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The public is a thermostat

- June 22, 2010

My colleague and co-author Matt Grossmann suggested this post.

David Brooks sees the public as largely opposed to the policies of the Obama administration and the Democratic majorities in Congress. He believes that this reflects a miscalculation on the Democrats’ part: the public is not that liberal.

Some Kool-Aid sippers on the left say the problem is that Republicans have better messaging (somehow John Boehner became magically charismatic to independents). Others say the shift to the right is a product of bad economic times. But Dr. Faustus saw a deeper truth. Moderate suburban voters do not see the world as liberals do, even in the most propitious circumstances, and never will.

But there is another possibility: the public is simply a thermostat. When government spending and activism increases, the public says “too hot” and demands less. When spending and activism decreases, the public says “too cold” demands more. Here is Christopher Wlezien in a 1995 paper (gated):

We observe that the signals the public sends to policymakers, in the form of preferences for “more” or “less” spending, react to changes in policy…[T]here is negative feedback of spending decisions on the public’s relative preferences, whereby the public adjusts its preferences for more spending downward when appropriations increase, and vice versa.

Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson, writing in chapter 9 of The Macro Polity, refer to “the governing system as a thermostat.” Erikson et al. show that the public’s “mood” — a general measure of the policies it desires — moves in the opposite way as policy:

The correlation between policy innovation in one administration and before-after mood change is a strongly negative -0.76…The more liberal the policy stream, the more conservative is the change in mood. Notably, the most liberal presidency (Johnson’s full term ending in 1968) is associated with the greatest public reaction in the conservative direction. Similarly, the conservative presidencies of Reagan and Eisenhower moved the public in a liberal direction.

Brooks is wrong to assume that the public’s reaction to Democratic policies indicates a enduring ideological disjuncture or a failure of public relations. The public may not be more conservative. It may simply be saying “too hot.” As Matt put it in his email to me:

Current trends would not show that Democrats have been unusually unsuccessful in moving public opinion but that policy ideology in public opinion typically moves against the direction of policymaking. The public requests liberal policies, gets them, and then moves in the other direction; they then get more conservative policies and move against them.

Brooks wants to score this moment as a victory or defeat for someone — in this case, a defeat for liberalism and the Democrats. But If policy and thermostatic public opinion is cyclical, then any victory or defeat is temporary. The ebb and flow is the more important dynamic.