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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Data is available here: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/ONMBPF
Code is available here: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/ONMBPF
Replication data and code available here: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/ONMBPF
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.
This characterization of insecurity as either affective or cognitive is developed in Anderson and Pontusson (2007).
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.
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.
Additional response categories include: “not too likely” and “not at all likely.”.
Additional response categories include: “very easy” and “somewhat easy.”.
Additional response categories include: “not too worried” and “not at all worried.”.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
Anderson, C. J., & Pontusson, J. (2007). Workers, worries and welfare states: Social protection and job insecurity in 15 OECD countries. European Journal of Political Research, 46, 211–235.
Berlet, C., & Lyons, M. N. (2000). Right-wing populism in America: Too close for comfort. Guilford Press.
Bonacich, E. (1972). A theory of ethnic antagonism: The split labor market. American Sociological Review, 37, 547–559.
Boswell, T., Brown, C., Brueggemann, J., & Ralph Peters, T., Jr. (2006). Racial competition and class solidarity. State University of New York Press.
Burgoon, B., & Dekker, F. (2010). Flexible employment, economic insecurity and social policy preferences in Europe. Journal of European Social Policy, 20(2), 126–141.
Cheng, S., & Wen, F. (2019). Americans overestimate the intergenerational persistence in income ranks. PNAS, 116(28), 13909–13914.
Chong, D., Citrin, J., & Conley, P. (2001). When self-interest matters. Political Psychology, 22(3), 541–570.
Citrin, J., & Green, D. P. (1990). The self-interest motive in American public opinion. Research in Micropolitics, 3, 1–28.
Citrin, J., Green, D. P., Muste, C., & Wong, C. (1997). Public opinion toward immigration reform: The role of economic motivations. The Journal of Politics, 59(3), 858–881.
Cramer, K. (2020). Understanding the role of racism in contemporary US public opinion. Annual Review of Political Science, 23, 253–169.
Dancygier, R. M., & Donnelly, M. J. (2012). Sectoral economies, economic contexts, and attitudes toward immigration. The Journal of Politics, 75(1), 17–35.
De Cuyper, N., De Witte, H., Krausz, M., Mohr, G., & Rigotti, T. (2010). Individual and organizational outcomes of employment contracts. In D. Guest, K. Isaksson, & H. De Witte (Eds.), Employment contracts psychological contracts and employee well-being. Oxford University Press.
Dominitz, J., & Manski, C. F. (1997). Perceptions of economic insecurity: Evidence from the survey of economic expectations. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 61(2), 261–287.
Donnelly, M. J. (2020). Material interests, identity and linked fate in three countries. British Journal of Political Science. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007123419000589
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1998). Black reconstruction in America, 1860–1880. The Free Press.
Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Princeton University Press.
Estevez-Abe, M., Iversen, T., & Soskice, D. (2001). Social protection and the formation of skills: A reinterpretation of the welfare state. In P. A. Hall & D. Soskice (Eds.), Varieties of capitalism: The institutional foundations of comparative advantage. Oxford University Press.
Farber, H. S. (2010). Job loss and the decline of job security in the United States. In G. A. Katharine, R. S. James, & H. Michael (Eds.), Labor in the new economy. University of Chicago Press.
Fong, C. (2001). Social preferences, self-interest, and the demand for redistribution. Journal of Public Economics, 82, 225–246.
Franko, W., Tolbert, C. J., & Witko, C. (2013). Inequality, self-interest, and public support for ‘robin hood’ tax policies. Political Research Quarterly, 66(4), 923–937.
Gilens, M. (1999). Why Americans hate welfare: Race, media, and the politics of antipoverty policy. The University of Chicago Press.
Gilens, M., & Thal, A. (2018). Doing well and doing good? how concern for others shapes policy preferences and partisanship among affluent Americans. Public Opinion Quarterly, 82(2), 209–230.
Green, J., & McElwee, S. (2018). The differential effects of economic conditions and racial attitudes in the election of Donald trump. Perspectives on Politics, 17(2), 358–379.
