Friday, June 29, 2018

Vacation from facts, 3

I am back from vacation, but in my previous post I proposed that "a pure two-party system promotes ideological politics" and said that my next post would consider the question of why ideological differences between American parties were small until about 50 years ago.  My answer is "tribalism"---at one time, many people voted purely on the basis of ethnic, religious, or regional loyalties, without paying much attention to ideology.  As more people started to think in ideological terms, the tendency towards divergence started to take effect. 

For comparative purposes, the key facts are that "tribalism" was an unusually strong force in the United States because of size, ethnic diversity, and other historical factors, and that we have an unusually strong two-party system, probably because of political institutions.   That combination produced a unique path in the ideological differences between parties. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Vacation from facts, 2

  My last post finished by asking why ideological politics has grown in the United States, in contrast to almost all other countries.  A distinctive feature of American political institutions is the dominance of two parties.  There have only been a handful of members of Congress who belonged to other parties; some third-party candidates for President have received a significant share of the vote, but none of those parties have lasted.

In a two-party system, ideological competition drives parties to the center, as Anthony Downs argued.  But there's another way to compete:  if you convince people that the other side is totally unacceptable, then they have no choice but to vote for you.  It seems to be easier to motivate people by fear rather than by a positive vision, so focusing on the negative may be a more attractive strategy than moving to the center.*  I have mentioned in several posts that negative feelings about both parties have grown.  In 2016, many people who weren't enthusiastic about Donald Trump voted for him anyway because they couldn't bear the idea of Hillary Clinton as President.  Some never-Trumpers voted for Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin or wrote someone in.  Others voted for Clinton but didn't publicly support her.   In contrast, if the British Conservatives chose someone like Trump as a leader, party members who were unhappy could turn to the Liberal Democrats.  Those votes wouldn't be wasted--by winning a small number of seats, they could produce a hung parliament, which has happened several times.  So people who strongly objected to the leader would not just vote for the Liberal Democrats, but publicly advocate voting for them, further strengthening the movement away from the Conservatives.

So my suggestion is that a pure two-party system promotes ideological politics.  If true, that raises the question of why the ideological differences between the American parties were small until about 50 years ago.  I will consider that in my next post.

*Why not do both--move to the center and promote negative feelings about the other party?  For example, you could try to convince people that they are incompetent or corrupt.  However, it seems to be easier to create strong negative feelings when the charges have some ideological content--the other party will take us down the slippery slope to a Soviet-style planned economy, or a Handmaid's Tale society.  In order to make those kind of charges seem sincere, you have to stake out an extreme position yourself--no compromise on X.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Vacation from facts, 1

I will be on vacation when this post appears, so it seems appropriate to take a break from facts and engage in speculation.

"Tribalism" has become a favorite word in writing about contemporary politics.  It seems like the wrong word to me--the key thing about a tribe is that you don't choose it, you are born into it.  A second feature is that tribal leaders have a good deal of freedom in conducting relations with other tribes (see this paper, p. 141)--if they say that we've traditionally been allied with group A, but now it's in our interests to make an alliance with group B, the members will go along.  Tribal politics can involve intense conflict, but it can also involve toleration and coexistence--you can't blame someone for being born a member of a different tribe, and there's a chance of winning them over by making a deal with their leaders.

What we have now is ideological politics.  where people choose a side because it represents the right principles.  Ideological politics necessarily involves conflict.  You can definitely blame someone for choosing the wrong principles; also, leaders have less freedom, because the members may revolt if they seem to betray those principles.  It's sometimes said that Republicans have abandoned their principles to follow Trump, but when those principles are specified they turn out to be things like free trade, concern about budget deficits, and the rule of law, which aren't traditional Republican or conservative principles--they cut across party and ideological lines, and are probably strongest in the "good government" center.  If Trump did something that really went against conservative principles--e.g., proposed a program of infrastructure spending financed by closing tax loopholes that benefit high earners--there would be a revolt.  Of course, I can't give evidence of that, because Trump has conformed to conservative orthodoxy on everything that's important to conservatives--you don't have to take my word for it, you can take Mitch McConnell's. 

That raises a question of why ideological politics grew in the United States.   In almost all other affluent democracies, it has been declining for a long time, and the decline seems to be continuing.  I will turn to that in my next post. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Measuring racial resentment

My last post discussed a scale that is usually referred to as "racial resentment."  The questions (all with responses going from strongly agree to strongly disagree) are:
  1. Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
   2. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up.  Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
   3. It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.
  4. Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.

I'd say that the first question simply measures perceptions of how much racial inequality there is. It showed a strong trend towards "disagree" between 1986 (when it was first asked) and 2012.  Even with the move towards "agree" in 2016 the correlation is about 0.8.  That is, people see less racial inequality than they used to, which is reasonable given actual changes in society. 

With the other three, the end that is scored as "resentment" can include two kinds of people--those who think that things are reasonably fair, and that blacks haven't taken advantage of opportunities, and those who think that blacks are getting some kind of unfair advantage.  In terms of the last question:   people who think that blacks have gotten about what they deserve and those who think they've gotten more than they deserve.  So they are basically just measures of general liberalism versus conservatism on the causes of racial inequality.  None of those showed a strong trend through 2012. 

In 2013, I had a post about a question that seemed like a pretty good measure of resentment "For each of the following groups, please tell me whether you feel that they are receiving too many special advantages, receiving fair treatment, or are being discriminated against?" The groups included blacks/African Americans.  I remarked then that unfortunately the question hadn't been asked since 2008, and it still hasn't.  It also goes back only to 1990, so I took another look for questions that might be regarded as measuring racial resentment. 

