On Foreign Policy, What Makes the Rich Different?
Less belligerent than you might think, but the new conventional wisdom holds up in other ways.
At The Nation, Sean McElwee, Brian Schaffner, and Jesse Rhodes provide a valuable analysis of the foreign policy preferences of elite donors and wealthy Americans. It’s timely because (1) new research by Matt Grossmann and William Isaac suggests that the disproportionate influence of the wealthy is concentrated in foreign policy rather than in social welfare policy or economic policy, and (2) we are now led by a historically wealthy President and Cabinet, even if elite donors failed on many counts during the 2016 cycle.
McElwee, Schaffner, and Rhodes warn that those who seem most influential on foreign policy also happen to be especially prone to aggression: “as the influence of high-dollar donors grows, so too will our bellicosity.” In this post, I explain why different data suggest that wealthy people are no more hawkish than median-income Americans, but I also corroborate some of findings posted at The Nation.
Since McElwee’s team uses data from the 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies surveys, I thought I would look at another source — the Gilens (2012) data with which I’m most familiar and which Grossmann and Isaac build on. I note that McElwee, Schaffner, and Rhodes seem to do a better job targeting those who are actually donating, and their data is more recent. The Gilens data instead breaks down 50th versus 90th income percentile support for various policy proposals from 1981–2002; it includes many more policy proposal cases to examine.
I compiled a list of foreign policy proposals in which median-income and wealthy voters diverged in their average support level by at least 10 points (even if both groups jointly opposed or supported a proposal). After discarding survey questions whose text I couldn’t make sense of, I divided the list into six categories: use of force & military deployments, civil liberties in foreign policy, economic assistance, military assistance, defense spending, and trade.
Here’s what I can report based on my initial, unsophisticated analysis. See the Appendix below for the survey questions that guided me in each category.
Use of Force & Military Deployments. There are three questions on Iraq from 2001–02 that exhibit a wide divergence between income groups. In two of them, median-income Americans favored U.S. military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein more strongly than did wealthy Americans. One of those cases invoked U.S. ground troops specifically. On the third Iraq question, wealthy Americans showed more enthusiasm for “arming and training Iraqi opposition forces but not using U.S. forces directly.” Another 16 Iraq cases lacking such a wide divergence in income-based preferences are, with a few exceptions, consistent with the notion that median-income Americans were more hawkish about the second Iraq War.
McElwee’s team reports that, “Among all adults, 60 percent consider the United States’ involvement in Iraq a mistake. But only 52 percent of elite donors do.” Leading up to the invasion, however, it appears that median-income Americans supported the war more strongly than did the wealthy.
Median-income citizens were also more enthusiastic about armed regime change in Panama and in Haiti (wealthy Americans instead favored a naval blockade to enforce U.N. sanctions in the Haiti case). The rich did favor U.S. use of force in Somalia in 2002 and U.S. contributions to a peacekeeping force in Bosnia in 1995; note that several questions under the 10-point divergence threshold suggest a higher preference for peacekeeping deployments among rich Americans. Median-income citizens favored pulling American forces out of Lebanon in 1983–84 following a deadly Hezbollah truck bombing.
Civil Liberties in Foreign Policy. Median-income Americans were 11 points more supportive than the wealthy of “Allowing the U.S. government to take legal immigrants from unfriendly countries to internment camps during times of tension or crisis” in 2001. Median-income citizens also favored by 17 more points “allowing the government to deport or indefinitely detain any foreigner in this country who is suspected of supporting any organization involved in terrorism.” Yet the wealthy were more supportive of allowing foreign electronic surveillance to be used in U.S. courts and of “allowing government officials — with the approval of judges — to intercept email [messages].”
Before 9/11, median-income citizens were 16 points more supportive of “placing greater restrictions on the rights of citizens to say things publicly which might encourage acts of terrorism.”
Economic Assistance. Here, one survey question sums up the difference across income groups: “On the whole, do you favor or oppose our giving economic aid to nations for purposes of economic development and technical assistance?” Wealthy Americans were in favor and median Americans opposed, 63 to 44. Several other survey questions are consistent with the finding in Grossmann and Isaac that the rich are more supportive of economic aid. This includes being far more favorable towards propping up Mexico with $40 billion in loans in the midst of its 1995 crisis and being consistently more supportive of efforts to inject aid into Russia and post-Soviet republics at the end of the Cold War.
