Economic Self-Interest and Americans’ Redistributive, Class, and Racial Attitudes: The Case of Economic Insecurity

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Abstract

An influential body of research on American public opinion since the mid-1980s has found economic self-interest to be, at best, inconsistently and weakly related to social and political attitude formation. This article argues that this conclusion is related to a dearth of analysis of the potential effect of economic insecurity on American public opinion. It is argued that respondents’ perceptions of their own economic insecurity capture the extent to which not acting self-interestedly can result in hardship-causing economic loss. Empirically, it is shown—through standard regression techniques and more stringent coarsened exact matching (CEM)—that economic insecurity has a systematic and strong effect on the redistributive, class, and racial attitudes of Americans; an effect that often rivals or supersedes the effect of sociotropic and symbolic attitudes. It is also shown that affective economic insecurity—one’s worry or anxiety regarding the potential of future economic hardship—and cognitive economic insecurity—an individual’s more or less dispassionate estimate of future economic hardship—often have distinct and complementary effects in determining public opinion, even when both measures are included in the same model. The evidence presented here makes it clear that existing measures and conceptualizations of economic self-interest—and the body of empirical work that discounts economic factors in American public opinion—need to be rethought in light of economic insecurity.

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Fig. 1

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation Poll: Kaiser Health Tracking Poll: June 2004–Dec. 2016. The dashed line represents the percent of respondents answering “very likely” or “fairly likely” to the question: “Thinking about the next 12 months, how likely do you think it is that you will lose your job or be laid off?” Source: GSS 1978–2016. The dotted line represents the percent of respondents who thought it would be “very likely” or “fairly likely” that they would lose their job or be laid off, while also claiming that it would be “not easy at all” to “find a job with another employer with approximately the same income and fringe benefits you have now.” Source: GSS 1978–2016

Data Availability

Data is available here: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/ONMBPF

Code Availability

Code is available here: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/ONMBPF

Change history

Notes

  1. 1.

    Replication data and code available here: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/ONMBPF

  2. 2.

    This is a slight exaggeration. The Varieties of Capitalism literature (discussed in what follows) and related social insurance accounts (e.g., Moene & Wallerstein, 2001) do take into account the American case.

  3. 3.

    This characterization of insecurity as either affective or cognitive is developed in Anderson and Pontusson (2007).

  4. 4.

    Malhotra et al., 2013 argue, however, that conditional impact of employment threat is so small that it would “generally not [be] detected in aggregate analyses” (p. 391). I argue, however, that the conditional impact of economic insecurity is much broader and more widely consequential.

  5. 5.

    Kalleberg (2018) shows in a comparative context that due to the variability of state-sponsored social welfare programs, employment insecurity means very different things depending on the robustness of the social safety net. For instance, in a country with a robust social welfare state, employment loss is much less likely to mean economic devastation than in a country with a less robust social welfare state. In short, in the former countries, cognitive employment insecurity is much less likely to translate into affective economic insecurity.

  6. 6.

    Additional response categories include: “not too likely” and “not at all likely.”.

  7. 7.

    Additional response categories include: “very easy” and “somewhat easy.”.

  8. 8.

    Additional response categories include: “not too worried” and “not at all worried.”.

  9. 9.

    It should be pointed out, too, that subjective measures of cognitive insecurity are occasionally used to validate objective proxies (see Rehm, 2016,  pp. 49–58).

  10. 10.

    The 2016 wave includes multiple measures of economic insecurity, but they have been sparsely used. One exception is Morgan and Lee (2019), which combines measures of retrospective financial well-being, cognitive economic insecurity, affective economic insecurity, and a dummy variable indicating weather or not a close friend or family member lost a job in the past year into an additive index—which they label “economic vulnerability”—to predict support for Trump. However, these measures are not particularly well correlated, thus calling into question treating them additively.

  11. 11.

    This is done for two reasons: First, the question used as the dependent variable in Table 3B was only asked of white respondents. Second, we would not expect economic insecurity to increase the racial resentment or xenophobia of racially disadvantaged groups, especially if that resentment or xenophobia is directed toward their own racial group.

  12. 12.

    Accounts that have attempted to explain what determines racial resentment (e.g., Sears & Henry, 2005, 2003) argue, primarily, that racial resentment is grounded in “anti-Black affect” and “moral feelings” that Blacks violate traditional American values. One may argue, convincingly, that this is tantamount to saying that racial attitudes cause racial attitudes. See Cramer 2020 and Kam and Burge 2017 for recent reinterpretations of the racial resentment scale.

  13. 13.

    There are theoretical and empirical reasons for this unevenness, foremost among them the fact that there is a well-known correlation between partisanship and perceptions of one’s retrospective financial well-being. In other words, the assumption that retrospective accounts of financial well-being are more-or-less objective is simply unfounded (see e.g., Green & McElwee, 2018; Melcher, 2020).

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Leslie McCall, Matthew Lacouture, Mary Clare Lennon, and Michael Goldfield for their comments and continued guidance and encouragement throughout the drafting of this article.

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Melcher, C.R. Economic Self-Interest and Americans’ Redistributive, Class, and Racial Attitudes: The Case of Economic Insecurity. Polit Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-021-09694-x

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Keywords

  • Economic insecurity
  • Economic self-interest
  • Redistributive attitudes
  • Racial attitudes
  • Class and race