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  • When Public Opinions Collide, by Andrew Levinson
    Print Icon Posted On: Jan 24, 2014

    When Public Opinions Collide
    Andrew Levinson
    Jan 22, 2014

    The progressive challenge of adjusting to a new climate of public opinion on deficits, entitlements, and jobs.

    A major problem that confronts progressives and Democrats in dealing with deficits, entitlements and jobs is the extraordinary degree to which American public attitudes seem almost systematically incoherent. This marks a profound change from public attitudes during the early post-World War II era when there was a wide consensus on two major pillars of the New Deal:

    First, at that time there was wide popular support for active government intervention in the economy to prevent mass unemployment. On a “common sense” level this was expressed in the idea that government had a fundamental responsibility to prevent mass unemployment, a responsibility codified in the 1946 Employment Act, and whose implementation was often visualized in somewhat romanticized images of depression-era programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the WPA and other direct job creation programs. On a more sophisticated level the support for active government intervention was reflected in the general intellectual embrace of the version of Keynesian economics presented in Paul Samuelson’s textbook. In this policy paradigm budget deficits and government spending were viewed as part of “managing aggregate demand” and “using budget deficits as tools of economic policy.” In the public writings of Samuelson and other MIT Keynesians, a commitment to balanced budgets was derided as little more than a relic of a bygone era.

    Second, there was widespread support for a government sponsored social safety net to provide a basic level of economic security. In the popular discussion this safety net included not only Social Security and unemployment insurance but also government support for advanced education through programs like the GI Bill and the right to form trade unions which provided many blue-collar workers with job security and significant health and retirement benefits. In popular speech this new level of economic security was described as “the American Dream”; in more elite discourse, it was termed the “modern mixed economy” or the “Affluent Society.”

    Today, in striking contrast, neither of these core elements of the post-war New Deal receives clear majority support. Instead, across a wide range of topics and issues, public attitudes seem almost willfully perverse, with opinion polls showing simultaneous support for ideas and policies that are often logically incompatible.

    Consider the following:

    When choosing between supporting Social Security and Medicare vs. reducing the deficit, most Americans say “both.”

    80 percent of the public, for example, agrees that it should be the government’s responsibility to “provide a decent standard of living for the elderly”. Yet at the same time, 85 percent of Americans think “reducing the federal budget deficit is a worthy goal in and of itself,” 77 percent think the cost of Social Security and Medicare will “create major economic problems in the next 25 years” and a majority believe that a “major overhaul of social security is necessary to substantially reduce the deficit.”

    When opinion poll questions are more precisely formulated to require a direct choice between maintaining Social Security and Medicare benefits on the one hand and reducing the deficit on the other, however, the vast majority of polls do indeed show solid support for these two specific entitlement programs. On one recent poll, for example, 57 percent of Americans favored maintaining benefits for the two programs in contrast to only 32 percent who favored deficit reduction. Most polls find similar results.

    But when the choice is made slightly more abstract and presented as one between reducing “government spending” in general versus deficit reduction, the results become a great deal more ambiguous. Asked if the government should increase taxes or reduce services to lower the deficit, in one poll 49 percent favored a conservative approach of reducing services while only 30 percent favored increasing taxes. Another poll found a refusal to choose: given a more specific choice between “cutting spending on entitlement programs like Medicare” or ”increasing upper income taxes” only 18 percent endorsed cutting spending while 34 percent favored increasing revenues. The largest single group of the respondents, however, favored doing both at the same time.

    In fact, the most common response to questions of this kind is for Americans to firmly refuse to make any hard or serious choices about how to reduce the deficit. On one recent survey, for example, 56 percent of Americans rejected raising taxes as a way to reduce the deficit but then an even larger 66 percent of the same sample also rejected cutting benefits. This same pattern of refusing to make clear choices is quite dramatically illustrated in the large number of polls in which people first emphatically claim that they want “a smaller government that does less” but then proceed to systematically reject cuts in virtually every major categories of government expenditure (except a few small and symbolic areas like foreign aid). A majority engage in what can only be called “magical thinking.” On one recent survey, 69 percent of Americans said that cutting “waste and fraud” would provide a full solution to the budget deficit while only 22 percent agreed that “painful choices need to be made.”

    The same pattern is evident with choices between creating jobs and deficit reduction

    When the question switches from a choice between reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits or spending in general on the one hand and reducing the deficit on the other to the parallel and closely related economic choice between creating jobs through government spending versus reducing the deficit, polls again provide support for both conservative and progressive views. In one poll, for example, only 38 percent of Americans supported increasing spending to create jobs while 54 percent preferred cutting spending and in another, 49 percent preferred to “cut government spending to match revenues”  in contrast to only  36 percent who favored the alternative of “growing the economy to raise revenue.”  Other polls, however, show opposite results. One survey, for example, found that 62 percent favored creating Jobs in contrast to only 35 percent who favored reducing the deficit. And in “easier” questions that only ask about support for desirable goals, 72 percent support “federal laws that would spend government money for programs to create a million jobs” or “put people to work on urgent infrastructure repairs.”

