IU study cited to help explain government shutdown

Two publications, Slate and the Atlantic, have cited a new study by IU Bloomington sociologist Clem Brooks as helping explain the current partial government shutdown.

The study, co-authored by Jeff Manza of New York University and published in American Sociological Review, shows that public support in the U.S. for government programs grew weaker during the recession of 2008-10. The authors attribute the change to increased political polarization.

“What are the consequences of this new trend? Well, it’s just possible that a public operating under these conditions might end up electing representatives willing to shut the government down over opposition to a new government program,” Joshua Keating writes in Slate.

polarization cartoon

Illustration by Ned Shw

The decline in support for government programs ran counter to what happened in previous economic downturns. For example, Americans turned eagerly to the government for relief from the suffering caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s. But in 2008-10, conservatives became much more suspicious of government, leading to an overall drop in public support for federal initiatives.

In an IU news release, Brooks explains that Democrats moved slightly toward supporting government action while Republicans moved much further against it. Positions taken by elected officials matched the changes in public attitudes.

“Republican politicians have moved much faster to the right than Democratic politicians have moved to the left,” said Brooks, the Rudy Professor of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The study draws on data from surveys by government agencies and the Gallup polling organization. Brooks and Manza examined several possible explanations for declining support for government programs and concluded that growing polarization was the only one that held up.

Atlantic senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta quotes extensively from the study.

“The Great Recession caused everyone to double down on what they already believed about the proper role of the individual and the state,” she writes, “with Republican sentiments intensifying more sharply against new government programs than Democratic ones changed in favor.”

She concludes: “When Republicans in Congress shut down the government Monday night over defunding Obamacare, they were responding to this new reality.”

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