Friday, October 23, 2020

Isn't it pretty to think so?

 David Brooks says that Americans have moved to the left on issues involving the welfare state, and that it's not just a short-term reaction to Trump and the recession caused by the coronavirus.  He says "the 2020 shift to the left follows years of steady leftward drift."  The General Social survey has a number of relevant questions going back to the 1970s:

Placing yourself on a seven point scale from "the government in Washington ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor,perhaps by raising the taxes of wealthy families or by giving income assistance to the poor" to "the government should not concern itself with reducing this income difference between the rich and the poor."

and five point scales for " the government in Washington is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private busienss" to "the government should be doing even more to solve the country's problems", the government doing everything possible to improve the standard of living of poor Americans, the government helping people to pay for doctors and hospital bills, and the government doing everything possible to improve the living standards of blacks.  

The means for the questions (higher values mean more conservative):

It doesn't look like a trend on anything, although the movement on helping blacks from 2014-18 is striking.  If you regress them on party of the president and a time trend, the party effect is statistically significant for all (opinions are more conservative under a Democrat) and the time trend isn't statistically significant for any.  So basically, they've been stable, although opinions about aid to blacks may be starting to change.  

You could argue that the actual role of the government has increased (which it generally has, if you just go by dollars spent), so if you interpret the questions as relative to how things are, then opinion has moved to the left.  That is, people's view of the status quo is stable, but the status quo has moved left.  But Brooks seems to be saying something stronger--that there's increasing public pressure to move farther and faster to the left.

Oddly, I agree with Brooks's concluding remarks:  "It was a vigorous debate that lasted many decades, but the liberal welfare state won — a robust capitalist economy combined with generous social support."  But that victory happened a long time ago--the 1950s or 1960s.  Since then, there hasn't been much change in popular views of the welfare state and redistribution.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The story of the decade, part 4a

 In writing my last post, I recalled a couple of posts I wrote about the question "In America, each generation has tried to have a better life than their parents, with a better living standard, better homes, a better education, etc. How likely do you think it is that today's youth will have a better life than their parents--very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or very unlikely?"  If you count "very likely" as +2, "somewhat likely" as +1, "somewhat unlikely" as -1, and "somewhat unlikely" as -2, you can compute the mean score for Democrats and Republicans, and take the difference between them.  The mean for the thirteen surveys for which I have data is about +20--Democrats tend to be more optimistic.  The gap differs depending on the party of the president--it's +42 with Democratic presidents and -28 with Republicans.  This difference isn't surprising--people generally have more favorable assessments of conditions when their party is in power.  But an interesting pattern emerges when you plot differences over time:

The gap is essentially the same on the four occasions when a Republican was president (Reagan, GW Bush twice, and Trump), but it varies a lot when a Democrat is president.  In particular, it was a lot bigger on the last two times--April 2011 and December 2012.  This change was mostly driven by variation in Republican views, which became substantially more pessimistic while Obama was president. 

I think this reflects the process I talked about last time, in which Republican elites persuaded their base that they were facing an epochal threat. A possibly encouraging thing is the Republican views became considerably more optimistic during the 1990s--maybe cheerfulness keeps breaking in, despite the efforts of party leaders.   

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The story of the decade, part 4

 I'm returning to the question I started on last month--why has there been a growth of polarization in the United States in recent years?  I have criticized the leading hypotheses, and now it's time to offer something in their place.

    Traditionally, there was a rough balance between left and right.  On the one hand, the general current of history seemed to be going to the left:  proposals that started on the radical fringe would eventually be implemented over conservative opposition, and after a while would come to be almost universally accepted.  So conservatives could feel like they were, in the famous words of William F. Buckley, "stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop!."  On the other hand, conservatives controlled most of the leading institutions of society--maybe some people  at the lower ranks were liberal or even radical, but the people who had the power to make decisions were mostly conservative.  As a result, conservatives with more sanguine temperaments could feel pretty good, figuring that they could block the worst ideas from the left and delay or modify the others so that they didn't do much harm, and maybe even did some good.   

    In recent decades, the current has still been running to the left, but conservatives have lost their advantage in the institutions--some, like education and the media, are dominated by liberals, while in others conservative dominance is weakening.  This situation creates a sense of desperation among conservatives.  As Tim Alberta says, "If there is one principle driving Republican politicians today, it is that traditional American values—faith, patriotism, modesty, the nuclear family—are under siege. . . .  what’s fascinating to observe is the shift in priorities and proportionality. What was once a source of annoyance and frustration for one sect of the party, social conservatives, has turned into the dominant life force for the GOP."  Traditionally, conservatives were willing to retreat, but now they have a sense that any compromise will send us over the edge.  This explains why Republican elites continue to denounce the Affordable Care Act and try to overturn it in the courts, even though their position has become unpopular and they have no alternative to offer.  It also explains why they've stuck with Donald Trump:  he's opposed to the left, and in comparison to earlier Republican leaders has shown less restraint in denouncing it.

The decline of conservative power has been gradual, and the sense of being embattled has been growing for decades, but the Obama administration accelerated it.  Obama was started with a high level of popularity, at a level that no new president had reached in many years, and it seemed that he might be able to lead a realignment which would leave conservatives almost powerless.  This gave conservatives new energy, but it mostly involved opposition to the left, rather than support for any particular goal.  So when Republican voters had a choice, they went for the "fighter" rather than for any of the more conventional conservatives.  And after a while, conventional conservatives realized that they didn't have any principles that outweighed opposition to the left, so they reconciled with Trump.


