Americans today face no shortage of threats to their financial well-being, such as job and retirement insecurity, health care costs, and spiraling college tuition. While one might expect that these concerns would motivate people to become more politically engaged on the issues, this often doesn't happen, and the resulting inaction carries consequences for political debates and public policy. Moving beyond previously studied barriers to political organization, American Insecurity sheds light on the public's inaction over economic insecurities by showing that the rhetoric surrounding these issues is actually self-undermining. By their nature, the very arguments intended to mobilize individuals-asking them to devote money or time to politics-remind citizens of their economic fears and personal constraints, leading to undermobilization and nonparticipation.
Adam Seth Levine explains why the set of people who become politically active on financial insecurity issues is therefore quite narrow. When money is needed, only those who care about the issues but are not personally affected become involved. When time is needed, participation is limited to those not personally affected or those who are personally affected but outside of the labor force with time to spare. The latter explains why it is relatively easy to mobilize retirees on topics that reflect personal financial concerns, such as Social Security and Medicare. In general, however, when political representation requires a large group to make their case, economic insecurity threats are uniquely disadvantaged.
Scrutinizing the foundations of political behavior, American Insecurity offers a new perspective on collective participation.
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About the Author
Adam Seth Levine is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. He has published in a variety of outlets such as the Journal of Politics, Political Analysis, Review of Behavioral Economics, and Political Communication. His work has won numerous awards, including the 2011 E. E. Schattschneider Prize. This prize is the highest dissertation award in the field of American government and is given annually by the American Political Science Association.
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Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction
By Adam Seth Levine
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Financial Threats and Self-Undermining Rhetoric
Job loss. Concerns about job security. Skyrocketing health care bills. Inadequate retirement savings. Concerns about Social Security and Medicare. Tuition bills. Unrelenting college loan payments.
Americans face no shortage of threats to their financial well- being. These threats reflect financial constraints that they presently face or worry that they could face in the future. Some reflect threats to income, during either one's working years or one's golden years. Others reflect concerns about the high and growing cost of goods such as health care and higher education. To varying degrees, these threats affect people throughout both the lower and middle reaches of the income distribution. They impact people who are objectively poor, along with many who enjoy the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, including a house, a salary, a college degree, and a level of income that permits at least some discretionary spending.
Consider the situation of the average American household today. While the incomes of the richest Americans have exploded since the late 1970s, those in the lower and middle parts of the income distribution have grown much more modestly. At the same time, many Americans are also more likely to experience heightened risk with respect to the economic resources they do have. When it occurs, job loss is more potent because it is more likely to result in long-term unemployment that lasts over six months. Health care involves high out-of-pocket costs, particularly as employers continue to pass along more health care costs to employees (even after the 2010 health care reform). Retirement accounts are less secure because they are increasingly tied to the stock market as opposed to being a defined benefit. And workers who are just starting out incur far more educational debt in advance of a job market that increasingly doles out job insecurity. Taking a wide lens, almost half (44%) of all American families have less than three months of savings to cushion themselves against financial shocks. Or, to state matters more starkly, almost half of Americans are now one financial shock away from poverty.
This book examines the political consequences of these threats to Americans' financial well-being and in particular why they might not motivate people to become politically active even though we have good reason to expect that they would. Echoing the book's title, I collectively refer to such threats as American insecurity — or, in some cases, simply economic insecurity. These labels capture a broad set of areas of life that presently impose constraints on Americans' financial well-being or that they fear could impose constraints in the future. In this book I will be focusing primarily on four threats: involuntary job loss, health care costs, retirement, and higher education costs. These four by no means capture the full range of financial threats that Americans face, but as I will discuss throughout the book they turn out to be particularly illuminating cases. Relative to many other issues that are often grouped under the label of "economic insecurity," explaining political inaction on these four issues turns out to require a new theoretical approach.
Americans have certainly taken note of these forms of insecurity. In 2007, on the eve of the Great Recession, almost two-thirds of Americans reported that the United States offered less economic security than it did just ten years earlier. And a majority expressed concern about how their family would maintain security going forward, including holding a steady job, having health insurance, and retiring comfortably. By the summer of 2009, after Americans had endured the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression as well as taxpayer-funded bailouts of the financial and automotive sectors, almost every single American expressed concern.
Politically speaking, they have also taken note. As millions express concern about losing their job, losing health insurance, incurring major health care expenses, having inadequate retirement savings, and affording a college education for their children, they also express widespread support for public policies that would address such concerns and, in many cases, view them as important issues.
From the perspective of political action, this last point is absolutely critical. It is typically the case that as people consider issues to be more important, they are more likely to take action on them. This means that they become more motivated to do things such as contacting their representatives, attending meetings and rallies, spreading the word about an issue, and donating money to organizations advocating policy change in such issue domains. This fairly intuitive argument about the root of political action is found in both much popular writing on the subject as well as several streams of scholarly writing. It can be found in work on individual political participation and interest-group formation by both political scientists and psychologists. It can also be found in work on campaign strategy and political communication that focuses on the optimal strategies for political elites such as candidates and interest-group leaders.
