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Market Populism, Cultural Conservatism and Limited Government: Examining the Complexities of Contemporary Political Ideologies


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Principal Investigator(s):

Amy Gangl
Union College
Email: gangla@union.edu

John Zumbrunnen
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Email: zumbrunnen@wisc.edu
Home page: http://www.polisci.wisc.edu/people/person.aspx?id=1076

Sample size: 451
Field period: 3/31/2006 - 4/5/2006

 

Abstract:

According to both scholars and cultural critics, a majority of Americans increasingly prefer market mechanisms over political processes or else simply equate democratic government with free markets (Reich, 2002; Sunstein, 2000; Cross 2000; Sandel, 1995). Thomas Frank (2000a), for example, argues that what he terms “market populism” has become increasingly dominant in American political culture. For Frank, market populism holds that in addition to being mediums of exchange, markets are mediums of consent…..markets manage to express the popular will more articulately and meaningfully than do mere elections. By their very nature markets confer democratic legitimacy, markets bring down the pompous and the snooty, markets look out for the interests of the little guy, markets give us what we want (Frank 2000b). Frank finds market populism not only in the pronouncements of business leaders, corporate cheerleaders and management theorists but also in the rhetoric of political leaders from Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich; and he contends that as a result market populist ideas are engrained in much of the American psyche today.

This project seeks empirically to test the role of market populism in the political beliefs of Americans and, in particular, to explore the place of market populism in contemporary conservatism. The presence of two potentially related but distinct ways of understanding the hypothesized popular preference for markets makes pinning down a precise conceptual definition of market populism difficult. On the one hand, conservative rhetoric often extols the market as more efficient and less wasteful than stereotypical “bureaucratic” solutions. Here the contrast is between market and governmental outcomes. On the other hand, our own content analysis of newspaper coverage of “market populism” over the last five years (since the publication of Frank’s One Market Under God) supports something closer to Frank’s use of the term. That is, we find a great deal of convergence around the definition of market populism as a belief in the free and open marketplace as a site where every opinion can be heard and thus where decisions can be made in a truly democratic manner. Here the emphasis is on market processes, which are said to be more democratic than political processes. For the purposes of this study, we tentatively adopt this second definition, though our survey includes questions based on both definitions (see definitions of key concepts in Appendix 1).

Much commentary suggests that market populism co-exists uneasily with another prominent strain of contemporary American conservatism: cultural conservatism, understood as an appeal to traditional values, most often coupled with an explicit appeal to religion. In more recent work, Frank (2004), for example, argues that the cultural conservatism of today’s Republican party aims to gain the support of voters whose economic interests are ill-served by the free-market policies that follow from the party’s market populism. Similarly, in the wake of the 2004 elections, many Democrats sought ways to exploit what they saw as tensions in the Republican coalition—either by offering their own appeal to liberal “values” or by substituting their own alternative brand of “economic populism.” Key assumptions of this sort of analysis, though, remain untested. We thus have little systematic empirical evidence about whether market populism and cultural conservatism are in fact distinct strands of conservatism or, if they are distinct, how the two interact with one another. Furthermore, we lack systematic empirical examination of the relationship of market populism and cultural conservatism to traditional conservatism’s basic commitment to small government.

The study proposed here aims, first, to examine the nature and prevalence of market populist ideas in a national sample of adult Americans. We then employ an experimental design to manipulate the interaction of market populism and cultural conservatism in the information environment and to test the effects of this interaction on policy stances and candidate support among respondents. Our ultimate aim is to understand the role of market populism and cultural conservatism in citizens’ ideological identifications and political preferences.

Hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: Market populist beliefs are widespread.


Hypothesis 2: Those holding market populist beliefs and those holding culturally conservative beliefs are two distinct subsets within those who self-identify as conservative.

Hypothesis 2a: Market populist beliefs are correlated with conservative self-identification.

Hypothesis 2b: Culturally conservative beliefs are correlated with conservative self-identification.

Hypothesis 2c: Market populist beliefs are not correlated with culturally conservative beliefs.

Hypothesis 2d: The correlation between market populist beliefs and traditional conservative beliefs is stronger than the correlation between culturally conservative beliefs and traditional conservative beliefs.


Hypothesis 3: Market populist appeals and culturally conservative messages in the rhetoric of political elites have separate and distinct impacts upon support for economically conservative and culturally conservative policies. Independent Variable: Condition; Dependent Variable: Policy Stance

Hypothesis 3a: Those who receive a market populist appeal decoupled from a culturally conservative message will offer more support for economically conservative policy than those in the control group, but will not offer more support for culturally conservative policy than those in the control group.

