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.
Partisanship is sticky. People tend to vote like their parents and to maintain their partisan leanings over time. But to understand partisanship, we need a model that can explain why people change party loyalties when they do. This is what Ken Kollman and John E. Jackson of the University of Michigan Center for Political Studies (CPS) provide in Dynamic Partisanship: How and Why Voter Loyalties Change. The following summarizes their overarching argument.
What is partisanship?
Partisanship is a group-based, shared identity. A classic work from 1960, The American Voter, also out of ISR, describes partisan identity as a long-term, affective, psychological attachment to a political party. According to this famous “Michigan model,” the socially-informed attitudes and values we form early in life durably influence the way we identify with political parties and how we vote.
Kollman and Jackson argue that partisanship has similarities to brand loyalty. It’s relatively stable and habitual, but it’s also evaluative and cognitive. Parties compete for votes and, importantly, for voter loyalty among “consumers” who are considering and comparing candidates and party ideas. Voters “experience” parties in office and in campaigns, and evaluate parties like consumers with products. Yet voting over time for the same party can also become habitual until voters become dissatisfied with what they chose.
What drives partisanship change?
Ronald Reagan often said that he didn’t leave the Democratic party, but the Democratic party left him. The quip encapsulates what Kollman and Jackson find to be the primary answer to the question of what moves partisanship. Two other processes do influence partisan dynamics– changes in people’s political attitudes and their evaluations of the performance of politicians in office – but it’s the behaviors of parties that they find are the greatest contributors to changing partisanship.
At the micro-level, partisanship is driven by evaluations of parties and politicians who are themselves changing for strategic reasons to try to win office.
At the macro-level, party polarization is a consequence of elite-level competition for voters, mostly at a national scale– for example, in response to national policies and movements.
In the broader debates about polarization, the stake they claim is that polarization is driven by elite-level competition for power, and not by ordinary people changing their minds about their ideologies or issue positions. It’s top-down, driven by what politicians and their parties do.
How parties compete
A canonical model of party competition came out of the mid-century work of Anthony Downs, who developed a theory of party competition in ideological space. This theory drew a picture of the Democratic and Republican parties converging on the “median voter” the way that ice cream trucks would converge at the middle of a beach to attract the most customers. More complex models admit that political ideology and conflict takes place in multiple dimensions; on the ground, for example, a candidate or party that is moving right on social issues could be moving left on economic policy, perhaps testing out impacts on voters.
A case in point: the language of industrial protectionism (saving factories) was an economically leftward move of the Trump-guided GOP that effectively turned Ohio from purple to red by attracting whites in Northeastern Ohio to the Republicans. Dynamic Partisanship tracks such patterns across the US, the UK, Canada and Australia over more than a half-century, but the overarching trend is that parties are the moving gear in dynamic partisanship. Voters don’t need to be moved, but partisanship can change because voters are reacting to parties that move– and that’s the underlying dynamic.
Partisan trends in the US
This figure, from Dynamic Partisanship, plots partisanship among three groups of the U.S. electorate– northern whites, southern whites, and African Americans– from 1956 to 2016, with Democratic partisanship increasing on the y axis. There are three distinct patterns:
Northern white partisanship is the most stable, coming closest to the traditional view of party identification as an unchanging personal attribute;
The 1964 election, on the heels of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, is a critical turning point in African American partisanship, making a full-point leap and remaining consistently high on the Democratic scale from that time;
Southern white partisanship shows a strong, gradual trend shifting from moderately Democratic to weakly Republican over 61 years.
The twin phenomena of southern Black voters becoming more Democratic since the 1960s and southern whites becoming slowly more Republican over time represent two of the major tectonic shifts in American society and politics that have occurred in the last half century.
The innovation is that the model used in Dynamic Partisanship can accommodate these divergent patterns– relative stasis, abrupt changes, and gradual changes. For the details and the myriad examples, check out the book.
Citizens in a democracy must have access to reliable information about what is happening in government policy in order to form meaningful preferences and hold politicians accountable. But do media consumers get the information they need to have informed policy preferences?
Past research suggests that public opinion on policy issues is thermostatic; that is, the public adjust their preferences for policy spending downward when spending increases and upward when spending decreases. In their new book, Information and Democracy: Public Policy in the News, Stuart Soroka and Christopher Wlezien argue that the public respond in this way because they are getting information about policy spending from the news.
