In the past, excessive economic inequality has ended… badly. As Charlotte Cavaillé points out in her new book that studies the public’s reaction to rising inequality, “only mass warfare, a state collapse, or catastrophic plagues have significantly altered the distribution of income and wealth.” Will this time be different?
Through income redistribution, democratic and political institutions today have a clear mechanism to peacefully address income inequality if voters demand it. Still, as highlighted by Cavaille in Fair Enough?: Support for Redistribution in the Age of Inequality (Cambridge University Press), greater wealth and income inequality are not leading to greater demand for an egalitarian policy response as many would expect.
Cavaillé reports there is little evidence of rising support for redistribution, especially among the worse off. Consider public opinion in the two Western countries with the sharpest increase in income inequality: In Great Britain, public support for redistribution is decreasing, and in the United States, the gap between the attitudes of low-income and high-income voters is narrowing. What, asks Cavaillé, can we conclude about public opinion’s role as a countervailing force to rising inequality?
Based on Cavaillé’s doctoral work, Fair Enough? introduces a framework for studying mass attitudes toward redistributive social policies. Cavaillé shows that these attitudes are shaped by at least two motives: material self-interest and fairness concerns. People support policies that would increase their own expected income. On the other hand, they also support policies that, if implemented, “would move the status quo closer to what is prescribed by shared norms of fairness.” Material interest comes most into play when policies have large material consequences, according to Cavaillé, but in a world of high uncertainty and low personal stakes, considerations of fairness trump considerations about one’s personal pocketbook.
How fair is it for some to make a lot more money than others? How fair is it for some to receive more benefits than they pay in taxes? Cavaillé emphasizes two norms of fairness that come into play when we think about such questions: proportionality, where rewards are proportional to effort and merit, and reciprocity, where groups provide basic security to members that cooperatively contribute. Policy disagreement arises because people hold different empirical beliefs regarding how well the status quo aligns with what these norms of fairness prescribe.
With fairness reasoning in the picture, Cavaillé writes, “baseline expectations are turned on their heads: Countries that are more likely to experience an increase in income inequality are also those least likely to interpret this growth as unfair.”
Should we expect growing support for redistribution to be a driving force behind policy change in the future? A change in aggregate fairness beliefs, Cavaillé argues, will require a perfect storm: a discursive shock that repeatedly exposes people to critiques of the status quo as unfair on the one hand, and a large subset of individuals whose own individual experience predispose them to accept these claims as true on the other. Policy changes in postindustrial democracies are possible, Cavaillé concludes– but they are unlikely to be in response to a pro-redistribution shift in public opinion.
Charlotte Cavaillé is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and an affiliate of the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research. Her dissertation, on which ‘Fair Enough’ is based, received the 2016 Mancur Olson Best Dissertation Award.
Tevah Platt and Charlotte Cavaillé contributed to the development of this post.
The 20th century Disability Rights Movement (DRM) is among the most successful and durable mass protest movements in American political history. Throughout the 20th century, DRM activists fought for equal political and economic rights– the desegregation of classrooms and public accommodations, the dismantling of coercive residential institutions, and an accessible built environment. Disabled activists and their allies occupied warehouses and university campuses, chained themselves to city buses, and took sledgehammers to inaccessible street curbs in an effort to make their voices heard. These remarkable episodes of political cohesion culminated in the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a bill heralded by senator Tom Harkin, its chief congressional champion, as “the emancipation proclamation for people with disabilities.”
Despite the prominence of disability in American political history, political scientists have only a thin understanding of how disability shapes political behavior. For the most part, existing research focuses on election accessibility and emphasizes the role of disability in curbing political participation. Several studies find that despite being no less interested in politics, people with disabilities are substantially less likely to turn out to vote than their non-disabled peers.
However, researchers have largely overlooked the potential impact of disability on political psychology. In particular, we don’t know whether disabled Americans see their disability as a politically meaningful feature of their social identities, or whether disability might serve as a basis for political cohesion or collective action. While the history of disability rights activism suggests disability may be politically mobilizing for a small minority of activists, less is known about whether or to what extent disability may also shape political identity in the mass public.
