Substantive Divergence: The Meaning of Public Opinion on Government Spending in Red and Blue

Substantive Divergence: The Meaning of Public Opinion on Government Spending in Red and Blue

By Katherine Krimmel, Columbia University and Kelly Rader, Yale University

We examine the substantive meaning of public opinion on government spending using open-ended data from an original survey. Belying the conventional wisdom on this subject, we find that public opinion on government spending is not reducible to views on social welfare programs. While most people do have specific associations with spending, in the aggregate, public associations span a wide range of government functions. Balance does not necessarily mean harmony, however. We find strong evidence of what we call substantive divergence along party lines in this area—when they think about spending, Republicans and Democrats envision different bundles of goods and services, on average. This is true even for opposing partisans with the same overall assessment of spending (e.g., those who say government spends too much). These findings bring fiscal conflict into sharper relief and also have broader implications for the conceptualization and measurement of differences across parties, as well as other political cleavages.

 

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