Center left America: Vast support for the welfare state

by: OpenLeft

Sat Dec 26, 2009 at 18:00


A Paul Rosenberg Golden Oldie
From Sun Jun 29, 2008.
Original HERE.


In an earlier diary, "The Deep--And Hidden--Divide In American Politics", I wrote:

Obama's sudden lurch to the right is all in accord with one of Versailles' most treasured, and most bogus narratives, the claim that America is a "center-right" country, and thus that it's both natural and necessary for any Democrat to attack the party's base and trample the things it believes in.  After all, they're just a bunch of DFHs, whose views are hated and despised by real Americans (who read David Brooks religiously to know what they should think).

I'll have more to say about the center-right premise in another diary...

Well, this is that diary.  I want to go back to the same data source I used before, the General Social Survey (GSS), which is the most thorough long-term survey of American public opinion, administered 26 times since 1972. The GSS is the gold standard when it comes to American public opinion research, and is cited more frewuently by social scientists than any other data source except the US Census.  The data I've drawn from it relates to social spending, and it shows remarkably consistent findings across all the times it has been administered.  There are fluctuations, to be sure, but even when the public is in its most conservative frame of mind, support for these programs remains remarkably robust-and not just among liberals and moderates.  This data provides undeniable evidence of conservative support for welfare state social spending.

The first thing I'm going to do is look at a combined index of spending preferences, a slightly different one than the one I used in my earlier diary, since this one includes Social Security, which the GSS did not start polling for until 1984.  Since then, majority of extreme conservatives (self-identified 7 on a 1-7 scale) said we were spending too little on a combined measure (call it NatWelfComp) of whether people think we're spending too little, too much or about right on seven different areas-Social Security, welfare, "improving [the] nation's education system," "improving & protecting [the] environment," "improving & protecting [the] nations health," "improving the conditions of blacks," and "solving problems of big cities." The number of extreme conservatives who thought we were spending too little on one or more programs (net: i.e. "too little" on two, but "too much" on one is a net of "too little" on one) was nearly twice the number of extreme conservatives who thought we were spending too much: 59.3% to 30.7%. This can be seen in the last column of the chart below:

OpenLeft :: Center left America: Vast support for the welfare state
Support For Social Spending By Conservatives As A Whole

If we combine conservatives (self-identified 6) with extreme conservatives, operational liberalism increases to almost 2 ½ to 1: 64.7% to 25.2% And if we combine all those self-identified as right-of-center (self-identified 5,6,7), operational liberalism leaps to better than 3 ½ to 1: 71.0% to 19.3%. This last, broadest definition of "conservative" equals 34.1% of the population-close to the number of people commonly identified as conservative. This can be seen in the right-hand column of the chart below.

Some might argue that conservatives have changed since 1984. And indeed, they have. But not in this respect. If we limit ourselves to 2000 and later, the operational liberalism increases slightly: 73.0% to 17.7%.

Dissecting Support For Social Spending: Liberals vs. Conservatives

There are differences between liberals and conservatives, of course.  Liberals are noticeably more supportive of social spending.  But  the differences in attiude have a structure to them, as can be seen in the following chart, that breaks down spending into three categories-welfare state core (things like health care, child care, education, welfare, etc.), welfare state periphery (the environment, parks, mass transit), and night watchman state (crime, roads, military spending, space, foreign aid):

Liberals and conservatives have the least disagreement over functions of the night watchman state (7.9%), followed closely by the welfare state periphery (9.7%). There is almost twice as much difference over the welfare state core (15.6%) as there is over the night wathcman state. Still, that's not very much disagreement (especially compared to the ideas you'd get from listening to the Versailles punditalkcrazy): less than 1 out of 6.

Significantly, though there is slightly more support for the welfare state core than there is for the night watchman state. We measure this two ways: (1) the combined total of those saying we're spending "too little" or "about right." This is the combined total of those who don't want to cut spending--a reasonable definition of support. Using this measure, support for the welfare state core is 83.7% compared to 70.2% for the night watchman state. (2) The "liberalism index" cuts out the middle--it's the percentage of those saying "too little" or "too much" who say that we're spending "too little." (Normally, the liberalism index is reversed for military spending, because long-term data shows an inverse relationship between support for military and domestic spending. But here we want to focus on what kinds of spending get what kinds of support, so we're treating all items the same for this specific purpose.) Using this measure, support for the welfare state core is 75.2% compared to 53.2% for the night watchman state-an even bigger margin.