In a recent working paper, I find that disability is indeed an important dimension of political identity for many disabled Americans.
While disabled Americans do not appear mobilized along party lines, a sense of belonging to the disability community is associated with ideological liberalism and support for a range of social and redistributive policies.
Measuring disability as a social identity
I used an online survey of 700 Americans with disabilities to investigate two questions: Who embraces disability as a social identity? And how does identifying as a person with disability shape political attitudes? To collect the sample for this study fielded by Forthright Panels, I screened participants using the same measure of functional disability used by the U.S. Census and the CDC. I asked respondents a range of questions about their everyday experience of disability. I asked them how old they were when they first acquired their disability, how visible or noticeable their disability is by others, and how much functional limitation they experience in everyday life. Then, I asked respondents a series of questions about the degree to which their disability shapes their socialidentity: their sense of who they are as individuals and their place in the social world.
I compiled these items into a new measure of disability as a social identity– what I call the “Disability ID” scale. Those who score higher on the Disability ID scale consider disability to be an important feature of their personal identity, and place a high value on belonging to the disability community. A sizable minority of Americans with disabilities, about 35%, fall “high” on this scale.
Who embraces disability as a social identity?
I looked at the various characteristics that are associated with higher scores on the Disability ID scale. This analysis yielded two main findings. First, Disability ID is closely tied to impairment characteristics. Respondents with more severe, visible, and long-standing impairments were all more likely to report strong Disability ID. Second, Disability ID is stronger among those who participate in social and political institutions for people with disabilities. Specifically, Disability ID was stronger among those who reported receiving disability accommodations at school or at work, and among those who reported receiving financial assistance from the government on account of their disability.
How does Disability ID shape political attitudes?
Next, I wanted to understand how Disability ID shapes political outcomes. I first looked at the relationship between Disability ID and two key outcomes of interest to political scientists: ideology (liberal or conservative), and partisanship (Democrat or Republican). The results of this analysis were intriguing. On the one hand, those higher in Disability ID tend to be more politically liberal. On the other hand, Disability ID has no discernible impact on political partisanship. In other words, those who identify strongly with their disability tend to support ideas often associated with liberalism, like government support for social services, but aren’t more likely to identify as Democrats.
I also wanted to understand the potential impacts of Disability ID on policy preferences. Given the particular forms of social and economic disadvantage that accompany disability, I predicted that Disability ID would be associated with support for government policies aimed at improving material well-being for people with disabilities. To test this prediction, I asked participants a series of questions about their level of support for a variety of social and redistributive policies.
A clear pattern of results emerged. Disability ID is strongly positively associated with support for a range of redistributive policies, especially those aimed at increasing financial security, public safety, and access to healthcare. In fact, in several instances the magnitude of the effect of Disability ID on policy attitudes is similar to that of explicitly political variables, such as political partisanship and ideology. On the other hand, Disability ID has relatively little impact on attitudes toward policies theoretically more peripheral to disabled Americans, such as public schools or border security.
To test the validity of these results, I conducted a similar analysis using data from the 2022 Cooperative Election Study (CES), a prominent national political survey fielded by YouGov and researchers from Harvard University. Unlike the Forthright Panels study, the CES survey was collected in two waves, where the same set of participants were interviewed before and after the 2022 midterm elections. I included questions about Disability ID on the pre-election survey fielded in the fall, and questions about policy attitudes on the post-election survey fielded in January 2023. This survey design allowed me to conduct a stronger test of the relationship between Disability ID and policy attitudes. By asking participants about their policy preferences in the post-election survey, I am able to observe the relationship between Disability ID and political attitudes in a context where participants have not already been primed to think about their disability.
Results from the CES mirror those found in the Forthright study. Again, Disability ID is strongly positively associated with support for redistributive policies, most notably those aimed at increasing financial security and access to healthcare. Furthermore, as in the Forthright Study, the magnitude of these effects is often similar to that of explicitly political variables, such as political partisanship and ideology.
Why does this matter?
