January 22, 2014


When Public Opinions Collide : The progressive challenge of adjusting to a new climate of public opinion on deficits, entitlements, and jobs. (Andrew Levison, 1/22/14, American Prospect)

Faced with the public's failure to view or understand issues from a consistently Keynesian framework, progressive political strategists and commentators have generally responded in one of two ways. One group simply "cherry-picks" the polling data to find a subset of results that support their perspective and justifies this selective approach by arguing that most people must "really" believe a progressive, basically Keynesian perspective and are merely reciting superficial conservative clichés when they reply in ways that seem to support the alternative view. A second group of commentators accepts the deeply contradictory range of opinion data and draws from it the conclusion that most Americans simply do not understand enough about economics to have any real, meaningful opinions. In their view, the views most Americans do express are, in effect, merely superficial "wish lists" of things that sound nice or are parroted versions of dimly grasped clichés that provide no guidance for what they actually will support or vote for on Election Day.

Neither of these responses is satisfactory.  There is, however, an alternative way of interpreting what the apparently contradictory opinion data indicates about the actual structure of public attitudes. In-depth polling and focus group research by Democracy Corps in its ongoing Economy Project has shown that for most ordinary Americans public attitudes are actually not cognitively organized into consistent progressive or conservative ideological frameworks but rather into what can be called sets of distinct "attitude clusters" or "attitude structures." These are robust "bundles" of attitudes about a particular topic.

The Democracy Corps research identified three major attitude clusters that are important for understanding the public's views on jobs, deficits and economic policy. They are (1) attitudes about government, (2) attitudes about debt and deficits and (3) attitudes about jobs, business and the economy.

The kinds of attitudes that Democracy Corps found within these attitude clusters commonly included the following:

Opinions about government:  Although people will grant that the government does indeed have a number of positive roles and functions, the most prevalent attitudes tend to be heavily negative. Government is perceived as inefficient and bureaucratic, as deeply corrupt and beholden to corporations and the wealthy and as committed to distributing money to undeserving people and imposing unpopular liberal ideas. 
Opinions about deficits and balanced budgets: Keynesian ideas are only rarely expressed. Far more frequent are expressions of deep disquiet based on analogies with the negative consequences of household debt and "going into hock." There are also frequent expressions of concern that a large national debt weakens America's position in the world, particularly in relation to potentially hostile nations like China.
Opinions about business, jobs and the economy: There are expressions of support for business, particularly small business, but in recent years the most common attitudes are deeply negative views that have to do with the profound change in the way business operates. Job security is seen as a thing of the past, wages are lower and less reliable, people are just barely "making due" and are observing the disappearance of the "middle class dream" while the business community and the wealthy seem indifferent and even contemptuous of their distress. In the rust belt areas of the country the decades long "export" of industrial jobs to other countries and the consequent collapse of the surrounding communities continues to be deeply resented.
What makes the opinions in these basic clusters unique and distinct from other kinds of personal opinions is that when focus group leaders ask participants their opinions about these topics they receive an extended, spontaneous and deeply heartfelt monologue rather than a brief, straightforward reply. People tend to have firm, thought-out views on these basic topics that they buttress with a range of anecdotes, narratives and personal experiences. People often express a deep emotional commitment to the views they articulate.

In contrast, if a pollster or focus group leader asks a question that assumes the respondents actually conceptualize issues in a Keynesian perspective (for example, if focus group participants are asked a question like "is it right for the government to increase the current budget deficit in order to finance necessary investments in research and infrastructure"?), the participants will not respond immediately and at length. On the contrary, they will pause to stop and think. They will consider the information contained in the question itself and then try to access and retrieve relevant information from various places in their memory in order to try to arrive at a conclusion. To an observer it is obvious that they do not have a fixed opinion on this question stored somewhere in memory; instead they are "deducing" or "computing" an opinion on the spot.

Although this description of the Democracy Corps research is very rudimentary, these two basic facts - (1) that people have a core of well thought out and firmly held ideas that are organized in clusters and (2) that the answers Americans give to questions that assume a Keynesian framework are very often actually computed on the spot by synthesizing a mixture of distinct positive and negative opinions they hold about government, deficits and the economy  - actually goes a long way to explain the apparently incoherent nature of the  poll results. 

This view has two very clear and important implications for progressive strategy.

First, significant elements of traditional progressive rhetoric no longer resonate with large sectors of the American public. Concepts like "the government should substantially increase spending in times of high unemployment in order to reduce joblessness" are not rejected only by doctrinaire conservatives. They are also rejected by many average citizens who simply do not grasp or accept the implicit economic model that is involved. Progressive solutions that are framed in traditional Keynesian terms like "stimulating the economy," or arguments that recite the classic Democratic union hall speech about "the government's responsibility to fight unemployment" or to "help the unfortunate" seem like distant echoes of past decades and not convincing responses to current problems.

Second, and perhaps more critical, the substantial degree of success the conservative economic narrative has enjoyed basically depends on invoking and then exploiting the widespread negative views about deficits and government in general in order to predispose people against both entitlement programs and job creation rather than directly debating about specific progressive proposals which are substantially more popular than their conservative counterparts. In particular, the conservative argument is based on appealing to a general prejudice that "deficits" and "government spending" are inherently bad things regardless of their purpose and also to the superficially plausible notion that job creation and the maintenance of a social safety net are in an absolutely rigid zero-sum relationship with deficit reduction. Because a substantial number of Americans accept these flawed premises, progressive solutions that are based on a Keynesian perspective have little chance of winning their support.

The alternative approach that is suggested by the Democracy Corps research is to recognize the conceptual centrality of the basic "attitude clusters" for many average Americans and to focus progressive messaging on directly comparing the specific progressive and conservative "solutions" to the current economic problems associated with them. For example:

Regarding Government: the long-range conservative goal is actually to privatize and dismantle the social safety net including Social Security and Medicare, the progressive goal is to maintain them for future generations.
Regarding Deficits: the conservative goal is to rely entirely on spending cuts to reduce deficits in order to insure permanently low or even nonexistent taxes on business and the wealthy; the progressive goal is to fund the necessary functions of government with a set of equitable, reasonably progressive taxes on all Americans and by closing special interest tax loopholes.
Regarding jobs and the economy: the conservative goal is to remove all possible taxes, regulations, barriers to the "export" of jobs, support systems like unemployment insurance and protection of US workers from unfair foreign competition in order to maximize profits and revenues; The progressive goal is to balance the need for economic growth with insuring a basic minimum level of economic security for American workers.
In effect, what this approach does is to define the basic progressive agenda as a direct response to the specific policy prescriptions endorsed by the conservative view and in this regard It is critically important to note one key fact: public opinion regarding this set of arguments does not exhibit the deep inconsistency and incoherence that plagues arguments that assume the public accepts a basically Keynesian view of the economy. 

The three progressive alternatives above - (1) to defend the social safety net (2) to fund government with fair, progressive taxes and (3) to moderate pro-corporate policies with support for working class needs -- receive consistently high support across the vast majority of opinion polls. In contrast, the corresponding conservative alternatives, (1) to dismantle the social safety net, (2) to reduce upper income taxes, and (3) to promote "trickle down" economic policies to create jobs, generally do not poll well at all.

...but the easiest is obviously to the first, where privatization is not only the best way to strengthen the social safety net but to make it more generous.

Posted by at January 22, 2014 6:19 PM

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