Monday, July 30, 2018

Populism and popularity

Ross Douthat had a column on Sunday in which he asked why Donald Trump is pressing for tariffs, even though they are unpopular with Republicans in Congress and not very popular in the country as a whole.  He says it's because Trump has broken all of his other populist promises (like an infrastructure program or tax cut directed to the middle class), so this is all he has left.  Oddly, he missed another example, the crackdown on illegal immigration.  That was one of Trump's central issues, and he's definitely sticking to it.  As with trade, the public does not rate his performance highly:  in a Washington Post/Schar School poll in late June 41% said they approved of the way he was handling trade, and 39% said that the approved of the way he was handling immigration.

Douthat's explanation for why Trump wants to keep some "populist" elements is that it's a way to hold onto "working class" voters who put him over the top in 2016, even at the cost of driving away middle-class suburbanites.  The idea seems to be that those voters are located in Midwestern swing states, so they are more valuable.  I think this explanation attributes an implausible amount of strategic thinking to Trump.  In my view, there are two reasons that he's sticking to these policies.  The first is simply that Trump has strong beliefs on them:  they were major themes in his tweets from the beginning, while the other "populist" elements didn't show up until he started his campaign.  The second is that the ideas of "getting tough" with foreign countries and illegal immigration had been popular, and are still fairly popular. 

  Between 2005 and 2010, the Washington Post asked the following question nine times:  Do you think the United States is or is not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants from coming into this country? .... Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?"  The distribution of answers barely changed, so I'll just show the figures from 2010:  10% doing enough (strongly) 13% doing enough (somewhat) 17% not doing enough (somewhat) 58% not doing enough (strongly). 

Of course, the actual policies involved in "doing more" have been less popular, just like actual cuts in government spending are less popular than the general principle of "cutting government spending.   Still, when the question was asked this June,  46% still said "not doing enough," versus 50% who said "doing enough."  (Unfortunately this question didn't have a "too much" or "going too far" option, but I'll discuss one that did in my next post).  The Democrats have traditionally benefited from the image of being more interested in the average person, apart from any specific issue positions. There may be a parallel advantage in having a "get tough" image on immigration and trade. 

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Friday, July 27, 2018

The s-word

There has been a lot of talk about socialism since the upset win of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (a member of the Democratic Socialists of America) in a New York congressional primary.  After the 2008 and 2012 elections, there were brief flurries of attention to socialism, with some people saying that support was on the rise.  There's some of that now, but most of the attention now seems to come from Republicans thinking that it's something that they can use against the Democrats.  In general, the public does have a negative view of socialism:  in the most recent question I could find, a 2016 Gallup poll, 35% said they had a positive image and 58% said they had a negative one.  That leads to a question of whether it's just a label, unconnected to other political views, or part of a pattern. 

I addressed this question using a 2011 Pew survey that asked people if they had a positive or negative reaction to socialism and five other political terms:  liberal, conservative, libertarian, progressive, and capitalism.  I computed correlations between each pair.  Views of "socialism" had a positive correlation with views of "liberal" and "progressive," and negative correlations with views of "conservative," and "capitalism."  More surprisingly, they had a positive correlation with views of "libertarian"--it was the second largest correlation, behind "liberal."  Since familiarity with ideological terms increases with education, I then did the correlations separately for college graduates and everyone else.  Of course, you can expect the correlations to be larger for college graduates, but there's a question of whether they are just stronger and weaker versions of the same underlying pattern, or two distinct patterns.  Among college graduates, there are positive correlations with "liberal" and "progressive," and negative ones with "conservative" and "capitalism."  The correlation with "libertarian" is essentially zero (.03), which you might regard as strange, but I'll leave that aside for the moment.  Among non-graduates, there are positive correlations with liberal, progressive, libertarian, and conservative.  The only negative correlation is with "capitalism" and that's not significantly different from zero.  There's a striking difference between liberal, where the correlation is .38 for educated people and .33 for less educated, and conservative, where the correlations are -.29 and +.085. 

I'm not sure exactly what to make of this, but it seems that less educated people have a different understanding of "socialism" than more educated people, and that it's not just a matter of being less familiar with ideological terms. 

Another interesting point is that the term "libertarian" apparently hasn't made much impression on the public--the three strongest correlations are with liberal, progressive, and socialist among non-graduates.  All of those are in what would conventionally be regarded as the wrong direction (positive).  The correlations with "capitalism" are small in both non-graduates and graduates (.07 and .08).

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Monday, July 23, 2018

Tip of the iceberg?

I had several ideas for posts that turned out to require more work than I expected, so here is a short one.   A few weeks ago, the New York Times had a story about the First Amendment that said "in 1977, many liberals supported the right of the American Nazi Party to march among Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Ill. Far fewer supported the free-speech rights of the white nationalists who marched last year in Charlottesville, Va." The links just connected to stories about those events, not to information about public opinion.  However, I found a 1978 Roper survey that asked about the Skokie march (which had not yet taken place--1977 was the Supreme Court decision that found in favor of the right to march):  15% said it should be allowed, 73% said it shouldn't, 7% gave answers described as "yes, but it would be unfortunate if they did," and 6% didn't know.  Support among liberals was somewhat higher, but only 30% said yes or "yes, but" and 66% said no.  I guess you could call 30% "many," but the normal way to describe the distribution would be that a solid majority of liberals opposed the American Nazi Party's right to march.  As far as Charlottesville, I couldn't find any surveys that asked about the white nationalists' right to march, although there were many that asked about whether people approved of how Donald Trump handled it (of course, most did not). So there seems to be no evidence that liberal opinion moved against the right of extremists to hold marches. 