These results should encourage researchers to think differently about the role of disability in shaping political behavior. More than 30 years after the passage of the ADA, disability remains an important dimension of socioeconomic inequality and disadvantage. People with disabilities are roughly twice as likely as their non-disabled peers to be unemployed and living in poverty, and are nearly four times as likely to be victims of violent crime. Addressing these inequalities is likely to require political engagement and collective action. While existing work has emphasized the role of disability in curbing political participation, these results suggest that for many disabled Americans, a shared social identity as members of the disability community may be an important source of political cohesion and empowerment.
Joshua Thorp is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on political psychology in the United States and other developed democracies, with a particular focus on the politics of disability. Thorp’s dissertation examines disability as a dimension of political identity in the United States. He is an Institute for Social Research Next Generation scholar at the Center for Political Studies, and was the recipient of the 2022 Converse-Miller fellowship in American political behavior.
The Forthright survey was generously funded by the Center for Political Studies (CPS) and the Rapoport Family Foundation. The CES data was collected as part of the University of Michigan team module of the Cooperative Election Study at CPS, led by Donald Kinder.
Tevah Platt and Julia Lippman contributed to the development of this post.
Michael Traugott began by noting that this is a very interesting and unusual election. When Donald Trump ran for President in 2016, he had no prior experience in governing, and he ran explicitly as an outsider. “He is typically focused on his base,” said Traugott. “Unlike any other first-term president, who takes office and thinks about how to enlarge his coalitions.” In the 2020 presidential election, Trump is now an incumbent with a record to defend. His campaign strategy before the COVID-19 pandemic was to run on a strong economy, and to turn out his base. However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the course of the campaign dramatically.
Division of partisanship in the constituency
Traugott emphasized that it is important to recognize that there are more Democrats in the adult population in the U.S. than there are Republicans. Data from the Pew Research Center show that there are about as many independents as Democrats, both of these groups outnumber the Republicans.
Furthermore, there are substantial racial and ethnic differences in party support. Among whites, the Republicans are the favored party. Among Blacks, Democrats outnumber Republicans by eight to one. Among Hispanics, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a little more than two to one, and among Asian Americans, about five to one. The demographics of the U.S. are shifting, and whites are expected to be a minority in the population by the mid-2040s. Traugott points out that there is a significant question about what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat in today’s society and how that is likely to change across the next 20-25 years.
Candidate Trait Assessments
Traugott presented data on assessments of the candidates’ traits, collected in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. Respondents to this survey were more likely to see Joe Biden as compassionate than Donald Trump, with a 33 percentage point advantage. Biden was also seen as a good role model, with a 26 percentage point advantage, and honest, an 18 percentage point advantage. Trump stands out as energetic to respondents, with a 16 percentage point advantage.
Policy Differences Between the Candidates
Traugott presented the results of a survey that asked respondents about their confidence that either Biden or Trump would make good decisions in various policy areas. Respondents rated the candidates evenly on making good decisions about economic policy. Across a series of social issues, including law enforcement and criminal justice, nominees for the Supreme Court, and foreign policy, Biden has a growing advantage.
Among people who say that they’re going to vote in-person on election day, Trump is ahead by a margin of two to one. However, Biden has an advantage among those who are going to vote by mail and those who will vote in-person before election day. Traugott noted that as of October 14, there were about 10 million votes already cast in this election.
The Democrats are emphasizing turnout voting in large numbers, whereas the Trump administration has been sowing doubt about the integrity of the electoral system. Traugott presented data collected by YouGov for Yahoo News, which show the partisan differences in attitudes about whether the election will be rigged or not. Republicans are much more likely to believe that there will be problems with vote counting and irregularities. Democrats are more likely to believe election security experts who say the U.S. presidential election cannot be rigged. Traugott concluded by saying “I think the most disheartening part of this is when the respondents were asked do you think this year’s presidential election will be free and fair, only about a quarter of the respondents said yes.”
Racial attitudes among whites are changing. Vincent Hutchings began his presentation by noting that white Americans seem to be participating in protest against racial injustice at higher levels than in the past. Does this represent a true change in sentiment, or just an illusion?
Support for the proposition that Blacks encounter barriers that whites do not has been increasing among white Americans over the last several years, and has increased more notably since the start of the protests following the death of George Floyd. Whatever the reason, Hutchings says there is “no denying that a larger fraction of whites are now willing to acknowledge racial bias.”
