So it's been a little while since I've posted here (very busy times these are). Anyway, I wanted to link to this post by Phil Arena over at his blog. Phil discusses how his views on various topics related to IR have changed over the past few years. I agree with a lot of what he has to say on these issues–I think a lot of what IR scholars focus on, to the extent that we're interested in the domestic forces generating foreign policy outcomes, tend to place too much stock in the qualities we typically assume to characterize democracies and autocracies. I also agree that economic forces play a huge role in shaping the incentives of political actors–particularly the elites that Arena mentions.
It's been a while, but from what I recall of American politics, people's voting behavior is relatively fixed. By fixed, I mean factors like turnout and voter choice don't vary a lot when we look at the individual. Sure there is a group in the center that might sway from side to side a bit, but for the most part I'd imagine politicians know who they can count on when it comes to election time. Given this relative stability, and the fact that most of what we might consider to be public goods are static from one administration to the next (schools, police, etc.), I'd imagine that elite actors have considerable flexibility in pushing policies that benefit their core constituencies. It's not that you can ignore your voters when you're a Democrat that's elected by a district that is 90% Democratic, but you also have to question whether a sufficient number of your voters will really turn to the alternative and throw you out of office if you happen to spend a little less time on broad public legislation, and a little more time on legislation that benefits more specific groups (like elite backers).
So, I'm on board with the idea that the role/effects of democracy can be overblown. Or perhaps it's better to say that it seems like we don't have a very good understanding of who matters, how they matter, and when they matter, in terms of domestic politics influencing foreign policy choice. Looking at economic interests is certainly one way to go about this. Unfortunately, it seems like there is still a vague stigma attached to any view that combines the terms "economic interests" and "elites". I don't really like this–I think it's a simple recognition of the fact that the distribution of wealth/power, and the distribution of issue saliency, are all highly skewed in all countries. Some people care more about some issues than others, and some people are better endowed with the resources required to act on issues that they care about.
I will briefly say that I also think we have a generally poor understanding of how unelected officials matter in democratic countries. Watch me wander into case study land as I note that the Mashall Plan was the brainchild of unelected elites in government who, after wrangling with one another, sought to push the policy on the American public. Military officials who work their way up to influential positions after decades of service can come to be highly influential in the policymaking process and decisions related to the use of military force. IR has a very election-centric view of who the important actors are. Yes, these folks are important, but there are also other people that matter and we often tend to assume away their influence and preferences, and relegate it all to the error term.