Greenhalgh, L., & Rosenblatt, Z. (1984). Job insecurity: Toward conceptual clarity. The Academy of Management Review, 9(3), 438–448.
Hacker, J. S. (2019). The great risk shift: The new economic insecurity and the decline of the American dream. Oxford University Press.
Hacker, J. S., & Pierson, P. (2002). Business power and social policy: Employers and the formation of the American welfare state. Politics and Society, 30(2), 277–325.
Hacker, J. S., Rehm, P., & Schlesinger, M. (2010). Standing on shaky ground: America’s experiences with economic insecurity. Rockefeller Foundation.
Hacker, J. S., Rehm, P., & Schlesinger, M. (2013). The insecure American: Economic experiences, financial worries, and policy attitudes. Perspectives on Politics, 11(1), 23–49.
Hainmueller, J., & Hopkins, D. J. (2014). Public attitudes toward immigration. Annual Review of Political Science, 17, 225–249.
Hall, P. A., & Soskice, D. (Eds.). (2001). Varieties of capitalism: The institutional foundations of comparative advantage. Oxford University Press.
Hochschild, A. R. (2018). Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American right. The New Press.
Iacus, S., King, G., & Porro, G. (2012). Causal inference without balance checking: Coarsened exact matching. Political Analysis, 20(1), 1–24.
Iversen, T., & Soskice, D. (2001). An asset theory of social policy preferences. American Political Science Review, 95(4), 875–893.
Jardina, A. (2019). White identity politics. Cambridge University Press.
Kalleberg, A. L. (2011). Good jobs, bad jobs: The rise of polarized and precarious employment systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s. Russell Sage.
Kalleberg, A. L. (2018). Job insecurity and well-being in rich democracies. Polity Press.
Kalleberg, A. L., & Marsden, P. V. (2012). Labor force insecurity and U.S. work attitudes, 1970s–2006. In P. V. Marsden (Ed.), Social trends in American life: Findings from the general social survey since 1972. Princeton University Press.
Kam, C. D., & Burge, C. D. (2017). Uncovering reactions to the racial resentment scale across the racial divide. The Journal of Politics, 80(1), 314–320.
Katz, M. (2013). The underserving poor: America’s enduring confrontation with poverty. Oxford University Press.
Kenworthy, L., & Owens, L. A. (2011). The surprisingly weak effect of recessions on public opinion. In D. B. Grusky, B. Western, & C. Wimer (Eds.), The great recession. Russell Sage.
Kinder, D. R., & Sanders, L. M. (1996). Divided by color: Racial politics and democratic ideals. University of Chicago Press.
Korpi, W. (2006). Power resources and employer-centered approaches in explanations of welfare states and varieties of capitalism: Protagonists, consenters, and antagonists. World Politics, 58(2), 167–206.
Levine, A. S. (2015). American insecurity: Why our economic fears lead to political inaction. Princeton University Press.
Lindh, A., & McCall, L. (2020). Class position and political opinion in rich democracies. Annual Review of Sociology, 46, 419–441.
Malhotra, N., Margalit, Y., & Mo, C. H. (2013). Economic explanations for opposition to immigration: Distinguishing between prevalence and conditional impact. American Journal of Political Science, 57(2), 391–410.
Mansbridge, J. J. (Ed.). (1990). Beyond self-interest. University of Chicago Press.
Manza, J., & Crowley, N. (2018). Class divisions and political attitudes in the 21st century. In D. Albarracin & B. T. Johnson (Eds.), Handbook of attitudes, volume 2: Applications. Routledge.
Margalit, Y. M. (2013). Explaining social policy preferences: Evidence from the great recession. American Political Science Review, 107(1), 80–103.
Margalit, Y. M. (2019). Political responses to economic shocks. Annual Review of Political Science, 22, 277–295.
Marx, P. (2014). The effect of job insecurity and employability on preferences for redistribution in western Europe. Journal of European Social Policy, 24(4), 351–366.
Mauno, S., Kinnunen, U., Mäkikangas, A., & Nätti, J. (2005). Psychological consequences of fixed-term employment and perceived job insecurity among health care staff. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 14(3), 209–237.