There is one question that was asked several times in the 1970s, and then reappeared in a very similar form in the 2010s.  The 1970s version asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement "the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities."  The 2010s version:  "Over the past couple of decades, the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities," with "completely agree," "mostly agree," "mostly disagree," and "completely disagree" as possible responses.  If we collapse the 2010 categories into agree and disagree, the percent agreeing minus disagree is:

The figures for 1976, 1978, and 2012 are averages of multiple surveys (5, 2, and 3). Although the question wording differs, I don't think that could plausibly account for the difference in responses. It's reasonable to conclude that there's less racial resentment now than there was in the 1970s. 

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Era of Good Feelings?

The paper I discussed in my last post showed changes in an index of "racial resentment" from the American National Election Studies, which rose in 2008 and 2012.  The authors interpreted this as evidence that whites felt the presidency of Barack Obama as a threat to their status.  That reminded me that I had a post mentioning the index several years ago.  The index is the sum of responses (strongly agree .... strongly disagree, reverse coded for #2 and #3) to the following statements:

   1. Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
   2. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up.  Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
   3. It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.
  4. Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.

At the time, I said "this scale certainly measures something of interest, but 'resentment' doesn't seem like the right term."  That was just my feeling based on reading the questions--does the data shed any light on the issue?   Let's start with looking at changes (among whites) over the entire period covered by the ANES:

So either racial resentment fell dramatically among whites in 2016, or the index doesn't really measure racial resentment.  The first interpretation doesn't seem very plausible, but the ANES survey has two parts, one of which takes place after the election, and that's the part in which these questions were asked.  So you could say that perhaps white fears of threats to their status fell after Trump was elected.  If we break it down by the party that people voted for (non-Hispanic whites only):

From 1988 through 2012, the means for Republican voters gradually rose and the means for Democrats fell, which is to be expected given general ideological polarization over the period.  The elections of 2008 and 2012 don't stand out as unusual.  Then in 2016, the mean fell a little among Republican voters, and a lot among Democratic voters.  The first change is consistent with the idea that people who would otherwise have felt threatened were reassured because they had a president who would look after them, but the second is puzzling from that point of view.  You would have to say that Democratic voters were the ones who were secretly yearning for a protector, and felt most reassured by Trump's win. 

So I stand by my earlier thought that this index doesn't measure resentment.  My next post will offer some thoughts on what it does measure.   

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Explaining too much

In the last few days, I have seen several stories saying that "a new study ... found that opposition to welfare ... has grown among white Americans."  The study (by Rachel Wetts and Robb Willer) didn't actually show any figures on opposition to welfare--it focused on changes in the gap between white and non-white opinions--but I can see how journalists would have that interpretation.  The abstract says:  "we find that whites’ racial resentment increased beginning in 2008, the year of Barack Obama’s successful presidential candidacy and a major economic downturn, the latter a factor previously shown to amplify racial threat effects. . . . These findings suggest that whites’ perceptions that minorities’ standing is rising can produce periods of 'welfare backlash' in which adoption of policies restricting or curtailing welfare programs is more likely."

Has opposition to welfare grown?  Here are the means for whites and blacks in a question from the General Social Survey about whether we are spending too much [3], too little [1], or about the right amount [2] on welfare.

White opinion moved in the "too much" direction after Obama's election, but so did black opinion.  Looking over a longer period, white opinion has moved up and down, and is more favorable to welfare spending than in the 1970s and most of the 1990s.  Black opinion has also gone up and down, but there seems to be a gradual shift towards "too much."

If you look more closely, it seems that the ups and downs are related to the party of the president:  people tend to say "too much" when a Democrat is president, "too little" when a Republican is.  Presumably this is because, rightly or wrongly, they perceive the government as doing more when a Democrat is in office.  This is a well-known pattern that has been documented in research on a variety of issues.  So what mattered was Obama's party, not his race (see this post for another example).

If you regress average opinions on party in power and a time trend, you get the following predicted values:

There is a clear trend towards less opposition among whites and more opposition among blacks, so the racial gap in opinions is gradually declining.  The effects of party control are almost the same among blacks and whites.  I didn't investigate systematically, but it doesn't appear that general economic conditions have any effect among either blacks or whites.

The paper proposed that whites would also regard the rising share of non-whites in the population as a threat.  Since this changes gradually from year to year, that would lead to gradually rising opposition to welfare among whites.  The actual trend is in the opposite direction from the predicted one.

The hypothesis that underlies the paper is that when "relative advantage in the racial status hierarchy" is threatened, whites turn against programs that are seen as helping minorities.  I think the general hypothesis is probably right--the other part of their paper provides pretty convincing experimental evidence that whites express more negative views on welfare when they are made to think about the prospect of America as a "majority minority" nation.  But although perceived threat may help to explain differences among people at a given point in time (e. g., between different places), when looking at historical change it is overwhelmed by the effect of a general decline of racial prejudice. 

Technical note:
1.  Wetts and Willer use a question on welfare spending from the American National Election Studies.  I used a very similar question from the General Social Survey, mostly because the question has been asked for a longer period of time and the GSS has a convenient cumulative file.
2.  My "white" category includes people who also report that they are Hispanic.  That probably accounts for some of the trend among whites.  If I were writing a paper, I would distinguish between Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites and maybe add some other controls, but since I am writing a blog post I will just say that I don't think it accounts for much of the trend.