In fairness, the story was mostly about judges and legal scholars--the claim about liberals in general was just made in passing.  It's possible that progressive legal intellectuals have become somewhat less enthusiastic about free speech over the last 40 years--my not very well informed view is that they probably have.  And in the long run, major changes in opinion are roughly parallel in elites and the general public--for example, it's safe to say that there's more support for gender equality in both than there was 50 years ago.  However, it's not safe to say that the general public follows smaller or more subtle shifts in elite opinion. 

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Education and redistribution

  As a general rule, more educated people are more liberal than less educated people on most "social" issues and more conservative on most economic issues. I wondered if this pattern has changed, so I looked at a question the General Social Survey has asked since 1978:  "Some people think that 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. Others think the government should not concern itself with reducing this income difference between the rich and the poor." People are shown a card with numbers from 1 (should do something) to 7 (should not concern itself) and pick the number that best represents their views.  If we limit things to people who are not black and compare those who graduated from college to everyone else, here are the means:

There's little or no trend among people without college degrees, but a downward trend--that is, more support for redistribution--among college graduates.  There are some year-to-year ups and downs that apply to both groups (partly related to the party of the president), so if you look at the difference the trend is even clearer:

The drop in 2016 is unusually large--if you fit a trend from 1978-2014 and extrapolate to 2016, the standardized residual is -2.63--but the trend is clear even without it.  That is, there has been a gradual decline in the the difference between the opinions of more and less educated people.  Why?  One possibility is that it has to do with economic trends--the income gap between college graduates and other people has been growing since the mid-1970s, so educated people feel more generous or more guilty, and more inclined to do something.  Another is that it's about politics--more educated people have been shifting towards the Democrats over the same period.  Regardless of the original reason for the shift, once you start voting for a party, you'll tend to have more trust in its leaders, and adopt more of the positions usually associated with that party.  I'm sure there are others, but those are the ones that occur to me.  

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The turning point?

On the 4th of July, the New York Times had a quiz about American history.  One of the questions was "What question, posed to Senator Joseph McCarthy by the Army lawyer Joseph Welch in 1954, is often cited as the unraveling point of McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaign?"  The correct answer was "have you no sense of decency?"  They add, "McCarthy’s national popularity disappeared overnight, and he died three years later" and link to the official website of the Senate, which says almost the same thing:  "Overnight, McCarthy's immense national popularity evaporated." 

The Gallup Poll had a number of questions about whether people had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of McCarthy.  This figure shows the percent favorable minus percent unfavorable (there were two different versions of the question, which I indicate by different colored dots):

The third vertical line is the date of the Welch/McCarthy exchange.  There's not much sign that it made any difference.  Moreover, McCarthy's popularity was not "immense" before it happened--in the last survey before it happened (late May), 33% were favorable and 43% unfavorable. 

Just looking at the numbers, it seems that there is one event that might have caused a lasting drop in McCarthy's popularity--a critical TV documentary by Edward R. Murrow that ran on March 9.  There seems to have been a downward trend even before that, but there was a large decline between March 2 (+10) and March 24 (-8 and -15) and support for McCarthy never bounced back. 

Why is the idea that "have you no sense of decency" was decisive so popular (I have heard it before)?  It's a satisfying story--people saw the exchange and recognized McCarthy for what he was.  If you say that public opinion was influenced by elites, like Murrow or the Senators who decided to have hearings on accusations against McCarthy, that raises questions.  What if Senate Republicans had stuck together behind McCarthy?  What if Murrow hadn't decided to do the program, or if the network executives had refused to let him run it?  Should journalists express a point of view rather than just report the facts?  It's more comforting to believe that people spontaneously saw the truth than to think about those kinds of things.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Been down so long

A book review in the New York Times started off with a discussion of how discontented people are today.  It cited a Gallup question on "In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?" Answers to this question don't actually show a clear trend since it started in the late 1970s.   But maybe the comparison shouldn't be now vs. a few years ago, but the 1970s and after vs. the 1960s and before?  In fact, the book in question refers to " America’s Fifty-Year Fail " in its subtitle, and the 1970s was a turning point in terms of economics--from a long decline in economic inequality to a long rise.

Public opinion surveys were not as common before the 1970s as they are today, so it's hard to address the possibility that there was a lasting drop after the 1960s.  In 1952, Gallup asked "As you look to the future, do you think life for people generally will get better, or will it get worse?"  That question was repeated in 1962, 1979, 1989, and 2009.  As discussed in this post, answers don't show a decline in optimism.  However, the 2009 survey was taken in January, and there might have been a short-lived spell of optimism accompanying the inauguration of Barack Obama.  Unfortunately, that question has not been repeated since 2009, so I looked for other possibilities.

In 1964, a special survey by the Gallup poll asked "Here is a ladder symbolic of the 'ladder of life'. Let's suppose the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder do you feel you personally stand at the present time?" and this has been repeated a number of times since then.  The means:

The last three times the question was asked were 2009, 2011, and 2014.  The mean was low in 2009 and 2011, but much higher in 2014.  That suggests that assessments might respond to economic conditions and in fact the mean has a substantial correlation (-0.73) with the unemployment rate.  There is no apparent trend or lasting one-time drop.

I've had several posts (e. g., this one) arguing that people are not all that discontented with general economic and social conditions--they are discontented with politics.  I think these figures give further support for that position.  In fact, you might wonder why people haven't become more discontented, given the slow growth (some would say absence of growth) in average family incomes over the last 40 or 50 years.  I would say that it's because people mostly compare themselves to people around them and to their own past--whether they are better off than they were and are keeping up with other people they know.  Whether average income growth was faster for your parents' generation, or whether rich people are getting bigger gains, are too remote to have much impact on how people rate their own lives.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]