Saturday, May 24, 2014

Principle or prejudice?

Many liberals argue that the Tea Party and related conservative movements are basically about race.  The idea is that latent racial fears and resentments among whites were reawakened by the election of a black president or the recession.  In a column a couple of months ago, Paul Krugman says:

"Indeed, race is the Rosetta Stone that makes sense of many otherwise incomprehensible aspects of U.S. politics. . .  we’re told that conservatives, the Tea Party in particular, oppose handouts because they believe in personal responsibility, in a society in which people must bear the consequences of their actions. Yet it’s hard to find angry Tea Party denunciations of huge Wall Street bailouts, of huge bonuses paid to executives who were saved from disaster by government backing and guarantees. Instead, all the movement’s passion, starting with  Rick Santelli’s famous rant on CNBC, has been directed against any hint of financial relief for low-income borrowers. And what is it about these borrowers that makes them such targets of ire? You know the answer."

I don't find the idea that it's all about race to be very convincing, but those examples were especially puzzling.  My impression is that indignation about Wall Street bailouts has been important for the Tea Party and that opposition to mortgage relief has been a secondary theme.  (Rick Santelli just provided the spark--he wasn't a major figure before the Tea Party started, and he isn't one now).

 I recently found a survey, conducted by CBS News in March 2009, that gives some systematic evidence.  It had parallel sets of questions about aid to banks and other financial institutions, to homeowners having trouble with their mortgages, and to the auto manufacturers.  For each one, it asked four questions:  whether people approved of government aid, whether aid was necessary or things would improve on their own, whether the problems were their own fault or caused by things beyond their control, and whether you were mostly relieved or mostly resentful about the prospect of them getting aid.   Giving the complete wordings of all questions would take a lot of space, but here is an example:

"Which best describes your feelings about Barack Obama's policies toward the nation's housing and mortgage crisis -- mostly relieved that some homeowners might be able to avoid foreclosure, or mostly resentful that the policies could benefit irresponsible lenders and homeowners?"

The survey didn't contain any questions about the Tea Party (few surveys did until 2010), but it did have one about Rush Limbaugh (the options were favorable, unfavorable, undecided, or haven't heard enough to have an opinion).  Having favorable views of Rush Limbaugh seems like a good indicator of support for "movement conservatism."

 Here are the percents disapproving of aid by opinion on Limbaugh:

             Finance     Homeowners      Auto
Favorable      73%         61%            87%
Unfavorable    50%         15%            70%
Undecided      54%         24%            81%
No opinion     48%         16%            75%

Here are the percents saying aid was not necessary by opinion of Limbaugh

               Finance    Homeowners       Auto
Favorable       80%         72%            80%
Unfavorable     36%         28%            54%
Undecided       55%         36%            68%
No opinion      53%         27%            65%

Here are the percents saying the problems were their own fault by opinion of Limbaugh
               Finance    Homeowners       Auto
Favorable        70%       62%              68%
Unfavorable      83%       42%              74%
Undecided        78%       44%              58%
No opinion       64%       30%              56%

And finally, here are the percents saying that aid made them resentful by opinion of Limbaugh

               Finance    Homeowners       Auto
Favorable        75%       75%              72%
Unfavorable      43%       27%              42%
Undecided        53%       44%              58%
No opinion       43%       27%              37%

People who had a favorable opinion on Limbaugh had more negative opinions of the bailouts of banks and financial institutions than anyone else.  A striking thing about all of these tables is that people with a favorable opinion of Limbaugh made little or no distinction between banks & finance, homeowners, and auto companies:  the distribution of opinions was just about the same regardless of which one was being asked about.  Everyone else made distinctions, generally being more sympathetic to homeowners than banks or auto companies.  So on this evidence, movement conservatives actually are opposed to "handouts" in principle, and Krugman is offering a solution to a puzzle that doesn't exist.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]


  1. Liberals who argue that the Tea Party movement is "basically about race" have never met a Tea Partier, or at the very least have never engaged in honest discussion with one or read a comprehensive statement of the intellectual or philosophical grounding of the movement.

    I'm not qualified to judge Paul Krugman's contributions to the economic literature, but his political punditry is astonishingly stupid. I'd be embarrassed to have him as an explicator of "my side" if I were on that side. Opposition to government bailouts of all those sectors has been a core belief of the various Tea Party groups since the movement arose. Homeowners are certainly a more sympathetic group than Wall Street bankers in the abstract, but Tea Party opposition to mortgage bailouts is no secret. The overt basis for the opposition is that homeowners with bad mortgages should have realized what they were getting into, and that the primary reason banks offered those mortgages is that they were coerced into doing so by unwise government regulations mandating that they make loans to unqualified borrowers.

    Rush Limbaugh is obviously not to everyone's taste, but it's extraordinarily tiresome to read the incessant drumbeat in op-eds and internet comment boards that the Tea Party is nothing but a racist movement that would like to return the country to South Carolina ca. 1850 and install John C. Calhoun as president - a viewpoint normally uttered by people who can't be arsed to find an exponent of the movement and actually talk to him. Thanks for bringing some actual data analysis to the question.

    1. I obtained some interesting new evidence on this point. I recently got a survey from the Republican National Committee asking me, as a representative of "thousands of other grassroots conservatives in your area," to help them craft their message for the 2014 campaign. I'm not entirely sure why they think I'm a good guide to the opinions of grassroots conservatives, but they say its based on "compiling and modeling demographic information," which sounds impressive.

      Anyway, the survey has 36 opinion questions. None of them are on issues directly involving race (e. g., affirmative action). There's also nothing on crime, welfare, out-of-wedlock births, and food stamps. There are a number of questions on taxes and spending, but they are all very general, basically about whether taxes, spending, and deficits are too high: there's nothing suggesting that tax money is going to support people who are unworthy or undeserving. So there is nothing that could plausibly be called a coded racial appeal.

    2. A cynic, or Paul Krugman, might say that the absence of such questions as you note is because grassroots conservatives are unanimous in their opinions on the question so there is no need for a survey. I suspect in reality there is a much greater divergence of opinion among the recipients of the RNC mailing respecting those unasked questions than respecting the questions that were actually in the survey.