For anyone paying attention to academic or public debates about news quality, it may not seem like this could be the case. Consider that the news media are regularly accused of having a partisan bias, failing to cover important issues, or relying on sensationalism to draw in viewers. Moreover, researchers and other observers also have concerns about the ability of the public to process the information they do receive; many people are not interested in following the news, and those that do may interpret information through a lens of pre-existing beliefs.
Nevertheless, the public does seem to be picking up on cues about policy. Soroka and Wlezien set out to measure the accuracy of media coverage of policy and identify the domains where the media tend to provide more or less faithful coverage of policy. In the book, they investigate the frequency and reliability of media coverage in five spending domains: defense, welfare, health, education, and the environment. Examining decades of government spending, media coverage, and public opinion in the US, Information and Democracy assesses the accuracy of media coverage, and assesses its direct impact on citizens’ preferences for policy.
To measure media accuracy, the authors use a two-step process. First, they create a “media policy signal” which is based on using a dictionary to code sentences about spending in each of the five policy domains across different news outlets. The dictionary codes each sentence as positive/upward changes in spending, negative/downward changes in spending, or no change in spending, scored +1, -1, or 0, respectively. The “media policy signal” is a sum of these codes by year, so that years where there are more upward changes in spending, the signal is positive, and years in which there are more downward changes, the signal is negative. The second step involves modeling the “media policy signal” against actual changes in the budget for these policy domains over time. Actual changes in the budget are drawn from the Historical Tables released by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
A website based on the book is available at http://mediaaccuracy.net, where users can examine both the volume and accuracy of media coverage of policy by news outlet across the five topic domains. These volume and accuracy measures are based on the method described above and cover the computer-automated content analyses of millions of newspaper articles and television transcripts. Data displayed on the website compare the “signal” in media coverage to actual budgetary policy change. When media coverage matches policy change, media accuracy is high. When media coverage does not match policy change, media accuracy is low. Through a series of infographics, readers can examine the accuracy of 17 major US newspapers and 6 television networks over the past 20-30 years.
The results show a more nuanced picture of the relationship between media coverage and actual spending on policy than critics might expect. In some domains, news coverage indeed does not reflect changes in spending especially well. However, there are other domains, such as defense, welfare, and health where the relationship between news coverage and actual spending is strong. http://mediaaccuracy.net shows how this extends to individual news outlets. These results suggest that, while not always accurate, the media can convey accurate and useful information about government spending, and can play a role in the political accountability necessary in a modern democracy. The degree to which this is true does vary across outlets, however, sometimes in substantial ways.
Newspaper coverage of welfare
The chart above shows volume and accuracy scores for newspaper coverage of welfare, with media outlets in alphabetical order.
The theme of the roundtable presented on April 8, 2021, was “Can Democracy Survive?” Ken Kollman introduced the event, noting that the survival of democracy was a question that Miller and Converse worried about. Their ambition was to study survey respondents and political parties and candidates much like other scientists studied cells and atoms and planets, but they cared about the fate of democracy. Their legacy of scientific inquiry into politics and society continues at ISR and CPS. A recording of the event is available below.
Ken Kollman: Moderation and Extremism in American Political Parties
Political parties are changing and adopting new issue positions, says Kollman, and the mass public pays attention to these movements. Both partisanship and voting decisions respond to the people’s evaluations of these partisan positions relative to their own interests.
Kollman makes the case that both major parties in the United States are perceived to have moved away from the center since 2008. These patterns include a continuation of the shift of the working class towards the right and the Republicans the shift of more educated voters to the left and the Democrats. These shifts have consequences for politics and for the survival of democratic processes.
Most people in the US hold their partisanship for life, but notable portions of the electorate change over the course of their lifetime. The most common reason they change is that they perceive the major parties as moving away from them or toward them on issues of fundamental importance, including economics and racial liberalism. They change much less often because of the performance of a party in office or because they change their ideology or issue preferences.
In The American Voter, Miller and Converse wrote about partisanship as a result of socialization; they argued that partisanship shapes the perceptions of events, of candidates, and the vote. Kollman and Jackson don’t necessarily argue with this. The American Voter portrayal of partisanship remains robust and is good at predicting the vote. In contrast, Kollman and Jackson focus on the dynamics of partisanship and how partisanship changes. Group memberships based on interests and elements of socialization determines partisanship. It’s malleable and they model it as a form of what’s called Bayesian updating, a method of modeling how people incorporate new information in their decisions.
