One of the most striking findings to come out of the Nebraska, Colorado, and Ohio case studies is the extent to which people—in all three states, in rural and urban areas, in Trump country and Democratic strongholds—all held similar perspectives about the state of America’s middle class and its intersection with U.S. foreign policy. Where there were differences within or across states, they often reflected the prevailing economic interests for their communities and base industries. Thus, even in this moment of deep political polarization and hyperpartisanship, there is more common ground across party lines in the nation’s heartland than might be assumed by those working in Washington, DC, watching cable news, or living on social media.
The prevalent common ground is good news for those seeking to rebuild a national consensus on the United States’ role in the world. The bad news is that one of the uniting factors is a general erosion of trust in foreign policy professionals and policymakers in Washington, DC. It will be a tall order to regain this trust because it is not just a matter of adjusting individual policies or communicating better. It will require rethinking traditional conceptual and bureaucratic barriers separating foreign and domestic policy. It will also entail more explicitly defining the national economic interests intended to be advanced through U.S. foreign policy. And it will require coming to terms with how such definitions align, or do not align, with middle-class households’ expectations: the creation of more decent-paying jobs and the economic viability of local communities.
Shared Perspectives Within and Across the States
A diverse group from across America’s heartland—including die-hard Trump supporters in North Platte, Nebraska; progressive millennials in Denver, Colorado; moderate never-Trump Republicans in Columbus, Ohio; and swing voters in Dayton, Ohio—shared certain perspectives about the future of the middle class and the role of foreign policy. Their near consensus across political, economic, and geographic lines revolves around six main points:
- There is confidence about the state of the U.S. economy but anxiety about the state of the American middle class. The U.S. economy is growing, unemployment is low, and help wanted signs can be seen everywhere. The numerous job opportunities are welcomed. Even so, growth is not benefiting everyone in the same way. It is becoming increasingly difficult for working families to sustain a middle-class lifestyle because many of these jobs pay low wages. Meanwhile, the perception is that household incomes for those in rural and urban areas alike are not rising fast enough to keep pace with increasing household costs, especially related to healthcare, housing, education, and childcare.
- There is a lack of information about the U.S. role in the world. Working families often find it difficult to determine how their economic interests are affected by most U.S. foreign policies, especially if they are not working in an area that is heavily dependent on what happens overseas. They are focused on their day jobs and on meeting their daily expenses. And even when they do pay more attention to U.S. foreign policy, it is difficult to know what to believe amid such politically biased and divisive commentary on the subject on cable news and social media.
- There is an erosion of trust in foreign policy professionals (and in the federal government more generally). Especially in the absence of more information about the U.S. role in the world, most Americans need to count on foreign policy professionals to be good at their jobs and to look after the interests of the American people. However, doubts abound that foreign policy professionals in Washington, DC, truly understand the economic realities confronting middle-income households or that they prioritize these realities in the development of U.S. foreign policies. The decisions these professionals make appear to be influenced far more by those who have the resources and know-how to determine and lobby for policies that best serve their interests.
- The economic effects of foreign policy for the middle class are measured by the impact on middle-income jobs and base industries on which these communities depend. Few interviewed in Nebraska or the other states discussed how the totality of U.S. engagement around the world might help to stabilize the global economy or contribute to domestic economic growth and help lower the cost of living. Those interviewed were far more focused on how specific policies impacted working families locally in two main ways: the creation or elimination of jobs that paid enough to sustain a middle-class lifestyle and the impact on base industries that anchored local economies.
- International trade tops the list. While specific views on international trade differed in some instances, study participants across the three states uniformly viewed this aspect of foreign policy as having the most obvious impact on middle-income jobs and the base industries on which communities depended, both on the export and import sides. (The top issues after trade varied by state: FDI and defense spending in Ohio, defense spending and climate change/energy in Colorado, and immigration in Nebraska.)
- There is support for peacetime spending even as there is skepticism about the wisdom of foreign military intervention. There was debate within and across states, often along political lines, on what constitutes excessive military spending and an appropriate balance between discretionary defense and nondefense spending. That fact notwithstanding, those interviewed in all three states generally conveyed support for defense spending that keeps the U.S. military strong and, in the process, creates well-paying jobs, provides a pathway to the middle class for those without a college degree, and anchors some regional economies. Yet, at the same time, hardly anyone in the three states expressed enthusiasm for spending more money on new wars or major military interventions. Those interviewed feared such defense spending would be costly and deplete resources for badly needed investments at home.
