On the American Public’s Alleged Passions

by John Sides on December 20, 2010

in Public opinion

Mark Lilla:

…it’s apparent that the shape of American politics over the past half-century has been determined by two great waves of passion: the first running from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations through the ‘70s, the second running from the Reagan administration to the departure of George W. Bush. What dominated during the first wave was excitement about a New Frontier, hope for a just and Great Society, fear of nuclear war, a desire for greater social freedom—and confidence that government could accomplish much. In the next era the same passions, nearly as intense, would be successfully redirected by Ronald Reagan. Now the excitement was about privatization, hope was invested in economic growth, fears centered on the family and the greatest desire was for freedom from government.

I agree with the general thrust of Lilla’s piece—that political attitudes often depend less on reason and more on “passion”—but this characterization of American public opinion misses a key dynamic: the public often reacts against the ideological tenor of public policy. So far from a sustained “passion” for more government (“Yay, LBJ!”) or less government (“Yay, Reagan!”), what you get is this:

policymood.png

The graph is of “policy mood” an aggregated measure of the public’s policy preferences based on more than 1,600 different survey questions. The measure is from political scientist James Stimson. For more, see chapter 7 of The Macro Polity. See also my earlier post.

The graph shows the opposite of what Lilla describes. Beginning in roughly 1960, there was a pronounced conservative shift in public opinion—far from “confidence that government could accomplish much.” (To say nothing, by the way, of the decline in confidence in government during this same time, a fact that Lilla actually wrote about elsewhere.) It was an apparent reaction against the New Frontier and Great Society, not a passion for them.

Then, beginning in roughly 1980, there was a liberal shift in public opinion—again, an apparent reaction to the policies of the Reagan administration. And then a shift back, beginning roughly at the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency. And then another shift in the liberal direction during George W. Bush’s presidency. There was not only no sustained passion for less government, there was no sustained passion whatsoever. Opinion ebbed and flowed in the opposite direction as public policy.

In the end, Lilla’s advice for Obama is this:

The Great Recession and the Tea Party’s ire, directed at Democrats and Republicans alike, suggest that this second political dispensation is coming to an end and that Americans’ passions are ready to be redirected once again. Having been dealt a bad hand, President Obama may have only a slim chance of doing that, but he has absolutely none if he limits himself to appealing to people’s interests. That’s not been the American experience of change. In our politics, history doesn’t happen when a leader makes an argument, or even strikes a pose. It happens when he strikes a chord.

The graph suggests why this advice is not helpful. Obama cannot count on “striking a chord” and launching a new “political dispensation” by “redirecting” “passions.” Lilla’s historical examples actually show that’s not how it works.

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