Hutchings designed a study to test the limits of changing racial attitudes. Between 2014 and 2020, whites became more willing to attribute police killings to systemic bias, but this increased recognition of bias does not necessarily lead to support for policy change. For example, most whites oppose reparations and removing Confederate names from Army bases.
To explore whether more information about racial disparities would change the opinions of whites, Hutchings several of his students conducted a study that they called “The Black Truth Project.” During the summer of 2020, they conducted an online experiment on a sample of 965 white subjects. One third of the subjects, the control group, received information defining the racial wealth gap in the United States. There were two treatment groups in the study. Each group was presented with the definition of the racial wealth gap, plus data on the state of the wealth gap today. The first treatment group was shown data that was labeled to emphasize Black disadvantage; the second treatment group was shown the exact same data, but with a label that emphasized white advantage.
When asked about the size of the racial wealth gap, the control group said there was a moderate size racial wealth gap. The treatment groups were more inclined to report a larger gap. None of the groups perceived the wealth gap to be as large as it actually is, but those who received more information aligned more closely with the truth. These effects were seen across all groups, including gender, partisanship, level of education, and level of political knowledge.
Next, the study assessed whether learning about the racial wealth gap changes policy views. Respondents were asked how important it is for the federal government to pass laws to reduce racial wealth gap. Hutchings and his team found very little change in support for policies that would address the racial wealth gap.
While the experiment showed that respondents were open to learning new information, that information did not change support for policy. Hutchings and his team plan to conduct additional studies to follow up on their findings.
Why are protests happening now?
Over the past several months, people have asked Shea Streeter why protests are happening now. What’s different about 2020 that has led to over 8,000 individual protests all over the country? Streeter studies police killings, and says that this current movement isn’t about just one death, it’s the culmination of movement building that has been going on for years.
Streeter contends that the protests we see today actually represent two simultaneous movements: the movement for Black lives, and protests for police accountability. There are significant overlaps between these movements. The movement for Black lives centers around the idea that racism is deadly, which is played out in racial disparities in COVID-19 death rates, and well as vigilante killings of Blacks, like Trayvon Martin.
The police kill over a thousand people in the U.S. each year. That’s a rate five times higher than in Canada, and a hundred times higher than in the U.K. Intersection is where things get deadly. African Americans are more than three times as likely to be killed by the police as whites.
Most protests emerge after police killings of African Americans. A large number of white Americans are killed by police officers, but their deaths are less likely to lead to protest. Overall 15% of police killings led to local organizing. But for African Americans, over a third of deaths at the hands of police lead to protests – seven times the response for whites.
Which means that the movement for Black lives is conducting a lot of work to hold police more accountable as well. How does the work of this movement develop? Streeter points to the example of Trische’ Duckworth of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Duckworth is the founder of an organization for survivors of sexual assault called Survivors Speak. When the surrounding community was impacted by COVID-19, the organization became involved with community aid. After an incident of police brutality in Ypsilanti in May, 2020, Survivors Speak was well-positioned to mobilize large numbers of people to protest.
The movements for Black lives and for police accountability have been building for years, says Streeter. Additional community support that have emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have brought communities closer, while also highlighting racial disparities. All of this helps to answer why protests are happening at this particular moment in history. It comes down to the fact that local organizers who built local movements with little national attention, are now seeing the culmination of the capacity they’ve built.
The force continuum
The majority of Americans believe the death of George Flyod at the hands of police was wrong, and that the police officers should be held accountable. In his presentation, Christian Davenport introduced the idea of the force continuum, or the level of force that is acceptable in a given situation but this concerns individual police behavior against an individual citizen. What do Americans think is acceptable regarding how police officers and protestors interact? Answering this question is the focus of his work. Davenport’s research takes a deeper look at what Americans will accept and whether these acceptable actions vary by race and ethnicity.
Davenport emphasizes that this work is important because there will be more protests and more protest policing in the future. Inappropriate behavior on either side will prompt reactions from the government and voters. Differences of opinion about actions that are acceptable are rooted in community perceptions of police.