The wealthy did, however, more strongly oppose providing economic aid to Serbia for rebuilding U.S.-bombed areas while Slobodan Milosevic remained in power. Finally, while median-income Americans were against having the U.S. government “contribute tax dollars to help other countries save species and habitats,” the rich supported it.
Military Assistance. Once more, a single survey question sums up this category: “On the whole, do you favor or oppose our giving military aid to other nations?” The wealthy are typically indifferent or weakly in favor of military aid, while median-income Americans are consistently against providing it. (Note with caution that the cases are drawn disproportionately from the early 1980s.) While the wealthy may be less enthusiastic about the use of American force, they seem more willing to supply defense equipment or funding — perhaps as a substitute in some cases.
Defense Spending. The findings here seem consistent with what McElwee, Schaffner, and Rhodes report: “wealthy Americans are more supportive of American military spending than are ordinary Americans.” Based on an admittedly small number of survey questions with income-based divergences, the rich favor, and median-income citizens disapprove of, increased defense spending. Further research may be required since there are many questions on the defense budget for which the income groups are in line with each other; such questions do not enter into the list of cases involving divergent preferences.
Trade. McElwee, Schaffner, and Rhodes as well as Grossmann and Isaac both report that the wealthy exhibit stronger support for foreign trade. This is clearly the case in the data I employed. A caveat: the majority of questions on trade in the Gilens data pertain to tariffs on Japanese auto imports and to NAFTA. Multiple questions on the same issue can hinder inference about influence because it appears as though one group is getting its way on multiple policy proposals when in fact there are just many questions asked about one or two topics on which the groups diverge or disagree. (Due to time constraints and the repetitive nature of survey questions on trade, I’ve omitted these from the Appendix below.) Note that the post at The Nation sheds more light on this issue area by pointing out that wealthy donors are also more supportive of the 2007 KORUS FTA.
Like McElwee, Schaffner, and Rhodes, I find that the wealthy are more supportive of trade, defense spending, and economic assistance to other countries. On the other hand, the dataset I relied on suggests that, if anything, the rich may be less hawkish when it comes to the use of force — though they are more favorably disposed to military aid. The wealthy also seem more hesitant to support drastic restrictions on civil liberties in the pursuit of foreign policy objectives.
In short, while I agree that “donors are likely to oppose any attempt by Trump to cloister America from the international community,” my analysis also suggests that the wealthy — in general, not necessarily the subset of donors that McElwee and team draw attention to — may be more likely than median-income Americans to “tap the brakes if he moves the country towards war.” Given that some uniquely awful rich people now run the show, let’s hope those brakes still work.
Appendix: Cases of wide divergence in foreign policy preferences between median-income and wealthy Americans
Below are the cases I could identify featuring a divergence in income-based preferences (50th versus 90th income percentile) larger than 10 points. The cases are drawn from Gilens (2012), who “gathered data on a large, diverse set of policy cases: 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which a national survey of the general public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change” (Gilens and Page 2014).
I restricted the cases to the foreign policy subset and divided them into five categories of foreign policy (a sixth category, trade, is discussed above). Below, survey question text is followed by the median-income and wealthy preferences in parentheses; bolded numbers indicate that a given group received its desired policy outcome based on the Gilens coding. The version of the dataset I have access to unfortunately cuts off some question text; I thus had to omit some cases for which the issues at stake were unclear.