Indeed, in several other domains, these issue-importance judgments motivate action to a great extent. For example, those who find guns to be a highly important issue are more motivated to become active when gun-related issues are on the political agenda (or to place them on the agenda in the first place). Parallel arguments apply to those concerned about the environment, abortion, and several other issues that affect a broad set of the population. And, absent strong personal motivation on the part of a powerful officeholder or bureaucrat, such large-scale political pressure is often necessary for previously unrepresented groups to make their case in the public square.
That's the landscape as it stands. We would expect issue importance to be a critical catalyst for action when it comes to issues that reflect financial threats that people face. Yet in many cases it hasn't been. To be sure, this does not mean that there are no organizations or activists seeking to represent people facing aspects of economic insecurity. There are. Nor does it mean that Congress has failed to enact any laws whatsoever that would bolster the foundation of Americans' economic security. It has (at times). Rather, my claim is that on issues that reflect financial constraints that people are facing or worry that they could face in the future, there is an identifiable lack of large-scale political participation that (a) is politically consequential, (b) goes against our expectations, and (c) motivates the need to identify heretofore unrecognized barriers to collective action. To help see why, consider the following examples of organizations' recent experiences.
When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, America's health care system was broken in several respects. Tens of millions were uninsured, costs of insurance and out-of-pocket expenses were skyrocketing, health care emergencies were a leading cause of personal bankruptcy, and average health outcomes were no better than those in other countries that spent a fraction of what the United States spent. For millions of Americans, this was a very important issue that directly impacted their financial situation. During the campaign Obama made reform a priority, and once he moved into the White House it remained at the top of his agenda.
One of the major organizations also determined to see reform was Health Care for America Now (HCAN). Formed in 2008, HCAN was a coalition of progressive groups (including labor unions, community organizing networks, netroots groups, and constituency groups that represent broad social cleavages) that organized grassroots activity to support health care reform during Obama's first term. One part of their effort involved activism at the state and local levels targeted at key members of Congress, including wavering Democrats and potential Republican allies like Iowa's Chuck Grassley and Maine's Olympia Snowe. A focal goal all along was an ill-fated proposal for a public insurance option that promised to boost competition in the insurance market and ultimately reduce health insurance costs. Although its efforts did not garner the same degree of national media attention as the Tea Party, HCAN did organize several rallies at many congressional offices around the country as well as a few larger rallies in Washington, D.C.
By the time Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in March 2010, HCAN had half a million people on its mailing list. All of them had become members after taking some action on the organization's website (such as signing petitions to Congress). Some had also made monetary donations to the group. But who were the members? The answer, it turns out, is that they were overwhelmingly middle- to upper-middle-class professionals who, by virtue of their occupations, likely had decent health insurance. Of course, this does not mean that they were immune to insecurity stemming from the possibility of health care–related emergencies, particularly in the event of job loss. But it does mean that the membership of one of the major groups organizing citizens in support of the public option was mostly composed of those who arguably needed it the least, even though health care reform was broadly seen by many as an important issue at this time.
This pattern is even more striking given the wider political context. The fight for health care reform occurred in the aftermath of the worst financial crisis to hit the United States since the Great Depression. Major political and economic institutions, from banks to insurance companies to automobile manufacturers to the government agencies charged with regulating them, were implicated. Even as late as the fall of 2009 polls found that a majority of Americans supported a public health insurance option that would compete with private insurers. One might have expected that this backdrop would set the stage for the ideal political opportunity to mobilize people on these issues. Despite this, the challenges were still immense, and while HCAN was certainly instrumental in helping pass health care reform and ensuring that many previously uninsured people would enjoy greater health security, the fact remains that the public option did not end up being part of the reform. While I am not claiming that a wider membership would necessarily have led to a different fate for the public option, I am arguing that a larger (and potentially more impactful) mobilization effort was theoretically possible and could have led to a different outcome. Moreover, I would argue we had reason to expect a wider membership based on past work showing the motivational role of issue importance.
A second example has to do with the cost of college. At a time when higher education is an increasingly important investment, young people (and their families) are also being saddled with ever-escalating amounts of debt in advance of a turbulent labor market. Tuition has outpaced inflation since the 1980s and the average amount of student debt has almost doubled in the past ten years. The share of delinquent borrowers has followed a similar trajectory, reaching 25% in 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession and climbing to over 30% by 2012 as the recovery was slowly underway. In the face of such grim statistics, to what extent have we observed mass mobilization of the people who are personally affected (and thus presumably most concerned)? The answer is not much. Even activists themselves have claimed that mobilization is missing, which is why they tried to start such a movement as part of Occupy Wall Street in fall 2011. Scholars examining the representation of issue constituencies have come to the same conclusion. In fact, in his recent study of issue representation in Washington, D.C., Matt Grossmann identified proponents of college-loan forgiveness as a good example of an unrepresented single-issue constituency.
