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Negative partisanship and public opinion

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Christopher Federico has some thoughts on the surprising-to-me level of unpopularity of the Republican tax bill:

But there may be another factor behind the lack of public support for the tax overhaul: the public’s perception that some people are more likely to cash in than others. Though the bill will offer most taxpayers some relief in the near term, analysts believe that the benefits to corporations and relatively wealthy taxpayers will be much greater—especially over the long haul. Importantly, the public seems to see this: Recent polling suggests that most people see the bill as a boon to the wealthy above all.

Still, even if the rich are likely to benefit the most from the new tax cuts, shouldn’t the promise of some tax relief generate at least some enthusiasm for the bill in the broader public? As it turns out, many years of research in both psychology and political science suggest not. For the most part, studies indicate that self-interest in the pocketbook sense matters a lot less than we assume: Citizens are not moved to political action by perceived shifts in how they are doing as isolated individuals. They can, however, be roused to political anger when they think others will end up doing better in comparison to people like them—that is, when they experience what social scientists refer to as “relative deprivation.” Thus, even the promise of a few more dollars in one’s wallet might be dissatisfying if other folks end up with thousands more.

This relative deprivation dynamic, of course, also helps make sense of the racial and cultural obstacles to class solidarity; that many rural white people believe in a secret welfare state for those people is instructive in making sense of their politics. It’s generally worth keeping in mind that while “self-interest” matters a great deal in politics, it’s generally filtered through various ideological lenses. Of course for all this to work, the public needs to view the tax bill as primarily about upward redistribution. It is, of course, but getting that message through to the general public in a hyper-polarized information environment is itself quite remarkable; I’m a skeptic about the value of messaging, but the Democrats clearly did an impressive job here. But good, disciplined messaging alone shouldn’t be enough to break through the partisan divide. The Republicans did what seemed like a pretty good job getting their messages out about the ACA in 2009, and the result was roughly what you’d expect in a highly polarized political environment–they got virtually all Republicans against it, did pretty well with independents, and had it down in the 40% range–which is more or less where I’d think the floor for partisan legislation in a highly polarized environment would be. But the Republicans have fallen through that floor, twice. Why?

One theory (I have little confidence I’m right about this; I’m just thinking out loud here): since 2009, we’ve moved further into what’s clearly an era of overwhelmingly negative polarization. That was well on its way in 2009, but it wasn’t quite fully formed yet–recall we were less than a year removed from an election between two generally popular, well-liked politicians, which seems unimaginable from the perspective of 2016. The dynamics since then have not made either party particularly popular; that the Democratic party polls quite poorly right now, but it’s not really hurting them because the Republican party is doing so much worse. Perhaps in an era when polarization is overwhelmingly negative in orientation, the gap between its effectiveness during elections and between elections grows. In an election, you can mobilize your side effectively because it’s us vs. them; when pursuing a policy initiative, it’s us vs. nothing/status quo, which is harder to demonize, and draws greater attention to what you’re actually doing. If this is right, in a weird way high negative polarization makes the politics of elections worse–uglier and less substantive–but may make some features of politics outside of elections better–since voters are less in thrall of their preferred party, they take a closer look at what they’re trying to do. The fundamentally unpopular features of the Republicans’ plans was harder to hide behind the partisan veil.

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