It's Not Just Obamacare: The Real, Spectacular Rise in Opposition to Government Programs

There was a sharp spike in opposition to government programs from 2008 to 2010 -- the opposite of the reaction during the Great Depression -- but only among Republicans.
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If you want to understand why the federal government is shut down for the first time in 17 years, a good place to start would be Indiana University Professor Clem Brooks and New York University Professor Jeff Manza's just-published paper in the American Sociological Review.

The answer is simple: increased partisanship. This is, on the surface, kind of a "duh!" explanation — just look at the dynamics in Congress, for crying out loud.

But reading the paper, "A Broken Public? Americans’ Responses to the Great Recession," the shutdown appears to be the inevitable result of a dynamic unprecedented in recent decades in which public support for government programs decreased sharply in a time of economic distress. It did so wildly unevenly, with almost all of the decline coming on the Republican side, where support for government programs plummeted to record lows.

The decline in public support for government solutions to social problems between 2008 and 2010 was the was among the largest two-year changes in the last quarter of a century, the authors found. This turn against government programs during the Great Recession is the opposite of the public-opinion shifts in favor of them that characterized the Great Depression. Because it also runs contrary to a number of predictive models about the relationship between the economy, the role of government, and public opinion, the authors delved into why American support for government social programs declined so sharply between 2008 and 2010 — a period when economic anxiety and need were at their highest since the Great Depression.

They tested data from the General Social Survey and two other sources to explore a number of different hypotheses. Was it a reaction against growth in government under Obama — the so-called "government overreach" hypothesis? Lingering racial animus affecting views of a government now headed for the first time by an African-American? The product of a war of ideas in American political life that was shaping public opinion independently of macro-economic circumstances? And what was the role of "motivated reasoning" — the all-too-common intellectual habit of insisting on a belief in the face of contrary evidence, and especially in times of stress?

They systematically tested hypotheses until they were left with one conclusion: The Great Recession caused everyone to double down on what they already believed about the proper role of the individual and the state, with Republican sentiments intensifying more sharply against new government programs than Democratic ones changed in favor. “For several decades now, the Democratic and Republican parties have become more and more distinct when it comes to the laws and policies that U.S. senators, representatives, and presidents support,” said Brooks in a statement. “This polarization is also asymmetric: Republican politicians have moved much faster to the right than Democratic politicians have moved to the left. "

"[W]hy did the U.S. public turn to comparatively lower preferences for government action during the recession?" the study authors ask in their journal aritcle. The "results point overwhelmingly to partisanship .... had only changes in the preferences of partisan identifiers occurred, there would have been a larger drop in overall government policy preferences. The public would have moved even faster away from government support during the critical 2008 to 2010 period."

That's worth repeating: The ideological shift among Republicans was so intense that support for government programs would have been even lower during the 2008-2010 period if not for the recession, which somewhat mitigated the decline.

Racism dropped slightly between 2008 and 2010, the authors found, and if it were the major factor in shaping public opinion about government programs, there would have been movement in support of programs instead of against them. "Trends in racialized reactions among voters — first to Barack Obama’s candidacy and then his presidency — are unlikely by themselves to have constrained public willingness to consider new federal programs and a larger role for government," the authors conclude.

Instead, what they found was this:

Partisan groups responded quite differently in their policy preference formation at specific points in time, and partisan divergence was most extensive from 2006 to 2010. During this time, strong Democrats moved toward greater support for government responsibility (primarily between 2006 and 2008), and Independents trended toward lower levels of sup- port. Strong Republicans, for their part, moved even more quickly in the direction of preferring less government responsibility during the recession.

... by 2010 partisan differences in government responsibility attitudes reached an all-time high. Figure 3’s estimates identify 1994 and 2002 as earlier periods of partisan divergence, yet the recession era elicited particularly divergent policy attitudes among partisan groups.

Brooks and Manza also looked specifically at "such recession-era legislative changes as the 2009 stimulus bill or health care reform in 2010."

Were they the triggers for the decline in support for government? Was it government overreach and opposition to Obamacare?

"If this explanation holds, the public as a whole was propelled away from government support during the recession era," the authors wrote. "We should thus see less evidence of a partisan divide in policy-opinion formation once new (and extensive) government programs were implemented after early October of 2008. This should be particularly true for issues concerning public attitudes toward the federal government’s size, regulatory reach, or overall spending. But that is not what we find."

Instead:

Republican identifiers’ regulatory attitudes trended away from support, in close keeping with the government overreach scenario. Democratic identifiers’ favorable attitudes toward regulation, in contrast, were virtually unchanged during the recession era.

.... Rather than moving in parallel to one another, government attitude trends among partisan groups show considerable divergence, even polarization, over time. Most notably, we find the greatest degree of group divergence from 2008 to 2010. Strong Democratic identifiers, for instance, moved toward slightly higher levels of support for government responsibility, and strong Republican identifiers moved much faster in the opposite direction.

The Great Recession did not shift American public opinion as a whole, it split America into to ever-more-rapidly diverging ideological camps. Or, as the study authors put it: "[P]opulation layers defined by their partisan biases responded heterogeneously when exposed to the same conditions, adopting divergent attitude patterns .... Attitudes of the U.S. public as a whole moved toward lower levels of government support, but not because all citizens experienced the same trends and reasoned in the same way."

When Republicans in Congress shut down the government Monday night over defunding Obamacare, they were responding to this new reality.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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