    But as with the choice between preserving major entitlement benefits and deficit reduction, the most common public reaction to questions posing a direct trade-off between job creation and deficit reduction is a firm refusal to choose between these two objectives and a contrary insistence that both must be sought and achieved at the same time. When given the ability to choose between “job creation” and “deficit reduction” on lists of the “most important” issues or when indicating if their attitudes are basically favorable or unfavorable to these objectives on “issue thermometer” style polling questions, most Americans do not firmly support one goal and assign a low priority to the other but rather indicate that they very strongly insist on achieving both objectives simultaneously.

    It is, of course, obvious that differences in question wording necessarily play a profoundly important role in producing this wide range of responses, but that alone does not provide a sufficient explanation. It is, in fact, impossible to examine the entire range of question wordings and still detect any genuinely coherent progressive or conservative viewpoint that unites all of them. The full range of data suggests that public attitudes are indeed deeply confused and incoherent.

    There is, however, one key pattern in the data that helps to explain the apparent incoherence of the results: a very substantial sector of the American public does not understand or accept the basic Keynesian vision of how an economy operates.

    The Inconvenient Truth: Americans don’t believe the traditional textbook perspective of Econ 101

    When Americans are asked questions that test public understanding of basic Keynesian concepts such as “Do you think that cutting federal spending would create jobs or eliminate jobs”, opinions often split nearly evenly (in one survey by 41 vs. 45 percent) between the two choices. Moreover, when a third choice is added that cutting spending “will not have much effect either way,” a strong plurality of 41 percent chooses that option while another 18 percent think cuts will actually increase job creation. In this survey, only 34 percent agreed with the basic Keynesian notion that spending cuts will indeed reduce job creation.

    This conclusion is reinforced by another recent poll which showed just how pervasive this lack of understanding really is. In answer to a question that asked a nearly perfect Econ 101 final exam query: “To help the economy recover from a recession, should the federal government usually increase spending, decrease spending or keep it about the same” a remarkable 55 percent of the respondents said government should actually decrease spending to help the economy recover from a recession while only 18 percent advocated an increase. When asked what would seem a remarkably leading question: if the federal government increased spending on infrastructure projects, would it result in more or fewer jobs, the respondents astonishingly split 49-51.

    In short, a very substantial proportion of Americans simply do not see the economy in the Keynesian way that progressives quite naturally and reasonably assume that they do. Many of the basic economic relationships and processes that progressives take for granted in their thinking are simply not shared by many ordinary Americans. 

    This is profoundly troubling because any politically effective argument against the conservative advocacy of balanced budgets and minimal government would logically seem to require that on at least some very basic and rudimentary level the public has to understand the basic Keynesian picture of how government spending can “prime the pump” of economic activity and prevent depressions or how the flow of income to the beneficiaries of entitlement programs supports the demand for goods and services that underlies prosperity. Very few white working class voters in the 1950s would have been able to explain the ideas in a college economics textbook with any precision but the majority were still certainly able to firmly and consistently endorse the basic progressive and Democratic notion that the government had a fundamental obligation – and also the actual ability -- to provide reasonably full employment and a basic level of economic security.

    Neither “cherry-picking” the polls nor simply assuming widespread ignorance provides a solution

    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.

    How attitude clusters make sense of public opinion

    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.

    The implications for progressive strategy

    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.

    The progressive agenda does not have to depend on Americans understanding and accepting Keynes

    Of course this does not mean that progressives can or should give up the task of trying to convince Americans of the validity of a progressive, essentially Keynesian economic perspective. The conservative “witches brew” of Ludwig Von Mises’ Austrian economics and Ayn Rand’s Social Darwinist philosophy cannot and must not be allowed to go unchallenged. But, at the same time, to the extent that progressives can shift the national political debate onto the playing field described above and away from the conservative framing that highlights popular hostility to deficits and government in general, their prospects for success will be significantly improved.

    This approach also has one additional advantage: it is broadly compatible with the entire range of centrist and progressive views regarding the necessary scope and urgency of reforms in the New Deal entitlement programs. Although there are significant intra-Democratic differences about the urgency of particular fiscal reforms, there is indeed a basic agreement on the three progressive principles above. Although the present, quite unique forum has revealed that there is actually substantially more intra-progressive agreement about entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare than many of the more brief and spirited commentaries might lead one to expect, significant differences still certainly do exist.

    On the three goals or principles outlined above, in contrast, there is a broad, general consensus. This is a not inconsiderable advantage when it is considered that in coming years progressives and Democrats will repeatedly be confronted by a political opponent whose ability to maintain impressive message discipline during election years is one of its most powerful strategic advantages.


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