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Were Bush Tax Cut Supporters "Simply Ignorant?" A Second Look at Conservatives and Liberals in "Homer Gets a Tax Cut"

Lupia, Arthur and Levine, Adam S. and Menning, Jesse O. and Sin, Gisela (2005): Were Bush Tax Cut Supporters "Simply Ignorant?" A Second Look at Conservatives and Liberals in "Homer Gets a Tax Cut". Forthcoming in: Perpsectives on Politics , Vol. 5,

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Abstract

In a recent edition of Perspectives on Politics, Larry Bartels examines the high levels of support for tax cuts signed into law by President Bush in 2001. In so doing, he characterizes the opinions of “ordinary people” as lacking “a moral basis” and as being based on “simple-minded and sometimes misguided considerations of self interest.” He concludes that “the strong plurality support for Bush’s tax cut...is entirely attributable to simple ignorance.”

Our analysis of the same data reveals different results. We show that for a large and politically relevant class of respondents – people who describe themselves as “conservative” or “Republican” – rising information levels increase support for the tax cuts. Indeed, using Bartels’ measure of political information, we show that the Republican respondents rated “most informed” supported the tax cuts at extraordinarily high levels (over 96%). For these citizens, Bartels’ claim that “better-informed respondents were much more likely to express negative views about the 2001 tax cut” is simply untrue.

We then show that Bartels’ results depend on a very strong assumption about how information affects public opinion. He restricts all respondents -- whether liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat – to respond to increasing information levels in identical ways. In other words, he assumes that if more information about the tax cut makes liberals less likely to support it, then conservatives must follow suit. This assumption is very presumptive about the policy trade-offs that different people should make. Our analysis, by contrast, allows people of different partisan or ideological identities to react to higher information levels in varying ways. This flexibility has many benefits, one of which is a direct test of Bartels’ restrictive assumption. We demonstrate that the assumption is untrue. Examined several ways, our findings suggest that much of the support for the tax cut was attributable to something other than “simple ignorance.”

Bartels’ approach is based on a very strong presumption about how citizens should think and what they should think about. We advocate a different approach, one that takes questions of public policy seriously while respecting ideological and partisan differences in opinion and interest. Indeed, citizens have reasons for the opinions and interests they have. We may or may not agree with them. However, we, as social scientists, can contribute more by offering reliable explanations of these reasons than we can by judging them prematurely. By turning our attention to explaining differences of opinion, we can help to forge a stronger and more credible foundation for progress in meeting critical social needs.

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