Kollman and Jackson are continuing to analyze the patterns from the past to predict what’s going to happen in the future if the two parties take different positions. The chart below shows how different groups of voters would respond if the Democratic Party moved to the left. What they find, first, is that partisanship becomes more Democratic for every group as the Republicans become more extreme. African Americans are complex in that they prefer the state of the Democratic Party in 2016, but their partisanship actually drops away if the Democratic Party moves to the left or moves to the right. Among white voters, the Democratic Party would lose partisans (and votes) if it moved to the left.
The trends of both parties away from the political center are worrisome for many people. Extreme party positions, including the pursuit of extralegal strategies to either pass policies or hold and maintain power, could become more likely as parties become more extreme.
Rob Franzese: What Causes People to Become Political Extremists?
What explains the rise of far-right nationalist-xenophobic and rightwing populism in the United States and other developed demoocracies? Robert Franzese presented research to address this question.
Scholars have noted that the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-globalization, anti-elite, anti-government sentiments correspond to a sea-shift of white working class voters to the right. One explanation for this shift is the notion that people have been left behind socioeconomically, and experience angst as a result. While support for parties farther to the right increased everywhere, it is especially notable in regions experiencing economic hard times, demonstrating support for these economic explanations of voting behavior.
Surveys have examined whether the shift to the right was attributable to socioeconomic malaise and decline, or whether it was due to cultural status threat. The data from these surveys seem to suggest that the political shift resulted from preceved xenophobic threats and it doesn’t have anything to do with the economic conditions.
However, Franzese contends that this conclusion is both wrong and wrong-headed. Instead of either/or explanations for political shifts, he suggests that we think in terms of both/and. Both neighborhood socioeconomic malaise and xenophobic anxiety associated with cultural change are both part of a broader sense of socioeconomic and cultural threat, as described in the graphic below. Franzese emphasized the importance of heterogeneity of perceptions. Some people are more susceptible to demagogic railing against the elite, the media, and foreigners. Other people will be immune, and may even become more repulsed by populist appeals.
This approach shows that the socioeconomic conditions the individual experiences are partly contributing to social-cultural threat perceptions that produce support for extremism. It’s not just economic hardship that creates the response, but economic hardship contributes to the sense in some respondents that their group is being left behind.
Extremism, especially far-right extremism, is a rising threat to democratic society. Therefore, understanding better the provenance of this rising far-right extremism and concomitant rise in rightwing populism is urgently essential. Casting the possible causal processes as some xenophobic or socioeconomic threat perception is unhelpful. These processes are better understood as complementary.
Pauline Jones: Democratic Survival, Using Lessons from the Muslim World
Pauline Jones notes that many people think that democracy is either unlikely or impossible and due to familiar tropes that Islam and democracy are somehow incompatible.However she contends that democracy and Islam are not incompatible at all. Muslim democracies exist all around the world. Several Muslim-majority countries have transitioned to democracy in the latter half of the 20th cenury, and there are Muslim-majority democracies in multiple diverse regions across the world.
Survey research shows popular support for democracy among Muslims, and that Muslims are mostly supportive of democracy as a form of government, and they do not view democracy as incompatible with their religious principles or institutions. Furthermore, democracy itself is in a constant state of struggle to survive. Jones describes democracy not as an outcome, but a process toward resilience. Democracies are constantly undergoing a test of vitality.
There are two key dimensions to typologizing varieties of democratic vitality. The first is duration: the length of time that a country maintains a certain level of democracy since its initial transition to democracy. Both geographically and temporarily, it’s important to consider the context of that particular democratic state. The second dimension is trajectory: the overall trend in a country level of democracy since its initial transition to democracy. Trajectory measures how consistently a country has improved or maintained the level of democracy over time, since its transition.
To measure the level of democracy, Jones uses the Varieties of Democracy Electoral Democracy Index (DDI). This score focuses on the role of elections as the core feature of democracy, and includes aspects of the political system that increase the likelihood that elections will result in democratic outcomes. She then created a typology based on the dimensions of duration and trajectory, which describes four modes of democratic survival, depicted in the graphic below. Democracies are grouped into categories including striving, thriving, waning, and backsliding.
