The Economy Structures Everything

by John Sides on February 18, 2010 · 16 comments

in Public opinion

In response to my earlier post on congressional approval, commenter David Adam cites Jim Stimson’s book Tides of Consent (large pdf). Stimson’s findings are even more profoundly related to my subsequent post on political trust and the economy.

Stimson shows that the public’s approval of virtually every aspect of government—the president, Senators, Congress, governors, the government itself—trend together quite strongly:

Occasionally the trends diverge, such as when the public rallied to Bush during the Persian Gulf War, but that divergence is the exception. Stimson writes:

The most important point, however, is that the lines are hard to pull apart and distinguish because they are pretty clearly measuring the same thing…Approval and trust are generic, a syndrome of attitudes toward public affairs that only appears to be affected by and directed toward particular people and institutions.

And what is driving these trends? The economy. Stimson plots a measure of approval that averages all of the relevant trends against the Michigan Index of Consumer Sentiment:

The correlation isn’t perfect, obviously. For example, Stimson notes the divergence following September 11, 2001. But again, the correlation is quite strong. And the implication is this:

So what does it mean that citizens approve or trust? It appears to mean mainly that things are going well in the country. What is important about this pattern, and unexpected, is that the approval and trust are granted to those who have had no role in producing the outcomes. We have known for some time that presidents seemed to get more credit or blame than they deserved. With the pattern now extended to those who have had no conceivable role, we need to reassess what it means to approve.


Joel February 18, 2010 at 12:09 pm

i like it, although i wonder if it is anything of a leap to assume that consumer sentiment is an acceptable proxy for “the economy?” do consumers really have their fingers that tightly on the pulse of the economic indicators that actually “matter” (whatever that means)?

Eric L. February 18, 2010 at 12:30 pm

A bit nit-picky, but I think you meant to say commenter Adam, who has a David number of 33.

Joel February 18, 2010 at 12:30 pm

oh wait, i get it. never mind.

Matt Jarvis February 18, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Nothing shocking.

This is argument #1251 I have for why democracy is a bad idea.

nickg February 18, 2010 at 5:58 pm

It’s the economy, stupid.

JamieMc February 19, 2010 at 10:38 am

I thought this was pretty common knowledge, although I haven’t seen the case made so cleanly before. Well done.

The implication that I draw from this is that we need to get populism back out of American politics. The whole point of representative Democracy is to provide some insulation between policymakers and public opinion. We really need to do more to remember that, especially since economic issues are so crucial to how people feel about government, and the average person doesn’t understand economics a bit.

I’m not saying I do either, by the way. But I do know that if politicians were less concerned about public opinion, they might have felt more inclined to bust the housing bubble before it became so big. The whole issue might have been framed very differently if were weren’t so concerned with making people happy.

Not Marc February 19, 2010 at 1:47 pm

“the approval and trust are granted to those who have had no role in producing the outcomes.”

Here we go again. Another MC post giving the Dems a get out of jail free card for unpopular policies. What’s really to blame is the bad economy they inherited.

John Sides February 19, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Not Marc: The post has no partisan implication whatsoever. Voters like incumbent politicians of any partisan stripe more — indeed, they like the entire government more — when the economy is good, and dislike them more when the economy is bad.

The other implication is precisely opposite to your suggestion: elected leaders are evaluated more based on the performance of things largely out of their control (namely, the economy) than on the specific policies they propose.

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