Hypothesis 3b: Those who receive a culturally conservative message decoupled from a market populist appeal will offer more support for culturally conservative policy than those in the control group, but will not offer more support for economically conservative policy than those in the control group.

Hypothesis 3c: Those who receive a market populist appeal integrated with a culturally conservative message will offer more support for both economically conservative policy and culturally conservative policy than those in the control group.

Hypothesis 3d: Those who receive a market populist appeal integrated with a culturally conservative message will offer more support for culturally conservative policy than those who receive a market populist appeal decoupled from a culturally conservative message, but will not offer more support for economically conservative policy than those who receive a market populist appeal decoupled from a culturally conservative message.

Hypothesis 3e: Those who receive a market populist appeal integrated with a culturally conservative message will offer more support for economically conservative policy than those who receive a culturally conservative message decoupled from a market populist appeal, but will not offer more support for culturally conservative policy than those who receive a culturally conservative message decoupled from a market populist appeal.


Hypothesis 4: Market populist appeals and culturally conservative messages in the rhetoric of candidates for elective office have separate and distinct impacts upon candidate support. Independent Variables: Market Populist Beliefs, Culturally Conservative Beliefs, Ideology and Experimental Condition; Dependent Variable: Support for Candidate.

Hypothesis 4a: Candidate support will be higher among those who receive a market populist appeal integrated with a culturally conservative message than among those who receive a market populist appeal decoupled from a culturally conservative message and than among those who receive a culturally conservative message decoupled from a market populist appeal.

Hypothesis 4b: Among those with culturally conservative beliefs, those who receive a market populist appeal integrated with a culturally conservative message will express more support for the candidate than will those who receive a market populist appeal decoupled from a culturally conservative message.

Hypothesis 4c: Among those with market populist beliefs, those who receive a market populist appeal integrated with a culturally conservative message will express more support for the candidate than will those who receive a culturally conservative message decoupled from a market populist appeal.

Hypothesis 4d: Among self-identified liberals, those who receive a market populist appeal decoupled from a culturally conservative message will express more support for the candidate than will those who receive a market populist appeal integrated with a culturally conservative message.


Hypothesis 5: Though they are separate and distinct strands of conservatism, market populism, and cultural conservatism are linked by a shared populism).

Hypothesis 5a: Market populist beliefs are correlated with populist beliefs.

Hypothesis 5b: Culturally conservative beliefs are correlated with populist beliefs.

Experimental Manipulations:

There are three treatments:

A. Market Populism- Integrated with Cultural Conservatism
B. Market Populism- without Cultural Conservatism
C. Cultural Conservatism without Market Populism

The experimental scenarios were as follows:

A. Market Populism Integrated With Cultural Conservatism

Please read the following excerpt from a speech a candidate running for the US Senate might make:** “I believe that freedom is our birthright because the Creator wrote it into our common human nature. No government can ever take away a gift from God. And so we must continue to free our entrepreneurs from needless government regulation and lessen the burden of taxes. When government cuts taxes, all Americans benefit. Consumer confidence grows because people have more cash on hand to invest and spend. Businesses benefit from increased consumer spending, and are then able to increase their capital investment, which in turn creates more jobs. In America, the principles of the marketplace should be the organizing principles for all political, social, and economic decisions. The market allows everyone’s voice to be heard. By embracing it, we will preserve our freedom, and we will pass along to future generations the time-honored traditional values that we cherish as a nation."

B. Market Populism Decoupled from the Cultural Conservatism

Please read the following excerpt from a speech a candidate running for the US Senate might make:** "I believe that we must continue to free our entrepreneurs from needless government regulation and lessen the burden of taxes. When government cuts taxes, all Americans benefit. Consumer confidence grows because people have more cash on hand to invest and spend. Businesses benefit from increased consumer spending, and are then able to increase their capital investment, which in turn creates more jobs. In America, the principles of the marketplace should be the organizing principles for all political, social, and economic decisions. The market allows everyone’s voice to be heard, and we must embrace it."

C. Cultural Conservatism Decoupled from Market Populism

Please read the following excerpt from a speech a candidate running for the US Senate might make:** “Faith and dreams often go hand in hand. The dream upon which our nation was founded was based in a strong faith. Our national goal must be to live up to that dream: that every single man, woman and child in this world is endowed by their creator with inalienable rights...rights like life...liberty...and freedom. We are all children of God. That belief, that faith, informs so much of what we do...what we believe...and who we are. Indeed, the strong belief that we are all children of God, and that as such we all have certain inalienable rights, has been a fundamental basis for the morality of our great nation.”