Striving democracies have short duration, but an upward trajectory. The thriving category is the best case scenario: long duration and upward trajectory. In the waning category there is neither duration, nor trajectory. Democracy is just not taking hold, and this is where you might see the transition away from democracy. Democracies in the backsliding category have long duration, but have a downward trajectory.
Jones investigated eight Muslim majority countries and fit them to these modes: Albania, Malaysia, Mali, Tunisia, Indonesia, Senegal, Kyrgystan, and Turkey. She found, surprisingly, that for that most of the Muslim-majority countries in the sample were striving are thriving.
The key takeaway from this research is that democracy is an ongoing struggle to survive. Jones challenged the audience not to think about democracy as meeting some threshold, but rather as a sort of ongoing struggle, and to think about it as varying degrees of vitality, as opposed to focusing on the mortality of democracy. This, she concludes, allows us to have some degree of cautious optimism. Democracy faces constant challenges; survival is just a matter of the degree of the threat and the strength of the institutions meeting that threat.
Vincent Hutchings delivered the inaugural lecture of the Hanes Walton Jr. Collegiate Professorship in Political Science and Afroamerican and African Studies on March 31, 2021.
Vincent Hutchings and Anne Curzan at the inaugural lecture on March 31, 2021.
Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, the author of the landmark study An American Dilemma, believed that education was the key to racial progress. Myrdal wrote “There is no doubt, in the writer’s opinion, that a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.”
Vincent Hutchings began his inaugural lecture of the Hanes Walton Jr. Collegiate Professorship in Political Science and Afroamerican and African Studies by citing this quote, and immediately calling it into question. Is it true that policies aimed at alleviating the racial wealth disparities would gain more support if only whites knew the true extent of the gap?
A noteworthy aspect of the recent protests against police brutality and racial inequality has been the extent to which white Americans were participants in greater numbers than in the past. Even before the events of 2020, numerous surveys show whites becoming more racially progressive and acknowledging the reality of racial bias against Blacks. But does that mean that whites will support policies to reduce racial disparities? Professor Hutchings suggests that this is an example of a principle-policy gap; whites are prepared to acknowledge that injustice exists in principle, but they may not be willing to support redistributive policies.
The research team posited that the way the information was framed would be important. Past studies and media headlines about wealth disparities tend to frame the issue in terms of Black disadvantage. It’s less common to see a focus on the ways whites are advantaged.
A first study, conducted in June 2020, surveyed 2,024 online respondents. Respondents were randomly assigned either to a control group, where they were merely provided a definition of the racial wealth gap, or to one of two treatment conditions that provided a definition of the racial wealth gap, as well as textual and visual information on the current size of the Black/white racial wealth gap based on information from the 2017 Survey of Consumer Finances. The first treatment group received information framed in terms of Black disadvantage; the second treatment group received information with a white advantage frame.
The experiment was informative, but not persuasive. White participants in the treatment groups that received more information about the size of the racial wealth gap subsequently showed a better understanding of the issue. Black participants in the treatment groups also showed a fairly accurate assessment of the wealth gap, with less difference between the control and treatment groups. Neither whites nor Blacks in the treatment groups adopted different positions on racial policy. The one policy area where the study found some change was reparations; white respondents who received more information about the wealth gap were slightly more supportive of reparations.
If the study participants were informed about the wealth gap, but did not change their support for policies to address it, perhaps the treatments were not strong enough? In open-ended questions in the first study, some participants responded that they believed the wealth gap existed because whites worked harder than Blacks. To address these issues, the research team launched a second study in March 2021, building on the first study and specifically highlighting the limited impact of education on reducing the racial wealth gap.
The second study included four treatment groups and a control group.
Treatment group 1 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of Black disadvantage.
Treatment group 2 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of white advantage.
Treatment group 3 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of Black disadvantage, as well as information that Black household heads with a college degree have the same wealth as white household heads without a high school diploma.
Treatment group 4 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of white advantage, as well as information that white household heads without a high school diploma have the same wealth as Black household heads with a college degree.
Whites across the ideological spectrum are informed by the treatments in the second study. Surprisingly, the additional information about education was less effective than the general population frames.