McCall, L. (2013). The undeserving rich: American beliefs about inequality, opportunity, and redistribution. Cambridge University Press.
McCall, L., Burk, D., Laperriére, M., & Richeson, J. A. (2017). Exposure to rising inequality shapes Americans’ opportunity beliefs and policy support. PNAS, 114(36), 9593–9598.
McCall, L., & Manza, J. (2011). Class differences in social and political attitudes in the United States. The oxford handbook of American public opinion and the media. Oxford University Press.
Melcher, C. R. (2020). The political economy of ‘white identity politics’: Economic self-interest and perceptions of immigration. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 44(2), 293–313.
Moene, K. O., & Wallerstein, M. (2001). Inequality, social insurance, and redistribution. American Political Science Review, 95(4), 859–874.
Morgan, S. L., & Lee, J. (2019). Economic populism and bandwagon bigotry: Obama-to-trump voters and the cross pressures of the 2016 election. Socius, 5, 1–15.
Morgan, S. L., & Winship, C. (2015). Counterfactuals and causal inference: Methods and principles for social research. Cambridge University Press.
Mutz, D. C. (2018). Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote. PNAS, 115(19), E4330–E4339.
Owens, L. A., & Pedulla, D. S. (2014). “Material welfare and changing political preferences: The case of support for redistributive social policies. Social Forces, 92(3), 1087–1113.
Page, B. I., & Jacobs, L. R. (2009). Class war? What Americans really think about economic inequality. University of Chicago Press.
Pardos-Prado, S., & Xena, C. (2019). Skill specificity and attitudes toward immigration. American Journal of Political Science, 63(2), 286–304.
Piston, S. (2018). Class attitudes in America: Sympathy for the poor, resentment of the rich, and political implications. Cambridge University Press.
Rehm, P. (2016). Risk inequality and welfare states: Social policy preferences, development, and dynamics. Cambridge University Press.
Rehm, P., Hacker, J. S., & Schlesinger, M. (2012). Insecure alliances: Risk, inequality, and support for the welfare state. American Political Science Review, 106(2), 386–406.
Reich, M. (1981). Racial inequality: A political-economic analysis. Princeton University Press.
Rueda, D., & Stegmueller, D. (2019). Who wants what? Redistribution preferences in comparative perspective. Cambridge University Press.
Saxton, A. (1995). The indispensable enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese movement in California. The University of California Press.
Schmidt, S. R. (1999). Long-run trends in workers’ beliefs about their own job security: Evidence from the general social survey. Journal of Labor Economics, 17(S4), S127–S141.
Sears, D. O., & Funk, C. L. (1991). The role of self-interest in social and political attitudes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 1–91.
Sears, D. O., & Henry, P. J. (2003). The origins of symbolic racism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(2), 259–275.
Sears, D. O., & Henry, P. J. (2005). Over thirty years later: A contemporary look at symbolic racism. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 37, 95–150.
Sears, D. O., Van Laar, C., Carrillo, M., & Kosterman, R. (1997). Is it really racism?: The origins of white Americans’ opposition to race-targeted policies. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 61(1), 16–53.
Sverke, M., Hellgren, J., & Naswall, K. (2002). No security: A meta-analysis and review of job insecurity and its consequences. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 7(3), 242–264.
Swenson, P. (2002). Capitalists against markets: The making of Labor markets and welfare states in the United States and Sweden. Oxford University Press.
Thelen, K. (2019). The American precariat: U.S. capitalism in comparative perspective. Perspectives on Politics, 17(1), 5–27.
Wilson, W. J. (1980). The declining significance of race: Blacks and changing American institutions. University of Chicago Press.
Witte, De., Hans, J. P., & De Cuyper, N. (2016). Review of 30 years of longitudinal studies on the association between job insecurity and health and well-being: Is there causal evidence? Australian Psychologist, 51, 18–31.
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.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Economic insecurity
- Economic self-interest
- Redistributive attitudes
- Racial attitudes
- Class and race