Activities considered to be at the heart of U.S. foreign policy—such as diplomacy, foreign aid, and alliance management—did come up, too, but generally not from an economic standpoint. Opinions on these topics were offered from a variety of perspectives, ranging from keeping faith with American values, ensuring respect for the United States and its standing in the world, and promoting fairness in global burden sharing. When pressed to connect diplomacy, foreign aid, or alliances to the economic interests of the middle class, some argued that the United States was spending far less on aid than it should; others countered that the country was doing as much as it could afford. Some in Nebraska mentioned how increases or decreases in in-kind U.S. food assistance affected the U.S. agricultural economy. But generally speaking, those interviewed across the three states were often inclined to link diplomacy, aid, and alliances back to one of the six points above. The role of diplomats was acknowledged in the context of trade negotiations. Foreign aid came up in connection with developing overseas markets that would benefit U.S. trade. Alliance cohesion and diplomacy were seen by some as key to preventing costly wars. While their views have presumably changed since the measures required to contend with the spread of the coronavirus have wreaked havoc on the U.S. and global economies, very few people interviewed in 2018 and 2019 mentioned a connection between their economic interests and U.S. foreign assistance to build up international capacity to prevent the spread of pandemic diseases.
Meanwhile, those interviewed in all three states far more frequently, and of their own accord, brought up FDI, climate change and energy, and immigration as aspects of foreign policy that had a significant yet divergent bearing on their economic interests. While none of these issues fall squarely within the purview of foreign policy made in Washington, DC, views about the intersection of foreign policy and middle-class interests are clearly influenced by them. It is therefore important for foreign policy professionals to, at a minimum, become more familiar with how and why views on these issues, along with trade, differed within and across states.
Place-Based Economic Realities Drive Differences
To have a foreign policy that works better for the American middle class, it is not enough to just account for the points of consensus. It is also critical to acknowledge and account for the differences. Over the course of the three case studies, the differences observed within and between states illuminated the extent to which economic considerations and the industrial mix in different places—not just politics—are driving views on issues like trade, FDI, climate change and energy, and immigration.
In Ohio, the most heated debate was on U.S. trade policy. Those in smaller cities and towns that have suffered significant manufacturing job losses over the past few decades held deeply critical views of long-standing U.S. trade policies. They were willing to entertain major changes in those policies as part of a broader strategy for addressing many other economic challenges they faced—and for which trade served as a proxy. But others elsewhere in the state profited from past trade policies and worried about any proposed revolutionary changes. They included those working in northeastern agricultural areas of Ohio and high-end manufacturing and service-sector workers in Columbus, now the state’s most-populous and fastest-growing metropolitan area.
Meanwhile, Ohioans were largely unified in their support of FDI, which accounts for almost the same number of jobs in Ohio as exports. Honda is now the state’s top manufacturing employer. Competition with Japan in the 1970s and early 1980s was devastating for Ohio’s manufacturing workforce. Today, Japanese investment is providing an economic lifeline to manufacturing towns that have seen U.S.-owned factories leave town. While opinions on recent experiences with Chinese FDI have been more mixed, most communities saw attracting FDI as a critical part of the strategy for economic development.
The industrial mix in different places—not just politics—are driving views on issues like trade, FDI, climate change and energy, and immigration.
FDI also creates jobs and is welcome in Colorado, but it did not come up nearly as often as it did in Ohio. That is perhaps because the largest share of FDI tends to be in manufacturing, as foreign firms locate production in close proximity to the North American markets they are supplying. Ohio is ideally situated for that purpose, in contrast to the Colorado Rockies. That said, Colorado does have some traditional manufacturing towns like Pueblo, where the top manufacturing employers are, in fact, foreign-owned, though it is not a major manufacturing state overall.
At the same time, because Colorado is not heavily dependent on labor-intensive manufacturing, it has been far less exposed to manufacturing job losses due to import competition, outsourcing, and offshoring. Therefore, increased international trade is more often seen as a job creator—including the high-end manufacturing products, technology, and professional business services the state exports from the Front Range; the international tourists it brings in on the Western Slope; and the agricultural goods it produces for export on the Eastern Plains. Thus, even though Colorado exports far fewer goods than Ohio, Coloradans were largely unified in supporting the general thrust of long-standing U.S. trade policies and anxious about unpredictable and abrupt changes to them.
