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Putting International Affairs on The Local Agenda

Updated: May 2

With wars in Ukraine and Gaza, a recent escalation of tensions with China over TikTok, and ongoing partisan turmoil over immigration, Americans are paying more attention to international politics these days. 

As surveyors of local government, CivicPulse wanted to get a sense of the extent to which constituents were putting these issues on the local agenda. After all, notwithstanding a few cities having created dedicated offices focused on international affairs, such topics are traditionally out of the purview of most local governments. 

To investigate this issue, we partnered with Dr. Jonathan Chu at the National University of Singapore to conduct a nationally representative survey of local elected officials in the USA to assess how often they were hearing from their constituents on international affairs and how they perceived the relevance of these topics themselves. 

To baseline this question, we also asked them how often constituents were bringing up other more “traditional” issues of local government. For example, we found that nearly all officials hear about issues related to roads, infrastructure, housing, or public safety in their conversations with constituents (see below). 



Although not as universal as these traditional topics, significant percentages of local officials reported being engaged by constituents on a range of international topics. In particular, 61% of officials said they occasionally or frequently discussed immigration with constituents, followed by 54% on the global environment, 49% on international security, and 41% on international economics. 

We were further interested in seeing whether there was a relationship between the extent to which international affairs was raised by constituents and how relevant local officials themselves viewed the international arena as being.  

We asked officials to rate, generally speaking, how relevant they viewed international affairs as being in their communities. We then compared these answers in terms of the number of international topics commonly raised by constituents. 


 

The data reveals a robust relationship. The more topics that constituents typically raise with their local officials, the more likely officials are to view international affairs as relevant. In communities where constituents commonly raise 0-1 international topics with their elected officials, only 36-38% of local officials reported international affairs to be relevant. By comparison, in communities where constituents commonly raise at least three issues of international scope, 78-86% of officials reported international affairs to be relevant.  

The numbers can only convey the high-level story. One thing we like to do at CivicPulse is let the officials speak for themselves through the open-ended responses we receive at the end of our surveys. In their open-ended responses, many local officials shed light on the specific ways international affairs have recently been affecting their communities. Below are a few examples: 

“War between Ukraine and Russia has affected the prices of our local agriculture market of wheat and corn.”  - County official in Kentucky 

“We have a lot of industry that our city counts on for employment and tax revenue. Many of the materials they need to create their products come from foreign locations. International affairs impact their ability both receive and ship their products. These things ultimately impact the tax revenue generated by these companies.”  - City leader in Kansas  

“We house refugees in our hotels and have a group that works with them.” 

- City leader in Massachusetts 

While the specific effects vary across communities, the responses demonstrate that global events can create tangible policy challenges that reverberate at the local level. And our survey data shows that the more constituents are feeling the effect of these events, the more local officials are paying attention. 

 

Survey Background 

The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national random sample of 524 elected policymakers from local governments (i.e., township, municipality, and county governments) with a population of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Chu at the National University of Singapore and was implemented by CivicPulse.  

Below is the question wording for the survey items used: 

In your discussions with constituents, how often do the following issues come up? 

Rows: 

  • Global environment and climate 

  • Immigration, foreign workers, refugees 

  • War and security 

  • International economic issues (e.g., trade, foreign investment) 

  • Local economy and jobs 

  • Public safety 

  • Roads, infrastructure, housing 

Answer Choices:  

  • Rarely, if ever  

  • Occasionally  

  • Often  

In your opinion, how relevant are international affairs and US foreign policy to what happens in your local community and in local politics? 

  • Not at all relevant  

  • Slightly relevant 

  • Moderately relevant  

  • Very relevant  

  • Extremely relevant  


Press Contact: 

Nathan Lee, PhD 

Managing Director 

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