The number of items in our sample is small, so it wouldn't be wise to make too much of this comparison--yet. Still, it's a significant warning that those think the welfare state unpopular, and controversial compared to "basic government functions" cannot just assume they are right. The evidence here is that they are wrong. Not only is the welfare state popular with everyone--not just liberals--it is more popular than the night watchman state, at least from the data we have here. So let's look at some other sets of data.

Here's another set of series data from the GSS, which began in 1984:

Here the big picture pattern remains the same. The liberal/conservative differences between the three categories have shrunk a bit, 9.9% for the night watchman state compared to 16.4% for the welfare state core, with the welfare state periphery at 14.0%. But the difference in support levels has increased: 72.6% to 38.5% in terms of liberalism index, and 83.1% to 60.1% in terms of those not wanting to cut spending. And once more, the welfare state periphery is most by both measures: 87.3% and 91.1% respectively.)

Turning to a third set from the GSS, with different wordking that only used in 1984, we find the following:

The liberal/conservative difference are the same as for the first sequence for the night watchman state 7.9%) and the welfare state periphery (9.7%), but the difference for the welfare state core has dropped to just 12.0%--less than one in eight.  Again, we find that the welfare state core is much more popular than the night watchman state: 85.9% to 50.7% in terms of liberalism index, and 91.3% to 69.1% in terms of those not wanting to cut spending. The welfare state periphery again scores highest of all, with 87.1% and 93.4%, respectively.

A fourth set of questions was also asked less frequently, and the wording template differs as well. Respondents are allowed to opt for large cuts or increases, for a total of 5 choices rather than the 3 used in the questions above. This is a smaller sequence, and perhaps because of that, there's a break in the pattern, as seen in the chart:

The welfare state core has the least disagreement between liberals and conservatives: 12.5% compated to 14.9% for the night watchman state and 19.9% for the welfare state periphery, which is also the least popular of the three--a dramatic shift from the other results. But one thing stays constant: The welfare state core is much more popular than the night watchman state: 81.5% to 60.3% in terms of liberalism index, and 89.2% to 76.3% in terms of those not wanting to cut spending. The welfare state periphery again falls to third, with 59.6% and 72.3%, respectively.

From all this, it is clear that the welfare state enjoys strong public support-stronger even than the minimal "night watchman" state favored by libertarian ideologues.  This is where the great American center lies-and it's directly opposed to the politicl elites, such as the odious Peter G. Peterson, whose generational warfare ads have been running on our website this past week.  More on that in a later diary.


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Dont let the Government touch my Medicare (0.00 / 0)
This diary has kept me up thinking about it. Why with all this underlying support is it so damn hard?

Is it just that the elites grab a hold of our inner policy geekyness and tangle us up in the details? What in their message subverts basic self interest and support?

Looking at the health care debate just past it seems to me it is something about the shape of their arguments.

It started out pretty well when the initial position seemed to be about insurance companies. What was the response? "We have the best health care system in the world".

Those starting points both had an emotional connection. "The bad guys are screwing us" and "we are the champions of the world".

Then we fell apart. Some attacked the premise of the best. Others made emotional appeals to help others. But we lost the connection. They never did. They turned the premise from an attack on the bad guys to an attack on Doctors and nurses.

We have got to do a better job of battle field prep. We have got to spend time at the beginning laying the broad connections so that the pieces of the puzzle fit into the frame naturally and obviously when explained.


you are thinking too deep (0.00 / 0)
Our arguments were and are stronger than theirs. This issue, and most others involving economics, are decided by bribes. The representatives who refuse to represent the known wishes of the majority do so out of greedy self interest.... The public be damned!

Don't see how this can be changed with the two parties representing the center and the extreem right only.

Time for a populist party to represent the known (popular) wishes of the majotity.

Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob..... FDR


[ Parent ]
This actually understates the support (0.00 / 0)
Because elites of both parties are hostile to the the welfare state, and the media reflects this, its astonishing that the support remains so high. If the Democratic Party started offering a real alternative on these issues - and people could hear an alternative - there is little doubt that these numbers would skew in the progressive direction even more.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

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