Public Attitudes about Political Equality
Sample size: 2000
Field period: 9/29/2011-12/14/2011
Most studies of political equality rest on the normative assumption that citizens, in general, widely support it as a fundamental principle for American democracy. But, do Americans actually support political equality? When phrased vaguely as “political equality,” we might expect high levels of public support. But does support remain high when survey respondents are presented with a precise definition of political equality? Moreover, does support for political equality vary depending on the definition presented? Despite the large literature on public attitudes about economic inequality and equality of opportunity in the United States (e.g., Hochschild 1981; McClosky and Zaller 1984; Feldman 1988; Feldman and Zaller 1992; Bartels 2008), research focusing on public opinion about political equality in particular is nearly nonexistent. This lack of understanding about citizens’ beliefs regarding political equality is surprising given the normative importance placed on the concept in so many political science studies. To further our understanding, this TESS project examines citizens' support for various definitions of "political equality" that are experimentally manipulated.
Does public support for "political equality" (without any explanation of what the term means) extend to support for specific definitions/manifestations of political equality?
Respondents were randomly assigned into one of five different groups. One (randomly assigned) group served as the baseline and was asked the following question:
“Some people believe that the United States should place a greater emphasis on promoting political equality. How about you, do you strongly support, somewhat support, neither support nor oppose, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose promoting political equality?”
Four separate (randomly assigned) groups were asked the following question:
“Some people believe that the United States should place a greater emphasis on promoting political equality. By political equality I mean _________. How about you, do you strongly support, somewhat support, neither support nor oppose, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose promoting political equality?”
The blank listed above is for the treatment, and took on one of the following four forms:
1. …making sure every citizen has the right to vote and participate in politics to make their opinions known to government.
2. …making sure every citizen has access to an education and relevant information that will allow them to stay informed about political affairs.
3. …making sure elected officials listen and respond to the opinions of all citizens equally – whether they are rich or poor, black or white, male or female – when making important policy decisions.
4. …making sure citizens have equal political influence by limiting the amount of money an individual or group can give to a candidate during a political campaign.
Each of the treatment conditions presents a different definition of political equality that has been used in previous studies and allows a researcher to compare and contrast different levels of public support across the various experimental conditions. By including different definitions, this single survey item advances our understanding about popular support for political equality.
The respondent's response to the (experimentally manipulated) prompt about political equality:
1. strongly support
2. somewhat support
3. neither support nor oppose
4. somewhat oppose
5. strongly oppose
In contrast to my initial expectations, I found the least support (37%) when respondents were asked whether the United States should promote political equality when it was presented without any explanation of what it is (i.e. the baseline condition). Respondents are most supportive of the equal right to participate (74%) and the belief that elected officials should represent all citizens’ opinions equally (76%). They are slightly less supportive of ensuring equal resources to participate (60%) and limiting campaign contributions (65%).
I believe the main takeaway point from this study is that a large majority of Americans support political equality, both defined as the equal right to participate in politics and the expectation that elected officials will weigh all citizens’ opinions equally when making policy decisions.