This missing mobilization is not for lack of trying, however. Consider MoveOn.org, a pioneer of Internet-based political advocacy. MoveOn's membership, like HCAN's, is mostly composed of middle- to upper-middle-class professionals. Many of the younger members have recently attended college, and most of the older members have children who are in college or about to enter college in the near future. It would be reasonable to claim, therefore, that the membership is both personally affected by and extremely concerned about the cost of college. Despite this, when MoveOn tried to fund-raise to support issue campaigns related to student loan debt in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the effort largely fell flat. There was only one reasonably successful fund-raiser, an outcome that paled in comparison to fund-raising efforts to garner support for noneconomic insecurity issues around the same time.
It is no surprise, therefore, that it remains extremely difficult to discharge student loan debt when you file for personal bankruptcy, that there are websites containing an ever-increasing number of stories of young people facing large loan payments and low wages, and that there is a general lack of political pressure to attack the root cause of the issue: skyrocketing tuition. To be sure, there have been several recent proposals to help make college affordable, such as those by President Obama in August 2013 to make information about such costs more accessible to future college students, but there is no evidence of a large-scale participatory movement that is putting pressure on lawmakers for more changes (including, for example, Obama's other proposals to address college costs that would require congressional approval, which were largely pronounced dead on arrival as soon as they were announced).
Two more examples reflect the experiences of other multi-issue groups trying to mobilize people based on economic insecurity concerns. One is Democracy for America (DFA), a political action committee launched in 2004 by Howard Dean. Founded "on the idea that the grassroots are the key to the Democratic Party's success," its primary goal is to elect progressive candidates and to address a variety of issues that directly or indirectly reflect what it sees as the "master problem": income inequality. Direct issues are those that often relate to financial threats that people face. Indirect topics, such as campaign finance reform, are important issues that typically do not reflect such threats.
DFA boasts over one million members across the country—people who are on its email list and who have taken some action online and/or with a local organization. In its first ten years, members have contributed over $31 million to help achieve DFA's candidate and issue campaigns, donated $5.8 million directly to candidates advocated by DFA, and made 8.9 million phone calls in support of important political goals. Its membership mostly spans the middle of the income distribution. Statistically speaking, it is quite likely that many of them personally face the possibility of involuntary job loss, retirement concerns, and other forms of economic insecurity.
Again it's instructive to look at which members are most likely to become active on issues that reflect such insecurity. By and large these are people who are connected to the issue but whose connections are not the result of direct experience at that moment. They might have a family member or a friend who is personally affected, or perhaps they themselves were affected in the past, but they are less likely to see themselves as directly affected in the present or near future. This does not imply that those directly affected at that moment do not consider such threats to be important political problems. Indeed the opposite is often the case. But, it does mean that they were often not the ones who became most active on these particular issues.
My final example concerns another multi-issue group: Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), founded shortly after the death of Franklin Roosevelt. ADA's overarching goal is to "keep the New Deal dream ... alive for generations to come." It is a multi-issue organization that works on a range of economic insecurity-related issues, such as student loan forgiveness, health care costs, and the effect of international trade agreements on job security, as well as many non-economic insecurity issues such as voting rights, immigration, energy, and the environment. It is also well-known for its congressional rankings.
ADA describes its lobbying philosophy as "based on democratic action—motivating our grassroots members to lobby their Senators and Representatives as constituent-activists." Being able to secure donations of time and money from individual members is thus a core piece of how it impacts the political process. It boasts approximately fifteen thousand dues-paying members as well as a list three times as large of people who are spending time on work related to issues they, and ADA, care about.
Excerpted from American Insecurity by Adam Seth Levine. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 Financial Threats and Self-Undermining Rhetoric 1
2 Do Americans View Financial Threats as Important Political Issues? 35
3 Who Mobilizes? 81
4 Why Rhetoric about Economic Insecurity Can Be Self-Undermining 107
5 How People Respond to Participation Requests 117
6 Political Voice across Issues 161
7 Self-Undermining Rhetoric in the Past and Present 193
Appendix A: Multivariate Models from Chapter 2 213
Appendix B: Analysis of the Washington D.C., Interest-Group Community 217
Appendix C: Multivariate Models from Chapter 5 227
Appendix D: Noncompliance in the ACSCAN Donation Experiment 230
Appendix E: Materials for Experiments in Chapter 5 233
Appendix F: Multivariate Models from Chapter 6 243
Appendix G: Details on Variable Coding for Multivariate Models throughout the Book 249