A Broken Public? Response and Non-Response of the American Public to the Great Recession

Awarded Scholars:
Clem Brooks, Indiana University
Project Date:
Jun 2011
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
The Social and Economic Effects of the Great Recession

Surveys of public opinion suggest support for government action on behalf of the unemployed typically grows during market turbulence. In the 50 years after World War II, popular support for government spending on the social safety net typically increased during recessions. But the Great Recession may be different. Tea Party groups have emerged to oppose social spending and fiscal deficits, and support for income transfer policies among the American public as a whole went slightly down between 2008 and 2010.

Using General Social Surveys, the National Election Studies and their own national telephone surveys, political sociologists Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks will conduct a comprehensive study of political opinion shifts during the Great Recession. In particular, they will examine four explanations for the drop in support for government action. First, they hypothesize that the public initially supported the Obama Administration’s anti-recessionary measures, only to withdraw as unemployment remained high and deficits ballooned. A second hypothesis argues polarization between the ‘austerity’ and ‘expansionist’ camps effectively cancelled each other out. Thirdly, the public may be confused about who to blame for the recession. Finally, in what Manza and Brooks label the ‘broken public’ hypothesis, the public may no longer be capable of responding to macroeconomic change in a meaningful or rational way. On this view, the public is suffering from a decline in "the capacity or inclination to respond," even to economic trends they are aware of.

Results will be disseminated at conference presentations, technical papers and possibly a book published by the Foundation.


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