do they think runs US foreign policy? The public rates the President (mean of 7.4) and Congress (6.9) as the two most influential. In third are large corporations (6.8), followed by military leaders (6.3) and U.S. interest groups (6.0).
These groups aren’t always the ones Americans want to be running the show. As the figure below shows, the public wants to be far more influential, and wants large corporations and the media to be far less influential.
When the public was asked which of groups should have the greatest influence on US foreign policy from a scale of 0 to ten, Americans felt that on average, the American public should have the greatest level of influence (mean of 7.9), followed by the President (7.5). Congress and military leaders are rated an average of 6.6 and 6.2 respectively. All other groups were rated below a 5.0, including large corporations (3.6) and the media (3.4).
Opinion leaders have low opinion of public influence
However, the 2014 Chicago Council Survey did not end with asking the public’s views. For the first time since 2004, the Council also surveyed 668 opinion leaders from May 19 to August 1, 2014. Those surveyed included both policy experts (those working in Congress or Executive-branch agencies, think-tank fellows, academics) and interest groups (business, religious organizations, labor, NGOs).
As the figure below makes clear, while absolute values differ, the general rankings of foreign policy influence are broadly consistent between the both the public and opinion leaders. Both the public and leaders view the President and Congress as having the most influence. Both say large corporations have significant influence, though leaders are more likely to give greater weight to military leaders. Interest groups and the media round out the next tier of influence with averages of at least 6.0. Finally, both leaders and the public rated the American public near the lowest in influence, along with universities and think tanks and religious leaders.
Varied influence, similar policy desires?
Despite these perceived gaps of policy influence, on many issues the opinions of foreign policy decision makers and average Americans coincide, at least in a general sense if not always to the same degree. Both the public and leaders emphasized the importance of US leadership in the world, saw common top goals and threats, supported the US military presence abroad, favored signing international treaties on a host of issues, and supported globalization and free trade.
The most conspicuous discrepancies between the two groups are on the public’s greater domestic focus on protecting American jobs, expanding social security, and reducing US energy dependence. The public is also more concerned with the threat of Iran’s nuclear program. Leaders, in turn, show greater concern about the threat of climate change and are more likely to emphasize the importance of defending allies. While some of these differences are classic elite-public foreign policy gaps, others are driven by partisan divisions, as is the case on issues such as climate change and immigration.
At the same time as US policy leaders say the public has relatively little influence, they also underestimate public support for international engagement. When asked to estimate what proportion of the US public supports playing an active part in world affairs, on average, opinion leaders guess that less than half the public favors an active part (42% among Republican leaders, 43% among Democratic leaders, 45% among Independent leaders). This misperception among opinion leaders helps feed the ongoing myth of American isolationism, a myth the 2014 Chicago Council Survey continues to disprove.
When it comes to the question of the public's influence on foreign policy, opinion leaders and the public may well be correct. Indeed, the data from Page and Gilens' work suggests that both groups are indeed justified in saying that the public is uninfluential. But the public is certainly not happy about it.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy.
The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion.
The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.
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The Council’s Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy is launching a series of flash polls to share expert insights on policy debates driving today's news.