With this in mind, Davenport conducted a study that asked respondents to rate whether a particular action was more intense or severe when done by police or when done by a challenger to the police. While many discussions about police and protestor behavior revolve around the distinction between violence and nonviolence, this study was a way to tease out differences in perception of very specific tactics.
The results showed distinct differences in perception by the race of the respondent. In general, whites tended to view actions taken by a challenger or protestor as more violent. African Americans see almost all police behavior as more intense or severe.
The long-term consequences of the differences revealed by this research are important, says Davenport. The divergence in attitudes may play into the perception by whites that Blacks are more violent. Whether or not we can move beyond these differences depends on our ability to understand these differences and move past them.
A panel of prominent political scientists presented their research at the panel “One Hundred Years of Women Voting: The Nineteenth Amendment’s Legacy and Current Implications” on Monday, February 24, 2020. The experts discussed the political behavior of women leading up to and since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. Jenna Bednar, professor of political science at the University of Michigan and research faculty at the Center for Political Studies, moderated the discussion. The event was part of the U-M Department of Political Science Rubin Speaker Series and U-M Suffrage 2020 event series.
Mara Ostfeld, Christina Wolbrecht, Angela Ocampo, and Corrine McConnaughy
Popular views of women voters over the past 100 years, and what the evidence actually tells us about them
In the first several decades of women’s suffrage in the U.S., understanding of women’s political behavior was based on rhetoric, not based on data, said Wolbrecht. Data does show that married women often voted as their husbands did. Political experts interpreted this correlation as evidence of political disinterest on the part of women, but this conclusion was not based on data. Following the belief that women didn’t form independent political opinions, Gallup used quota controlled sampling that undersampled women. The American Voter describes women as following their husband’s wishes rather than voting according to their own beliefs.
Wolbrecht argues that these unsupported conclusions still matter today because these books are still read today. She emphasizes that although married women often vote as their husbands do, we don’t know who is influencing whom.
Political Pioneers: Women of Color as Candidates and Elected Officials
Angela X. Ocampo, a research fellow in the department of political science and the Center for Political Studies, presented current research assessing the representation of women of color as political candidates and elected officials. “Women don’t get access to vote until their racial group does,” said Ocampo, noting that women of color were still denied the right to vote or hold elected office on the basis of race after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Most research on women of color in elected office focuses on the federal level, but Ocampo, along with her research collaborator, Ana Oaxaca, is studying representation in local government. Their research shows that women are most likely to be elected from places that are protected by the Voting Rights Act. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act, Ocampo sought to understand how the representation of women of color was affected at the local level.
To answer this, she’s analyzing data on city councils in the 300 largest U.S. cities to isolate the factors that are associated with a high proportion of women of color council members. Women of color are underrepresented in city councils, making up only 10% of council members. Ocampo finds that the more Democratic a locality is, the higher the proportion of women of color and minority council members. Proxies of political power are also important. When there is a higher proportion of more minority voters in a city, the proportion of women of color and minority council members also increases.
Ocampo concludes that gains have been made in representation, but parity is yet to be achieved. Representation of women of color and minorities depends on political pressures and the voting power of minority voters. She cautions that upward trends in the representation of women of color and minorities will likely be derailed by efforts to suppress minority votes.
Hidden Politics: Women’s Organizing and the Shape of American Democracy
Corrine McConnaughy is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and worked closely with many of the faculty during that time.
McConnaughy said that to find examples of women doing political work in the period before suffrage, we must look beyond formal suffrage organizations. Whether political organizing was taking place within suffrage organizations or other organizations, historians find common themes in women’s political activity in the period before the nineteenth amendment. Women were doing crucial service work in their communities and creating innovative ways to gain power. Importantly, women were doing political work as women, but not unified by womanhood.
The suffrage movement faced challenges because women were not seen as a promising voting bloc, McConnaughy said. Because so many people believed women would vote as their husbands did, no party stood to gain an advantage by allowing women to vote. For this reason, bi-partisan support was essential to gaining franchise. The ability to form coalitions with other groups also proved essential. Suffragists were well-organized and good at raising money, which made them attractive coalition partners.
