Diffusion through Democracy


  • Katerina Linos is Assistant Professor, University of California at Berkeley, School of Law, 887 Simon Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-7200 (klinos@law.berkeley.edu).

  • Catherine Albiston, Gabby Blum, Rachel Brewster, Daniel Li Chen, David Dolowitz, Zach Elkins, Margarita Estévez-Abe, Stavros Gadinis, Tom Ginsburg, Jack Goldsmith, Ryan Goodman, Andrew Guzman, Peter Hall, Mark Hallerberg, Oona Hathaway, Larry Helfer, Dan Ho, Bert Huang, Torben Iversen, Detlef Jahn, Derek Jinks, Christine Jolls, Louis Kaplow, Gillian Lester, Elizabeth Linos, Natalie Linos, Martha Minow, Kimberly Morgan, Victoria Plaut, Kevin Quinn, Jim Salzman, Steve Shavell, Beth Simmons, Holger Spamann, Matt Stephenson, Duane Swank, Al Sykes, Eric Talley, Mike Tomz, Joel Trachtman, Elina Treyger, Pierre-Hugues Verdier, Erik Voeten, Linda White, Kathrin Zippel, and the anonymous reviewers have made extremely helpful comments on prior versions of this piece. Support from the Harvard Milton Fund, the Harvard Olin Center, and the National Science Foundation facilitated this research. For replication, see http://www.law.berkeley.edu/php-programs/faculty/facultyPubsList.php?facID=14278.


Many argue that international norms influence government behavior, and that policies diffuse from country to country, because of idea exchanges within elite networks. However, politicians are not free to follow their foreign counterparts, because domestic constituencies constrain them. This article examines how electoral concerns shape diffusion patterns and argues that foreign templates and international organization recommendations can shift voters’ policy positions and produce electoral incentives for politicians to mimic certain foreign models. Experimental individual-level data from the field of family policy illustrates that even U.S. voters shift positions substantially when informed about UN recommendations and foreign countries’ choices. However, voters receive limited information about international developments, biased towards the policy choices of large and proximate countries. Aggregate data on the family policy choices of OECD countries show how voters’ limited information about international models shapes government decisions: governments are disproportionately likely to mimic countries whose news citizens follow, and international organizations are most influential in countries with internationally oriented citizens.