Policy Feedback and Mass Publics in Polarized Times (book proposal under review)
This book project reexamines the policy feedback process through a behavioral lens, focusing on the role that political attitudes play as a critical factor in determining how and for whom the policy feedback generates self-reinforcing effects. Mass behavior research notes that when deciding how to evaluate government in general and policies or candidates specifically, citizens have, among other things, at least two primary motivations. The first is a self-interest component; citizens want to support policies that benefit them directly. The second is a political identity component; citizens support policies that are consistent with their broader political leanings and identities, regardless of whether they stand to benefit from them or not. In many cases, these two components reinforce one another; low-income Democrats would support expansion of the welfare state for both reasons. But in other cases, they do not: high-income Democrats are cross-pressured on the same question. Understanding how citizens balance these motivations is increasingly important as partisan identities have become both more polarized and less tethered to traditional class orientations.
We argue that the same competing motivations are at play when it comes to policy feedback. We suggest that, consistent with the policy feedback literature, those who benefit from a policy are more likely to support the policy than those who do not benefit, and that people who benefit from a large number of government programs will have more positive orientations to government than those who do not. But the effects of being a policy beneficiary will be, at times, moderated or overwhelmed by the role of political identity. In particular, Republicans, whose political identity is strongly connected to anti-government attitudes, will respond differently to experiences with particular policies than will Democrats, and thus will provide policy feedback effects that differ in magnitude and impact.
Our behavioral theory of the policy process leads to four expectations. First, citizens with strong anti-government sentiments are less likely to acknowledge the positive effects of public policies in their lives and less willing, regardless of their policy experiences, to update their negative views of the federal government. Second, partisanship conditions how receptive citizens are to identifying as having benefited from social policy, or the government. Democratic respondents perceive most social policies as part of their party’s agenda (or ‘owned’ by Democrats) and feel more warmly toward groups that benefit from public policies and the federal government. Therefore, Democrats are more likely to positively respond to enrolling and using social policies as compared to Republicans. Third, a policy recipient’s reaction to social policy is determined not just from their own experience, but their perceptions of the deservingness of other recipients. Parties differ in the social groups that they find deserving of government aid. The calculation of who is deserving of government benefits influences citizens willingness to identify as a beneficiary of specific policies, especially those that are associated with partisan outgroups. Therefore, citizens’ partisan perceptions of social policies and groups condition the policy feedback process. Fourth, the means through which benefits are delivered matters to how citizens view them: benefits delivered through the tax code prime different considerations in the minds of Republicans, in particular, than benefits delivered through direct government intervention, and these considerations affect how partisans view social benefits.
White identity and preferences for social welfare spending (with Ashley Jardina and Chris Ellis)
How does white racial solidarity structure attitudes towards social programs in the submerged state? We build upon the work of Jardina (2019) on the policy preferences of citizens with high levels of white identity and Ellis and Faricy’s (2021) study of public opinion towards social tax expenditures. We argue that higher levels of white identity are associated with strong support for social tax subsidies as a form of in group benefits (i.e. social welfare for whites). Some examples of these programs would be the home mortgage interest deduction and the tax exemptions for contributions to employment-based health care insurance and pension plans. There are two mechanisms through which social tax expenditures convey information to white citizens that these programs provide in group benefits. First and similar to the arguments of Jardina (2019) and Winter (2008), social tax expenditures have been framed by policy elites using positive stereotypes tied to deservingness that emphasize work, tax paying, self-reliance, and individualism (Faricy 2015). These traits are part of an overall racial schema where virtuous stereotypes are linked to whites such as hard work and self-sufficiency while negative stereotypes are assigned to Blacks such as laziness and dependence. Policymakers have often presented social tax expenditure programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Child Tax Credit as alternatives to racialized means-tested programs like welfare. And while policymakers from both sides of the aisle have promoted these types of programs, they are mainly associated with the modern Republican Party whose electoral coalition is predominantly made up of white voters. Policymakers have so successfully linked these positive traits with social tax expenditure programs that Ellis and Faricy (2021) find in a survey experiment that recipients of this type of social spending are viewed as more deserving of government aid than recipients who receive identical social benefits through direct government checks. And even typically low-information citizens can deduct from just the name or simple description of tax expenditures that these types of social benefits are reserved for taxpayers and workers and therefore prime notions of deservingness when evaluating the programs. In short, the political framing and design of social tax credits conveys information to people with strong white racial solidarity that these government benefits are for the deserving us and not the undeserving them.