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Infected by reality

 In July, a researcher at the Brookings institution reported that plans for remote vs. in-person school reopening were unrelated to the Covid case rate in the district, but were related to vote in the 2016 election--the higher the support for Trump, the more likely in-person reopening.  Later I found a survey from about the same time (July 16-20) which asked people "When the school year begins where you live, do you think each of the following types of schools should open for in-person instruction as usual, open with minor adjustments, open with major adjustments, or not open at all for in-person instruction."  Opinions about the K-12 schools by party identification:

                               Usual or minor adjustment             No in-person

Democrat                       6%                                              44%

Republican                   43%                                             12%

Independent                  26%                                             23%

Other/None                  27%                                             29%

(I omit the "major adjustments," which was 45-50% in all groups).    

So partisanship apparently had a strong effect on views.  The natural follow-up question is how much effect local conditions had.  I got weekly death rates by state as reported by the CDC.  It seemed that death rates in the two weeks before the survey were related to opinions, but previous death rates were not (I used the square root of death rates because it produced a slightly better fit).  In states with higher recent Covid death rates, people were less inclined to support opening as usual.  Did the effect of local conditions differ by party?  People sometimes talk about Republicans inhabiting a "bubble" through which information doesn't penetrate, but the point estimate for the effect of state death rates is about twice as large among Republicans as among Democrats and independents, although the difference is not statistically significant (t-ratio of about 1.5).  Estimated opinions by party and state death rates (higher values mean more support for online-only):

The more important point is that the difference in opinions between the states with the lowest and highest death rates is only about half as large as the difference between Republicans and Democrats.  The data are at the state level, and in some states the prevalence of Covid may differ widely within the state, so the estimated effect of local conditions may be attenuated by measurement error.  Still, it seems that party matters more than reality.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Monday, October 5, 2020

Pushin' too hard

 In 1962, the Gallup Poll asked "Do you think the Kennedy administration is pushing racial integration too fast, or not fast enough?"  They repeated it (with change to "Johnson administration" or sometimes just "administration" pretty frequently until 1968.  Here is a summary measure, percent "too fast" minus percent "not fast enough."

The numbers are always positive--that is, more people said "too fast."    The smallest values were around the time of Johnson's inauguration and just after the assassination of Martin Luther King.  The highest were in August 1963, just before the March on Washington, and the second half of 1966.  

The percentages for the individual categories ("don't knows" are omitted--they didn't show any pattern):  

"Too fast" and "not fast enough" both tended to increase over time, and "about right" declined.  The increase in "not fast enough" was mostly during the "long hot summer" of 1967, while the increase in "too fast" was more steady.   The ups and downs are intriguing, but I don't know enough detail about the history of the 1960s to offer a hypothesis. 


[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Sunday, September 27, 2020

There you go again

 Journalists love to identify turning points--the gaffe that sank a campaign, or the snappy comeback that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.  Academic studies regularly find no evidence that individual events make much difference, but the pundits are undeterred.  In today's NY Times Book Review (it came out last month online),  a review of Rick Perlstein's Reaganland by Evan Thomas talked about the 1980 election:  

 "At their final debate in late October, virtually tied in the polls, Carter started in on Reagan for having advocated, 'on four different occasions, for 'making Social Security a voluntary system, which would, in effect, very quickly bankrupt it.'   ..... Now, Carter warned, Reagan was trying to block national health insurance."

"As Perlstein tells it, Reagan looked at Carter smilingly, his face betraying 'a hint of pity.'  Then the old cowboy rocked back, and with an easy, genial chuckle, delivered the knockout blow. 'here you go again!' he said, beaming. The audience gave a 'burst of delighted laughter. … Jimmy Carter was being mean again.'

 "With one deft jab, Reagan had finished off his opponent. A few days later, the Republican candidate won in an electoral vote landslide."

What's wrong with this story?

First, although 1980 was an "electoral vote landslide", Reagan got only 50.8% of the popular vote, against 41% for Carter, a 9.8% gap.  That was a solid win, but closer to 1996, when Bill Clinton won by   49.2% to 40.7%, than to a real landslide like 1984 (58.8% to 40.6%).

 Second, even after the final debate, Carter was close to Reagan in the polls.  I found two that were taken between the debate and the election:

 Carter    Reagan    Anderson     

43%        44%        8%            CBS/NYT        Nov 1

43%        46%        7%            Gallup              Nov 1

I don't know whether the problem was a late swing, miscalculation of likely voters, or something else, but the pre-election polls were pretty far off that year, overestimating Carter's vote by 3-4% and underestimating Reagan's by a similar margin.  That's the difference between a close election and a substantial win. 

 Right after the election, several polls asked people how they had voted

 41%        49%       7%           CBS/NYT

43%        45%        6%           Gallup

38%        50%        6%            Roper

Most people who watched the debate thought Reagan did better than Carter, and "there you go again" may have contributed to that.  But the idea that it was a "knockout blow" is implausible to start with--it's hard to imagine how that would cause anyone to change a vote from Carter to Reagan.  If you want to stick with the boxing metaphors, you could say that he "ducked a punch."

 The review also recounted another popular idea that may not be true:  "In 1968, 17-year-old Patrick Caddell polled a working-class neighborhood in Jacksonville, Fla., about the upcoming presidential race for a high school project. He was surprised to hear, again and again, 'Wallace or Kennedy, either one.'" Thomas suggested that both appealed to a sense of anger in the working class.  A few years ago, I had a post about hypothetical races involving Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, or Hubert Humphrey vs. Nixon and Wallace and there was no sign that Kennedy cut into Wallace's support.  An alternative explanation for what Caddell found is that most southern whites were still Democrats back then.  John F. Kennedy had been a popular president, and his assassination had added to his reputation.  So when people in Jacksonville were asked who they liked for president, they just went for the names they knew--a Kennedy and the governor of the neighboring state.  


[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]