However, Colorado is not without its own deep divisions. As a major producer of fossil fuels, as well as a national leader on environmental protection and renewable energy research, Colorado is experiencing heated debate on policies and regulations related to energy and climate change. The interests of those in Colorado counties that are reliant on coal, gas, and oil production for their economic survival are coming into conflict with the renewable energy and outdoor tourism sectors elsewhere in the state.
Nebraskans, on the other hand, were far less likely to compare and contrast the interests of different base industries across the state. That may be because they generally regarded the agricultural production complex as the most important globally connected base industry for everyone in the state, notwithstanding the fact that Nebraska now has an increasingly diversified economy. As detailed in Chapter 3, the agricultural production complex—spanning livestock and grain production, ag-related manufacturing and equipment, transportation, and warehousing—affects all parts of the state and transcends the usual urban-rural divides. Indeed, many professionals in Lincoln and Omaha still have a professional and personal connection to farms and ranches in rural areas. Thus, an agricultural worldview predominates across the state on issues like international trade but also on topics like climate change and energy.
Economic considerations also drive Nebraskans’ convergence of views on immigration and refugee resettlement. As detailed earlier in Chapter 4, participants were unified in their strong support for increasing legal immigration. They were not simply talking about making it easier to obtain seasonal workers to work on the farms and killing floors in meat-packing plants. In rural areas, they were calling for increasing legal immigration to address shortfalls in the numbers of nurses and doctors in regional hospitals, skilled employees in manufacturing facilities, and talented workers for local economic and business growth.
Rural counties across the United States have been contending with population decline and chronic workforce shortages. But given Nebraska’s low numbers of in-migration from other U.S. states, increasing immigration and refugee resettlement is a critical part of the strategy for addressing chronic workforce shortages. Numerous Nebraskans therefore expressed concern that, under the Trump administration, the inflow of refugees resettling in their state had declined.
This is not to say that Nebraska does not experience anti-immigrant or antirefugee sentiments. In fact, some of those interviewed reported that such feelings had increased in the Trump era. But the overwhelming support was for increasing legal immigration and sustaining refugee resettlement, provided that the United States does not embrace open borders and that such migration is consistent with their economic interests.
Nor is this to say Nebraskans were of one mind on all aspects of foreign policy. Far from it. There were obvious differences when it came to attitudes on U.S. foreign policy in general, and political leanings certainly account for some of these differences (in Colorado and Ohio as well). For example, liberal educators and retirees in Lincoln and Omaha blasted Trump for alienating U.S. allies, betraying the country’s values, and badly damaging its standing in the world. Some self-professed traditional Republicans expressed some sympathy for those criticisms. But Trump supporters elsewhere in the state claimed that certain criticisms were borne of biased reporting in mainstream media outlets. They praised Trump for demonstrating strength on the global stage and not letting other countries, like China, push the United States around.
But when interviewees in Nebraska were pressed to get back to the local economic implications of specific foreign policies, politics tended to give way to the bottom line for those in the agricultural production complex. Trump supporters said that they stood by the president as he pushed back against Chinese trading practices but that they suffered as a result of Chinese retaliation and could not afford for it to go on indefinitely. Meanwhile, even the president’s critics stressed the importance of passing the USMCA, especially given that NAFTA might have been terminated if the USMCA had not been adopted.
Ultimately, place-based economic considerations appeared to drive attitudes on the intersection of U.S. foreign policy with the perceived economic interests of America’s middle class. But foreign policy professionals are often loath to be influenced by place-based concerns, fearing it could unduly politicize the making of U.S. foreign policy, which has to focus on the interests of the nation as a whole. Part of the gap that has widened between those in the heartland and those in Washington, DC, appears to stem from this dynamic.
Implications for Foreign Policy Professionals
In their forthcoming final report, Carnegie task force members will evaluate how these findings stack up with national polling and economic data. They also will assess other foreign policy–related issues that did not come up in focus groups and interviews but can significantly affect middle-class well-being. Finally, reflecting on the totality of this information, they will offer concrete recommendations for specific policy changes, starting with first order questions. These recommendations will include how foreign policy professionals define the national economic interests being advanced through U.S. foreign policy.
As they define these national economic interests, members of the national security and foreign policy community will need to address how they relate to the two issues that mattered most to interviewees across Nebraska, Colorado, and Ohio: the creation of decent-paying jobs and the economic viability of local communities. Domestic policy experts have long been debating these issues, but foreign policy professionals have largely stayed clear of these debates. That may need to change.
