Public Support for Conservative Economic Policies

By Nilsson, Eric A. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Public Support for Conservative Economic Policies


Nilsson, Eric A., Journal of Economic Issues


Do materialist or ideological forces drive economic policy making in the United States? Mayo Toruno [1997] recently argued that the "right turn" of the U.S. government after the 1960s was not directly related to worsening economic conditions. Instead, right-wing economic policies "might have instead been the culmination of an evolutionary trend whose roots precede the decline of the golden age" [Toruno 1997, 592]. Ideological forces that developed largely independent of economic conditions caused a shift rightward among the U.S. electorate in the 1960s, and this shift rightward of the electorate was behind the later right turn of U.S. government economic policies.

In this article, I pursue Toruno's ideas further. In particular, I investigate whether ideology in the United States is indeed an independent force, as claimed by Toruno, or whether ideology simply reflects underlying material forces. I also consider the contribution of nonmaterial forces to rightward movements in U.S. ideology.

Political Ideology in the United States

Political ideology in the United States has varied over the postwar period, in some years becoming more liberal while in other years becoming more conservative. Data on party membership and on self-identified position within the left-right spectrum, however, often fail to capture these movements in political ideology. Public opinion polls on particular issues show movements in implied political ideology that are at variance with movements in party membership and in self-identified political attitudes [Mayer 1992].

James Stimson [1991] constructed an index that captured temporal movements in this implied political ideology. He generated his index from a data set that included the results of more than 1,000 public opinion polls administered over the postwar period. That is, rather than taking statements of political philosophy or party membership at face value (as what it meant to be a "Democrat" or to be "liberal" has changed over time), Stimson considered what people actually said about taxes, federalism, anti-discrimination policies, abortion, and so on. These poll results about particular economic, social, and foreign policy issues can be tracked over time and then aggregated to create a single index number [Stimson 1991, chap. 3 and Appendix 1]. The resulting time series moves in a way generally consistent with informal discussions of changes in U.S. political attitudes found in Mayer [1992], Page and Shapiro [1992], and elsewhere.

Figure 1 presents Stimson's political ideology index for 1956 to 1989 [Stimson 1991, Appendix 2]. The larger the index number, the more "conservative" the population; the lower the number, the more "liberal" the population.(1)

Four periods can be identified in the figure:

1. 1956-1963: political ideology within the United States was liberal and became increasingly liberal as time passed.

2. 1964-1972: political ideology became less liberal than before.

3. 1973-1980: a significant conservative shift occurred.

4. 1981-1989: political ideology become more liberal.

Political ideology, of course, encompasses economic, social, and foreign policy attitudes. These three components need not move in parallel. But, the pattern of political ideology observed in Figure 1 accords with the pattern of economic ideology noted in Mayer [1992, chap. 6].

Material Conditions and Political Ideology

Materialist forces could have been behind the changes in political ideology seen in Figure 1. More narrowly, worse economic outcomes could have pushed people in the United States toward a more conservative political ideology. Worsening economic performance could have provoked U.S. business firms to spend resources in an attempt to move public opinion to the right. Or, workers might have become more conservative simply as their standard of living suffered.

Figure 2 presents data on the profit rate of U. …

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