Back about a decade or two, as polarization widened among America’s politicians and political activists, most analysts concluded from the initial flurry of research that the general public seemed exempt. Officeholders and activists were taking more extreme positions on hot-button issues like immigration and welfare, but Americans in general seemed to be largely in the middle and not that exercised. (That’s what I reported in this 2010 post.)
Well, there are new developments. For one, Americans started to express greater loyalty to their own party and greater hostility to the other party (see this 2012 post). And increasingly they seem to recast their social views, even their religious identifications, to line up with their political positions (see this 2013 post and this one).
A just-published study by sociologists Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza adds to the evidence that polarization in the general public is increasing. It also has an interesting message about whether and how reality – in this case, the economic crash in late 2008 – affects Americans’ views on government policy. If the Great Depression brought support for the New Deal, should not the Great Recession bring support for a Newer Deal?
Below, I summarize Brooks and Manza’s findings about changes up through 2010 in Americans’ support for government action. And then I look at the changes after 2010, a look that complicates the story.
Responding to the Crash
In spring 2008, when the General Social Survey (GSS) asked respondents whether the federal government should be more active in the economy, economic conditions were slowly improving and the unemployment rate was under 6 percent. Two years later in the spring of 2010 when the GSS went back into the field, the economy was growing but had not yet recovered from the worst plunge in about 80 years, the Great Recession, and the unemployment rate was stuck at almost 10 percent. The damage was even greater than those numbers suggest, with millions of homes foreclosed, wages dropping or stalled, business credit pinched, and widespread anxiety.
Would a battered and worried public decide, as bedraggled Americans did in the 1930s, to rally behind government action to fix the economy and aid the unfortunate? No.
The public moved in the opposite direction. Brooks and Manza combined five GSS questions into a scale measuring respondents’ support for government action: questions about helping the poor, helping blacks, helping pay medical bills, redressing income inequality, and a general question about whether government should do more or less to solve our country’s problems. Overall, support for government intervention weakened between 2008 and 2010.
For example, the percentage agreeing that the “the government in Washington should do everything possible to improve the standard of living of all poor Americans” (rather than agreeing that “it is not the government’s responsibility, and that each person should take care of himself”) dropped from 33% to 29%; the percentage who took the position that “it is the responsibility of the government in Washington to see to it that people have help in paying for doctors and hospital bills” dropped from 54% to 47%; and the percentage who thought that “the government in Washington ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor” dropped from 49% to 42%. This time an economic crash did not shift the country to the left, but perhaps to the right.
Brooks and Manza confirm these anti-government shifts in other poll data. They also show that people’s opinions are only weakly connected to changes in their own economic situations. Given the arrival of a black president, Brooks and Manza also look at racial attitudes, but race matters do not seem to explain the right shift. The key, they argue, is political partisanship. Republicans reacted so strongly against government in that period – indeed over the previous couple of decades – that they pulled the nation to the right.
Their analysis of a quarter-century of Americans’ answers show how Republicans have been moving “south,” away from government action and away from the trends for Democrats and Independents. (The graph displayed here shows the divergence in views among congresspeople on the left-hand side, among the general public on the right-hand side.) They calculate that, had it not been for these widening party divisions, this polarization, then between 2008 and 2010 Americans as a whole would have actually moved a bit in the direction of favoring more government action.
A Closer, Later Look
If we focus in on just the 2008 to 2010 GSS data, however, we can see that some of the reaction against government was widely shared. Democrats and independents, too, shifted against helping the poor or the sick or redressing inequality.
Strong Republicans may well have framed the debate in those years; we know they reaped a major victory in the off-year elections of 2010, running against bank bailouts and Obamacare. They brought others along. (For instance, respondents who called themselves strong Democrats became less likely in 2010 than in 2008, down from 73 to 62 percent, to say that they supported government efforts to narrow inequality.)
Strikingly, those respondents in 2010 who said that their financial situations had gotten worse in the previous few years were more likely, if my calculations are correct, to have moved against government action than were respondents who said that their situations were stable or getting better. Maybe the crash itself and the insecurity it brought engendered less rather than more concern for others who were struggling.
These anti-government trends flattened out in the subsequent two years, from spring 2010 to spring 2012, as the economy was clearly recovering and Obama was on his way to re-election. Americans as a whole did not change their views much on helping the poor or the sick in those last two years. But on one issue, the GSS respondents reversed direction — on whether the government should do something about income differences between rich and poor. Nationally, the percentage agreeing that the government should intervene to reduce that gap rose from 42 to 50 percent, a higher percentage favoring action than has typically appeared over the last 30-plus years.
The take-away from these analyses seem to be:
- over the last decade or two, polarization on the role of government has spread from the political class to Americans more widely;
- the enthusiasm of the right on this issue has led them far in the anti-government direction, making their move the key to the polarization in the general public;
- in early 2010, many Americans across the board seemed to react to the conditions and controversies of the day by rejecting government welfare-state programs; but
- by early 2012, Americans had become so aware of or concerned about widening income inequality that many moved back to supporting the idea of doing something about that inequality – even, by the way, many Republicans (the percent of them favoring action going up from 22 to 27 percent).
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