At a minimum, foreign policy professionals should be asking themselves hard questions to determine whether there is some validity to the critique that they are not sufficiently prioritizing the creation of middle-class jobs in the policies and approaches they champion. For example, are the issues they prioritize in trade negotiations creating or preserving decent-paying U.S. jobs? What should be the top priority in international economic policy for meeting that objective? Would changing priorities have an effect on the cost of living for American households? Is there a way to attract even more FDI that creates well-paying jobs, while allaying fears of a race to the bottom on wages and safeguards for workers, as U.S. cities and states compete with one another to secure deals?
There are a host of other questions to consider too. Would an increased focus on middle-income jobs alter U.S. priorities and positions in its economic negotiations with China? Should the United States counter China’s aggressive industrial policies to dominate certain sectors of strategic significance by making far greater investments of its own in research and development, workforce development, and U.S. industries? Can it make such investments in a way that concurrently creates more well-paying middle-class jobs, potentially drawing on the defense budget to meet at least a portion of the cost? How should the guns-versus-butter debate on defense spending, more generally, be managed in connection with the implications for middle-class jobs? What more should be done through U.S. foreign policy to anticipate and prevent catastrophic events, such as the rapid global spread of pandemic diseases, that threaten not only lives but middle-class jobs and livelihoods as well? Are major reforms of bureaucratic structures and processes required to enable better cooperation between senior national security leaders and their domestic counterparts involved with workforce development and job creation?
Foreign policy professionals should be asking themselves hard questions to determine whether there is some validity to the critique that they are not prioritizing the creation of middle- class jobs enough in the policies and approaches they champion.
These are just some of the aspects of foreign policy that deserve another look through the prism of placing greater emphasis on aiding the middle class. These inquiries raise complicated questions that defy simple solutions. The same is true, perhaps even more so, with respect to pursuing foreign policies that are more sensitive to place-based considerations.
Foreign policy professionals cannot and should not be asked to pick winners and losers among different communities across Nebraska, Colorado, Ohio, and other states. It makes sense, therefore, that they have long defaulted to focusing instead on the net benefits for the country overall. And they have counted on economic adjustment assistance programs, such as TAA, to offset the pain for communities that find themselves on the losing end of foreign policy–related changes.
However, the problem with relying on economic adjustment assistance programs, as discussed at length in the Ohio report, is that TAA has severe limitations. From a place-based perspective, it was never designed to help entire communities reinvent their economic bases following the closure or relocation overseas of top employers that had long anchored local economies. This assistance therefore ended up only temporarily cushioning the blow for many workers who lost well-paying jobs and had no choice but to move elsewhere or take the leftover lower-paying ones. Meanwhile, numerous communities have experienced workforce declines and fear being turned into ghost towns, as a new generation moves to where better jobs can be found. The inadequacy of TAA for manufacturing towns may provide a cautionary tale for the ongoing discussions related to climate change and defense spending.
The Trump administration has tried to address the place-based challenges for some communities by, for example, promising to “bring back” lost manufacturing jobs and protect well-paying coal-mining jobs, as well as by preserving defense sector jobs through massive increases in the defense budget. Herein lie some of the perils of a place-based approach that seeks to compensate communities whose base industries are vulnerable or have been on the losing end in the past. It can run counter to the interests of many other places in the United States. For instance, steel tariffs and the trade war with China have hurt various communities’ economic bases. Critics would also argue that this approach cannot even deliver on all the promises for the intended beneficiaries in the near term or be sustained over the long term.
These are some of the challenges that need to be addressed to make U.S. foreign policy work better for the middle class. And if foreign policy professionals can visibly make headway on them, it could help to rebuild trust that they are indeed understanding and prioritizing middle-class concerns. The three case studies make clear that regaining such trust is perhaps more important than any single set of policy changes that Carnegie’s task force members could propose. That trust is vital if foreign policy professionals expect Americans to, at times, set aside their political differences and narrow, short-term economic interests in pursuit of strategic, long-term goals guiding the overall direction of U.S. foreign policy. Those interviewed across all three states assumed that they were only seeing a fraction of the impacts of U.S. foreign policy on their economic well-being. They would like to trust that U.S. foreign policy professionals in Washington, DC, and those positioned around the world are managing all aspects of foreign policy effectively, with the concerns of the country’s middle class in mind.