How the Elite Misjudge the U.S. Electorate on International Engagement
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File
How the Elite Misjudge the U.S. Electorate on International Engagement
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File

This piece was created in collaboration with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura work on public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Joshua Busby is associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Jonathan Monten is lecturer in political science at University College London. Jordan Tama is assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University. The views expressed here are the authors' own.

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The long and divisive presidential election may soon be over, but one consequence of the campaign is likely to stay with us. In the Trump phenomenon, we have seen a surfacing of angry nationalism brought on by a portion of the American electorate who feel betrayed by political elites’ support for international engagement, free trade, and legal pathways for immigrants. 

Despite the noise and drama of the presidential campaign, survey evidence suggests that these views are not widely representative of public opinion but are a minority viewpoint -- one particularly pronounced among Trump supporters. 

But what do foreign policy leaders think, and do they have an accurate understanding of public opinion?

Under the aegis of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Texas National Security Network, we have just concluded a survey of nearly 500 leaders working for U.S. institutions with expertise on American foreign policy. They are drawn from the Executive Branch, Congress, think tanks, academia, media, business, labor unions, religious organizations, and interest groups.  

One theme is clear: Leaders strongly support international engagement but substantially underestimate public support for international engagement, globalization, and immigration. They respond to especially loud voices and the expression of intense passions, and they mistakenly believe that these are representative of wider public opinion. 

Leaders are overwhelmingly supportive of international engagement: Ninety-seven percent of foreign policy leaders want the United States to play an active role, including 99 percent of Democrats, 93 percent of Republicans, and 91 percent of independents. When we asked leaders to speculate what proportion of the American public they think wants to play an active role in world affairs, the average estimate was 49 percent. 

Yet over the past several decades, the American public has consistently supported a policy of broad international engagement. In the 2016 Chicago Council survey released earlier this fall, 64 percent of the public said the United States should play an active role in world affairs. These views broadly hold across political party lines. They are the view of 70 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Republicans, and 57 percent of independents -- though they hold among only half of people who supported Donald Trump in the Republican primary.


What about the hot-button issue of trade and globalization that has featured prominently in the presidential campaign? Leaders collectively agree that globalization is mostly good for the United States: Ninety-one percent of leaders say it is mostly good, including 93 percent of Democrats, 91 percent of Republicans, and 84 percent of independents. 

Again, leaders misread public attitudes. When we asked leaders whether they thought the public would think globalization is mostly good or mostly bad for the United States, only 29 percent of leaders thought the public response would be positive. Republican leaders were the least likely to gauge public opinion accurately.

But actually, 65 percent of the public says globalization is mostly good for the United States. Again, that finding holds up across party lines, being the expressed view of 74 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of Republicans, and 61 percent of independents. Once more, core Trump supporters are divided; only 49 percent say that globalization is mostly good.   


Immigration is another issue that has been loudly debated this campaign season. Leaders are fairly open to pathways for legalization, with 77 percent supporting citizenship now or eventually. Only 5 percent favor deportation. That said, Republican leaders are far more supportive of work permits (45 percent) than the other options -- still, only 9 percent favor deportation. 

We asked leaders what they thought the public wanted, focusing on the starker choice between immigrants staying in their jobs or leaving the country. Here, only 37 percent of leaders believe the public wants immigrants to leave the country. But Republican leaders overestimate public sentiment for deportation. Sixty percent of Republican leaders think the public wants illegal immigrants to leave, whereas only 27 percent of Democratic leaders and 44 percent of independent leaders have this perception. 

But public opinion is much more favorable to a pathway to citizenship than leaders think; 57 percent of the public support an option for illegal migrants to stay in their jobs and apply for U.S. citizenship, including 32 percent who support immediate citizenship and 25 percent who support citizenship after a waiting period. Another 13 percent support work permits. Only 28 percent want illegal immigrants to leave the country. 

To be sure, Republicans among the public feel more strongly about this last option -- 42 percent want immigrants to leave. Not surprisingly, Trump supporters were even more ardent: Sixty-three percent say illegal immigrants must leave.

On other foreign-policy issues, such as support for NATO, public support remains strong and shared across party lines. Trump’s view that the United States should drive a harder bargain with long-standing U.S. allies is not widely shared: Sixty-three percent of the public want to retain the current commitment to NATO, and another 12 percent want to increase it. 

In short, leaders strongly support international engagement but mistake loud voices for broader public opinion. Interestingly, less than 7 percent of the leaders in our survey supported Donald Trump for president, including just 23 percent of the Republican leaders.

We believe these findings suggest that public support for international engagement is stronger than leaders often think it is -- a pattern that Steven Kull and I. M. Destler first highlighted in their 1999 book, Misreading the Public. The majority in favor of engagement may not be as passionate about their positions as are vocal opponents. But in debates about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, immigration, or the defense of U.S. allies, our surveys suggest leaders may find public support where they don’t expect it.