Why Women Oppose Policies that Support Women
The final speaker was Mara Ostfeld, is a Faculty Associate with the Center for Political Studies and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science. She presented research she is conducting with two graduate students, Lauren Hahn and Sara Morell.
Ostfeld framed their question: “In the 100 years that women have had access to voting rights, and in the context of women constituting the majority of voters in America, why hasn’t there been more progress for policies to provide women with equitable opportunities?” She cited statistics to illustrate the issue: 20% of women say that reports of the gender pay gap are overblown; one-third of women say that women who complain about sexual harassment create more problems than they solve; another third believe that at least half of the time that women demand equality, they’re actually seeking special favors.
Family socialization is the key reason for these beliefs, according to Ostfeld. “Unlike other marginalized groups, women are not raised in women-majority environments,” she noted.
Ostfeld, Morell, and Hahn conducted a survey to gauge how women believe their family members would react to taking pro-women positions, to assess how women perceive the social costs of their beliefs within their families. The survey also asked about the polices the women supported. Ostfeld found clear evidence that women who believed they will be stigmatized for embracing policies to promote gender equality are far less likely to support those policies. Even among women respondents who recognized the gendered disparities motivating the policies, they were still less likely to support policies promoting gender equality if they felt their family members would stigmatize them for doing so.
“Racial animus is in the air we breathe,” Streeter says, “but when we look at police violence, we can get distracted by race and ignore other important factors.” Her dissertation included an experiment to examine how the race of victims of police violence determines whether the public sees the violence as just. Surprisingly, she finds that the race of the victims is less salient than expected. Instead, the social context strongly shaped the attitudes of the respondents. Those who were predisposed to consider societal and institutional forces were less likely to believe the victim deserved the outcome, compared to respondents who place sole responsibility on the individual.
Racial differences in rates of protest
Half of the people killed by police each year are white, and yet the rate of protest over white victims of police violence is very low. A dataset that Streeter is currently completing includes all publicly available information on police killings and any protests that happened in 2015-2016. For those two years, about a third of the police killings of African Americans led to some sort of protest, but when whites were killed by police, protests occurred only five percent of the time. “I argue that it’s the biggest racial gap related to policing,” Streeter says. “There are a lot of reasons we could point to why African Americans would be protesting. But why wouldn’t whites also be protesting when their community members are killed?”
When conducting field research in several different cities in the United States, Streeter asked community organizers about protests for white victims of police violence. The organizers told her that they reach out to the families of white victims, but those families often do not want to be involved with protests. Instead, many white family members express understanding and forgiveness toward the police. Streeter makes sense of these reactions by tying them to the psychological concept of a belief in a just world. The idea is that people get what they deserve and they deserve what they get. Streeter observes that even when people who hold this belief lose a member of their own family, their trust in the police remains unchanged. “If you have these beliefs, it can be like a double loss,” Streeter notes, which may explain why there are fewer protests for white victims of police violence.
The role of mentorship
Mentorship has played a large role in Streeter’s academic career. Christian Davenport became a mentor to her when she was a senior at Notre Dame. At that time, Streeter was thinking about her career but hadn’t considered pursuing research. While working as a research assistant for Davenport, he encouraged her to pursue graduate work in political science. Streeter cites this support as a key reason she decided to come to the University of Michigan. She also gives credit to David Laitin and Jeremy Weinstein at Stanford, who pushed her to study the United States when she was training as a comparativist. “I had confusion about what my identity as a scholar would be if I changed paths, but they put my fears to rest, so I give them a lot of credit for helping me pursue this research path,” Streeter says.
In addition to her ongoing research on police violence, Streeter is turning her attention to the ways interpersonal violence affects the way that people think and act politically. She sees connections between different types of violence, including mass shootings, domestic violence, and suicide. “We don’t often see these as political violence, but they affect how people operate in the world,” Streeter says. She’s especially interested in the ways violence affects people differently based on gender. Streeter’s work is innovative and varied, but united by a common theme, which she sums up as “How does violence affect our world, and what are the aggregate consequences of that? That’s the big picture.”