Use of Force & Military Deployments
- 2001: “Now I would like to mention several actions that might be taken in the war against terrorism, and for each one please tell me whether you think the US should or should not take that action: Take military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein, even…” (Median-income voters 65, Wealthy voters 51)
- 2002: “Suppose President Bush decides to order US troops into a ground attack against Iraqi forces. Would you support or oppose that decision?” (Median 74, Wealthy 63)
- 2002: “Would you favor or oppose the US taking the following steps against Iraq? How about: Arming and training Iraqi opposition forces but not using US forces directly?” (Median 53, Wealthy 66)
- 1995: “Two weeks ago, Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia signed a peace agreement which the United States helped negotiate. Do you favor or oppose sending up to twenty thousand U.S. (United States) troops to Bosnia as part of a N.A.T.O. (North Atlantic Trea…” (Median 33, Wealthy 45)
- 1993: “The military government of Haiti has refused to abide by an agreement to restore power to the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Do you favor or oppose the United States participating in a naval blockade to enforce United Nations sanct” (Median 53, Wealthy 63)
- 2002: “If the US government decides to take military action in the following countries, would you favor or oppose it? How about in Somalia?” (Median 71, Wealthy 81)
- 1985: “Do you favor or oppose the U.S. holding military maneuvers using 4,000 American troops in Honduras which is right next to Nicaragua?” (Median 39, Wealthy 54)
- 1989: “Do you favor or oppose this country going to war in Panama in order to get rid of the government of General Noriega?” (Median 35, Wealthy 25)
- 1994: “On another subject, would you favor or oppose the use of U.S. (United States) troops, as part of a United Nations sponsored multi-national invasion force, to help restore and support the democratically elected government of Haiti. (If Favor or…” (Median 48, Wealthy 38)
- 1983: “After some Marines were killed and wounded, President Reagan has now increased the number of Marines in Lebanon on peace-keeping duty from 1,200 to 3,200. Do you favor or oppose increasing the number of Marines in Lebanon?” (Median 37, Wealthy 51)
- 1983: “Now, in the Lebanon situation, would you favor or oppose the U.S. (READ EACH ITEM)? Item: Pulling all the Marines out of Lebanon within a few weeks or months and saying the job they went there to do has been accomplished, even though we would s…” (Median 70, Wealthy 56)
- 1984: “Now, in the Lebanon situation, would you favor or oppose the U.S. (READ EACH ITEM)? Item: Pulling the Marines out of Lebanon right away and letting the countries in the Middle East solve the Lebanon problem” (Median 52, Wealthy 42)
Civil Liberties in Foreign Policy
- 2001: “Would you favor or oppose the following measures to curb terrorism: Allowing the U.S. government to take legal immigrants from unfriendly countries to internment camps during times of tension or crisis” (Median 37, Wealthy 26)
- 1995: “Do you favor the federal government placing greater restrictions on the rights of citizens to say things publicly which might encourage acts of terrorism?” (Median 34, Wealthy 18)
- 2001: “Please tell me whether you would favor or oppose the federal government doing each of the following as a way to prevent terrorist attacks in the US. How about allowing government officials — with the approval of judges— to intercept email messa…” (Median 57, Wealthy 67)
- 2001: “As part of the effort to combat terrorism, would you support or oppose: Allowing electronic surveillance conducted overseas by foreign governments to be used in US courts, even if that surveillance would not have been allowed in this country?” (Median 70, Wealthy 85)
- 2002: “Here are some increased powers of investigation that law enforcement agencies might use when dealing with people suspected of terrorist activity, which would also affect our civil liberties. For each, please say if you would favor or oppose it.” [Unclear which option is relevant, but all involve increased surveillance] (Median 50.3, Wealthy 36)
- 2002: “As a part of the effort to combat terrorism, would you support or oppose allowing the government to deport or indefinitely detain any foreigner in this country who is suspected of supporting any organization involved in terrorism?” (Median 84, Wealthy 67)
- 1990: “On the whole, do you favor or oppose our giving economic aid to nations for purposes of economic development and technical assistance?” (Median 44, Wealthy 63)
- 1983: “All in all, do you favor the U.S. putting up 8.4 billion dollars more to avoid a possible world-wide depression and possible failure of American banks or do you oppose putting up the money, because there is no end in sight to the amount these t…” (Median 31, Wealthy 43)
- 1990: “Now, would you favor or oppose sending economic aid to (READ EACH ITEM)? Item: Poland to help the Solidarity government succeed in stopping the decline in people’s living standards” (Median 64, Wealthy 77)
- 1990: “Now, would you favor or oppose sending economic aid to (READ EACH ITEM)? Item: The new noncommunist government of Nicaragua to help that government raise living standards and solidify political support” (Median 53, Wealthy 68)
- 1990: “Now, would you favor or oppose sending economic aid to (READ EACH ITEM)? Item: Czechoslovakia to help the noncommunist government succeed in raising living standards” (Median 62, Wealthy 76)