Again, the results showed that a better understanding of the racial wealth gap does not make participants more progressive on racial policies. However, those in the first treatment group (receiving information framed in terms of Black disadvantage) showed mild increase in support for reparations.
Surprisingly, white liberals in the fourth treatment group (receiving information about the wealth gap and education, with a frame of white advantage) had a threat response to the treatment. When responding to questions about competition for jobs and political influence, white liberals in the fourth treatment group perceived more competition between racial groups. They responded to questions about racism, such as whether whites have greater wealth because they are naturally superior and whether the use of racial epithets by whites was acceptable, in less progressive ways.
These studies show the limits of providing information about racial disparities. People are not necessarily persuaded to close the gaps when they know more about them. When asked if he was discouraged by the outcome of the studies, Professor Hutchings said that as an educator, he is an optimist. He said that he is motivated by his students to keep asking questions about political opinions and behavior. Hutchings and his students will field new surveys to further examine these questions in the fall of 2021.
In every U.S. presidential election since 1948, the American National Election Studies (ANES) has conducted pre- and post-election surveys of a large representative sample of American voters. ANES participant interviews looked different in 2020 than they did in the past; the COVID19 pandemic made traditional face-to-face interviews impractical and risky. The study team began planning for the extraordinary circumstances in March, without any idea what the conditions would be when interviews began in August. The team pivoted nimbly to redesign the study even as the onset of data collection approached.
The majority of interviews in 2020 were completed as web surveys, some following an online format similar to one used in 2016, and others using an innovative mixed-mode design. Respondents to the mixed-mode surveys were randomly assigned either to complete the questionnaire by themselves online, or to take the survey with a live interviewer via a Zoom video link. Few surveys conduct live video interviews, but the ANES study team felt that it was critical to explore the use of this technology as a potential means of balancing issues of cost, continuity, and data quality.
To answer online surveys, respondents must have reliable access to the Internet and comfort using computers. Under normal circumstances, people without access to computers or the Internet in their homes can gain access in public settings like libraries or at their workplace. With many of these places closed due to the pandemic, online access became a bigger challenge. In mixed-mode cases where it was difficult to complete a web or video interview, interviewers contacted the respondents to secure a phone interview. Providing phone interviews helped the team strengthen sample quality by reaching respondents without access to the Internet as well as those who are less comfortable using computers.
Data collection for the 2020 surveys, out of necessity, departed significantly from the practices of the past 70 years of the ANES. The study team will continue to monitor and address the implications of these changes. In the end, the team was pleased to field a very high quality survey with relatively high response rates, thoroughly vetted questions, and the largest sample in the history of ANES.
Pre-election interviews began in August 2020. The pre-election questionnaire is available on the ANES website. The questionnaire includes time series questions dating back to the earliest days of the ANES survey, as well as new questions that reflect more recent developments in the study of American politics. The ANES team must always be prepared to add a few questions late in the design process to capture substantial developments in the presidential campaign or American society. In 2020 the survey added questions about election integrity, urban unrest, and COVID-19, among other topics.
The investigators, ANES staff, and their survey operations partners at Westat monitored the data collection closely, in case further adjustments in procedures or sample were required. The final pre-election sample consists of over 8,200 complete or sufficient-partial interviews. This includes a reinterview panel with the respondents from the ANES 2016 Time Series. Over 2,800 respondents from the 2016 study were reinterviewed, more than three quarters of the original group.
Post-election interviews began on November 8, 2020, and will be completed on January 4, 2021. This post-election effort includes additional respondents who took part in the 2000 study of the General Social Survey (GSS). Due to the pandemic-altered timing of the GSS data collection, it was not possible to interview these individuals prior to the election. However, these respondents completed nearly all of the ANES post-election interview, plus almost ten minutes of critical questions that appeared on the ANES pre-election interview, and several additional questions suggested by the GSS team.
ANES staff will continue to review and clean the data into the new year, including checks of respondent eligibility that may alter the final sample in modest ways. Pending this review, the team expects response rates to come in slightly below the 2016 web response rates.
Overall, despite the challenges of this past year, the ANES study team was able to gather robust data from a large probability sample of Americans, extending the longest-running, most in-depth, and highest quality survey of US public opinion and voting behavior, at a critical juncture for American society and democracy. The team will continue to share updates, here and on the ANES website, as data from this survey become available.