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The Economy Structures Everything

- February 18, 2010

In response to my earlier post on congressional approval, commenter David Adam cites Jim Stimson’s book _Tides of Consent_ (large pdf). Stimson’s findings are even more profoundly related to my subsequent post on political trust and the economy.

Stimson shows that the public’s approval of virtually every aspect of government — the president, Senators, Congress, governors, the government itself — trend together quite strongly:

Occasionally the trends diverge, such as when the public rallied to Bush during the Persian Gulf War, but that divergence is the exception. Stimson writes:

bq. The most important point, however, is that the lines are hard to pull apart and distinguish because they are pretty clearly measuring the same thing…Approval and trust are generic, a syndrome of attitudes toward public affairs that only appears to be affected by and directed toward particular people and institutions.

And what is driving these trends? The economy. Stimson plots a measure of approval that averages all of the relevant trends against the Michigan Index of Consumer Sentiment:

The correlation isn’t perfect, obviously. For example, Stimson notes the divergence following September 11, 2001. But again, the correlation is quite strong. And the implication is this:

bq. So what does it mean that citizens approve or trust? It appears to mean mainly that things are going well in the country. What is important about this pattern, and unexpected, is that the approval and trust are granted to those who have had no role in producing the outcomes. We have known for some time that presidents seemed to get more credit or blame than they deserved. With the pattern now extended to those who have had no conceivable role, we need to reassess what it means to approve.