- 1992: “Recently President Bush announced his support for a 24 billion dollar international aid program for the Republics of the former Soviet Union, which would include 4 billion dollars provided by the United States. Do you favor or oppose the United…” (Median 45, Wealthy 67)
- 1992: “President Bush recently announced that the United States will join six other nations in providing financial aid and loans, as well as food, humanitarian and technical assistance to the former Soviet Union. Generally speaking, do you favor or op…” (Median 55, Wealthy 73)
- 1992: “(As I read from a list of proposals tell me if you favor or oppose each that I read?)… The U.S. (United States) giving financial aid to Russia…” (Median 45, Wealthy 63)
- 1993: “President (Bill) Clinton has proposed an increase in aid to Russia to stabilize Russia’s democratic government, which he believes would promote world peace and America’s long-term security interests. Opponents of this proposal believe it is mo” (Median 43, Wealthy 60)
- 1995: “In order to stabilize its economy, Mexico is asking the United States for loan guarantees that would help it attract 40 billion dollars in loans from banks and other investors. Do you support or oppose the idea of the United States giving Mexic…” (Median 24, Wealthy 37)
- 1999: “Would you favor or oppose the US government sending economic aid to help rebuild the Serbian areas bombed by the US in Yugoslavia while Slobodan Milosevic is still in power?” (Median 32, Wealthy 21)
- 1996: “Please tell me whether you personally are inclined to support or oppose each of the following policies…. Having the US (United States) government contribute tax dollars to help other countries save species and habitats? (If support/oppose, a…” (Median 39, Wealthy 51)
- 1986: “On the whole, do you favor or oppose our giving military aid to other nations?” (Median 40, Wealthy 50.3)
- 1981: “Do you favor or oppose the U.S. helping to supply military weapons to (READ EACH ITEM)? Item: South Korea” (Median 38, Wealthy 49)
- 1981: “Do you favor or oppose the U.S. helping to supply military weapons to (READ EACH ITEM)? Item: Saudi Arabia” (Median 26, Wealthy 37)
- 1981: “Do you favor or oppose the U.S. helping to supply military weapons to (READ EACH ITEM)? Item: Egypt” (Median 37, Wealthy 47)
- 1981: “Do you favor or oppose the U.S. helping to supply military weapons to (READ EACH ITEM)? Item: Israel” (Median 42, Wealthy 55)
- 1981: “Saudi Arabia wants the U.S. to supply it with our highly sophisticated system for detecting hostile military activity, called AWACS (A-WAX). Supporters of the sale say the system will help Saudi Arabia defend itself against outside attack, and” (Median 31, Wealthy 45)
- 1982: “Do you favor or oppose (READ EACH ITEM)? Item: The U.S. sending extra planes for duty in NATO in Europe to allow the British to free up planes they then can use in the Falkland Islands fighting.” (Median 35, Wealthy 49)
- 1983: “As you may know, President Reagan has charged that the Russians and Cubans are supplying arms to the left-wing guerrillas in El Salvador. Do you favor or oppose the U.S. taking each of the following steps to help the government in El Salvador?” [I believe this to be related to the option “Sending in 136 million dollars in military aid to the El Salvador government troops for 1983.”] (Median 27, Wealthy 37)
- 1985: “Do you favor or oppose the U.S. sending $14 million in nonmilitary aid to the rebels and other groups who are opposed to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua?” [I consider this to be military assistance to rebels] (Median 42, Wealthy 54)
- 1987: “Last year, the Congress finally approved $100 million in military and other aid to the Contras in Nicaragua after initially refusing to authorize such aid. Would you favor or oppose the U.S. once again sending $100 million in military and other…” (Median 35, Wealthy 54)
- 1995: “As you may know, Congress has voted to permit the sale of U.S. (United States) weapons to the Bosnians, while President (Bill) Clinton and the European allies oppose this policy. Supporters of this change say that it will give the Bosnians a c…” (Median 45, Wealthy 59)
- 1983: “President Reagan has proposed an 18% increase in defense spending for 1983. This is 33 billion dollars more than was spent on defense this year. Do you favor increasing defense spending by 18% for next year, increasing spending but by less than…” (Median 41, Wealthy 54)
- 1983: “President Reagan has proposed going ahead with building the MX missile system, which would be designed to allow the U.S. to retaliate with land-based nuclear weapons against an enemy who attacked the U.S. with nuclear weapons. The Reagan Admini…” (Median 50, Wealthy 63)
- 2000: “The United States has already spent sixty billion dollars trying to develop this system. Knowing that, do you favor or oppose the United States continuing to try to build a missile defense system against nuclear attack?” (Median 71, Wealthy 81)
- 2001: “The United States has already spent sixty billion dollars trying to develop this system. Knowing that, do you favor or oppose the United States continuing to try to build a missile defense system against nuclear attack?” (Median 76, Wealthy 67) [Note: just below a ten-point spread, but included here given the puzzling disconnect with the question just above.]
- 2000: “Do you favor or oppose increasing defense spending by at least twenty billion dollars by the year 2006?” (Median 47, Wealthy 58)