Quick Word on Elite Actors

Dan Drezner has the most recent in a line of posts discussing the role of elites vs. masses in policymaking (See Drezner for links to the other posts in the series–they're worth reading).

I don't really have much to add to the pile here–these are some pretty smart folks and they've said a lot of good things already.  I just have a couple of thoughts:

  1. With respect to Drezner's question, "who are the elites?" I think they tend to encompass both the policy mandarins and the lobbyists/special interests.  In fact, the line in this area is quite blurred.  I've been spending a great deal of time over the past year dealing with these sorts of actors in my own work, and the in-and-outer reputation is definitely not exaggerated by any means.  Certainly there are a lot of careerists who never leave Washington, but there are just as many folks who hop from policymaking to private/corporate leadership and back again.  In the 1930s and 1940s a lot of the bureaucrats shaping American foreign policy came from long stints in corporate or legal America–something that still happens today, although there is some greater variance with respect to the backgrounds of these sorts of people.  The point here is that the when identifying elites the line between public and private sectors may not be all that accurate.  That said, I do think we need some sort of criteria with which to define inclusion into the group–otherwise it's impossible to discuss them and their role.  
  2. I also agree that IR generally doesn't have a great sense of how policy issues interact with one another to shape decisions.  We control for the influence of security-related issues in our regression models that examine the impact of economic interests on foreign policy decisions* but this doesn't really tell us a lot about how and when these two areas "compete" with one another, so to speak.  Rather, all we're getting from coefficients in these models are the average effects of each category/variable, and it's entirely possible that their relative influence shifts over time in response to different environmental factors–whether they be domestic or international.  Drezner doesn't talk about this specifically, but I think that's sort of what he's getting at when he discusses the possibility that elites act on behalf of special interests in some situations, but push back against them in others.  
  3. A single, united elite?  Nope.  I also agree with Drezner regarding the notion that these elite actors we often discuss are far from being a single cohesive group with homogeneous preferences.  And I think it's here that Drezner raises one of the more difficult aspects of the elite-mass discussion–specifically, that public opinion can be both a cause and consequence of elite actions.  After the recent death of bin Laden, many pundits began speculating as to whether or not national security was off the table in the 2012 elections, but former Powell protege Lawrence Wilkerson had the following to say in response to this question:

Well, I hope so.  I doubt it, though, because my Republican party will make that issue a big one, and they will find plenty of room to attack in, and create that room if it‘s not there.  After all, we‘ve got Rush Limbaugh out there making the most absurd statements you could possibly imagine about this incident. 

This certainly seems to indicate that the party leadership is aware of its own ability to shape the broader narrative.  I also think one of the most surprising things about this event was just how quickly it became politicized.  This really shouldn't surprise me, but it did.  Either way, this sort of addresses Drezner's point about when elites get along and when they don't.  If there is an electoral gain to be had, elites seem to have no problem creating an issue where the public may perceive none.    

Just because I've spent so much time dealing with the early Cold War period lately, I'll whip out another tried and true example–the Marshall Plan, although remembered as this valiant American effort to ensure peace and prosperity, was really pushed on a reluctant public by elite political actors.  Congressional leadership was certainly divided on this issue at the outset.  In fact, nothing about the half-decade after World War II was obvious to the American public.  Many people still considered Russia to be a wartime ally well beyond the point where most elite policymakers became convinced that cooperation was impossible.

To go back briefly to the first point above regarding the backgrounds of elite actors, I also think this sort of information is important because it sheds some light on when elite preference will converge/diverge.  This is far from a perfect indicator, but it's possible that this sort of professional and geographic information can shed some light on the factors that shape the individual preferences of elite foreign policy actors–at least for those who do not offer up votes on a regular and public basis.  Gelpi and Feaver have a piece that gets at some of these dynamics with respect to previous military service and the use of force.  I like to think that my current work will help to further this line of research, but only time shall tell I suppose.    

*  Regarding the point above, this distinction between economic and security is something that is very very blurry, and I'm not entirely convinced the two ever really exist as exclusive entities.  


Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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