The Urban-Suburban-Rural “Divide” in American Views on Foreign Policy

May 24, 2017

By: Dina Smeltz, Senior Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy

Understanding Both Agreement and Disagreement Among the US Public

Executive Summary

Much has been made about the urban-rural divide in American politics, but analyses of this divide often exclude individual consideration of suburban residents, which is where most Americans live. Additionally, urban-rural comparisons typically look at voting behavior and not at actual policy preferences.

For the first time, the 2016 Chicago Council Survey, an annual public opinion survey of Americans’ views on foreign policy, provides results based on where respondents live relative to urban centers. While previous surveys have accounted for several variables such as party affiliation, gender, and age, the 2016 survey also differentiated between urban, suburban, and rural locations.

Key Findings:

  • No major political party affiliation had an overwhelming majority in cities, suburbs, or rural areas, at least in terms of respondents’ initial self-identification.
  • The issues around which significant urban-suburban-rural divides exist were those that could exert more immediate and readily identifiable domestic effects in people’s everyday lives, such as immigration, the economy and trade, and climate change.
  • The issues around which there was significant consensus tend to be more abstract and distant, such as America’s role in the world, its posture toward international engagement, and traditional security and foreign affairs concerns.
  • Location relative to an urban center seems to play a role in informing how people will perceive or directly experience the domestic impacts of foreign policy decisions in their everyday lives. Urban and suburban residents were most economically optimistic and positive about the benefits of international trade. Suburban and rural residents exhibited stronger anti-immigrant sentiment and support for anti-immigrant policies than urban residents.
  • When dividing the general category of suburbs into categories of inner-ring and outer-ring suburbs, residents of inner-ring suburbs leaned toward their urban counterparts in matters of policy preference (generally aligned with globalist positions) and outer-ring suburbs leaned more toward their rural counterparts (generally aligned with more nationalist positions).

This analysis suggests that in order to support stronger economic, physical and social linkages across urban, suburban, and rural communities, policymakers should consider renewed emphasis on regional planning efforts that could decrease disparities in policy decision outcomes across the urban-rural spectrum.

The Urban-Suburban-Rural “Divide”  in American Views on Foreign Policy

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