D. Control Group – Receives no Excerpt


**Excerpts in conditions A, B, and C adapted from speeches found on the website of the Republican National Committee.

Key Dependent Variables:

Policy Stances, Ideology, Market Populism

Summary of Findings:

Broadly speaking, we find in the data drawn from the current sample considerable support for the idea that cultural conservatism and market conservatism stand as separate and distinct strands of conservative ideology, both in the attitudes of citizens and in the rhetoric of conservative political elites. In many of our analyses, these two separate strands of conservative attitudes in fact drive out general ideological self-placement and traditional conservatism’s belief in limited government as explanations for citizens’ political preferences.

Our analyses also consistently suggest that cultural conservatism exercises more pervasive explanatory power than does market conservatism. Cultural conservatism thus more directly and more strongly relates to general conservative self-identification. Furthermore, culturally conservative attitudes drive citizens not only to prefer culturally conservative policies but also to prefer economically conservative policies. Likewise, culturally conservative attitudes drive support not only for candidates who are explicitly culturally conservative but also for candidates who express only market conservatism. Market conservative attitudes, on the other hand, influence ideology in large part through Republican party identification; and they tend to drive preference for economically conservative policies, but not for culturally conservative policies. Market conservative attitudes likewise drive support for candidates who are explicitly market conservative but not for candidates who express only cultural conservatism. In short, knowing whether a citizen is culturally conservative tells one considerably more about the scope of their conservatism than does knowing whether they are a market conservative.

To judge from our sample, the same logic holds true in assessing the ideology of candidates for elective office. For our respondents, culturally conservative rhetoric from a candidate tells one more about the overall conservatism of a candidate than does market conservative rhetoric. More specifically, upon hearing a culturally conservative message, our respondents were likely to presume not only that the candidate was culturally conservative but also that the candidate was economically conservative. A market conservative appeal, on the other hand, suggested only economic conservatism. In short, respondents seemed to assume—quite reasonably, we think--that among elites market conservatism and cultural conservatism interact largely as they do among ordinary citizens. This conclusion complicates the argument that conservative elites deceptively appeal to the cultural conservatism of citizens while surreptitiously pursuing economically conservative policies that often harm the economic interests of those citizens. Again, our data suggest that citizens are by and large able to recognize economically conservative rhetoric when they hear it from candidates. The further finding that respondents tend to see economic conservatism lurking behind culturally conservative rhetoric might well be seen as evidence not of confusion but of a certain sort of sophistication among respondents as an audience for the rhetoric of conservative elites. It may well be, as Thomas Frank and others have argued, that many citizens who support conservative elites ignore or even misunderstand the possible implications for their own economic self-interest. Our data, though, suggest that they are not the unwitting victims of some sort of ideological bait and switch.

Conclusion:

At the level of mass attitudes, we see our findings as consistent with the line of research following Converse (1964), which suggests that individuals do not necessarily have cognitively consistent and coherent belief systems and, consequently, that standard ideological labels may not carry consistent and coherent meaning across individuals. In our study, individuals who rate themselves as conservative may arrive at that self-identification from (at least) two different attitudinal directions—or from some combination of the two. Given that cultural conservatism, with its willingness to see a more active governmental role in preserving traditional values, seems to stand at times in basic tension with traditional conservatism’s insistence on limited government and market conservatism’s praise of the unhindered operation of the marketplace, some of those who label themselves as conservatives clearly labor under a lack of cognitive ideological “constraint.”

Our suspicion is that conservatism works as a potent political symbol, to which different individuals attach different meanings. Indeed, it may be that the two strands of conservatism we here identify themselves center around symbols of, respectively, “traditional values” and “the marketplace.” Individuals with positive affect toward these more particular symbols may associate them with the broader symbol of “conservatism” and thus associate themselves with the latter. Again, we have no direct empirical evidence for such speculation, absent the sort of survey items (most obviously some sort of feeling thermometers for the various symbols) that such a symbolic politics approach requires. There remains, then, considerable work to be done in this area if we are to understand the complex workings and uncertain future of modern American conservatism.

References:

Zumbrunnen, J., and A. Gangl. 2008. "Conflict, fusion, or coexistence? The complexity of contemporary American conservatism." Political Behavior 30:199-221.


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