The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Citizens feel disconnected from government. If they knew what government did for them, they wouldn’t.

HF: Your book argues that Americans have come to depend on the state more but that they like it less. How does this affect citizens’ engagement with the policy process?

SM: This paradox — Americans’ growing reliance on public social policies paired with hostility to government and disconnection from it — is what I call the government-citizen disconnect. I should note that it is not a causal relationship. In fact, Americans very much like and appreciate the social policies they use. It’s just that when they evaluate government generally, their use and experiences of social policies do not typically figure into their thinking. As a result, when people are participating in politics, they can be attracted to appeals for limited government, lower taxes and scaling back programs — supporting candidates who would endanger the policies on which they have relied — unless their attention is explicitly drawn to specific policies that benefit them and how those would be affected.

As an example of this dynamic, consider that in the 2018 election, various states that reelected Republican congresspersons who have promised repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act simultaneously passed ballot measures that would have their states adopt expanded Medicaid under the ACA.

HF: You find that those who are most appreciative of state welfare benefits are also less likely to participate in politics. What consequences does this have?

SM: People who have used a number of visible, means-tested policies tend to be particularly aware that government has come to their aid, and they are also particularly supportive of expanded social provision generally, yet they are the least likely to participate in politics. By contrast, many of the most active participants in politics are those who have used several policies with “submerged” designs, such as tax expenditures, and they do not think of government as having aided them. As a result, a participatory tilt exists in which politics overrepresents people who are less likely to be thinking about how social policies matter for themselves and others.

This helps to explain why some regions of the country that use social transfers at high rates elect congresspersons who are committed to making those policies more restrictive. Take, for example, Kentucky, where the average resident receives 23 percent of their income from federal social transfers, yet the state now sends a highly conservative delegation to Congress, with members who advocate for work requirements as a condition for receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The counties with the highest receipt of social transfers participate at the lowest rates in presidential elections, and vice versa.

HF: One of your interesting findings is that people’s attitudes to the earned-income tax credit are different when they receive other benefits, too, than when they just get the tax credit alone. What is this difference, and what explains it?

SM: The earned-income tax credit has been justly praised for doing more to lift people out of poverty than other policies and for giving them a sense of social inclusion in the process. Yet I find that it does not leave recipients with the sense that it was government that came to their aid, probably because its design and delivery obscures government’s role. If those same individuals have benefited from other policies with more visible designs, however, they tend to be more appreciative of it.

I was particularly struck by how recipients of EITC and other submerged, means-tested policies — individuals who might be called the “working poor” — hold particularly negative views of government, being especially likely to feel that it is not responsive to people like them and that public officials don’t care about them. The policies failed to mitigate those feelings. In fact, these are individuals who have been left behind as economic inequality has grown and the economy has changed, and they rightly perceive that government has not been very responsive to their plight.

HF: Given the problems you identify, what are the plausible means to get citizens more engaged with the policy process again?

SM: It might be tempting to suggest that political messaging can do the job, but I’ve grown skeptical about how much of a difference that makes for people who already feel disconnected from government. Rather, I’d emphasize the role of organizations that connect with citizens in their everyday lives and can help people to “connect the dots,” making it clear how their policy usage relates to the choices in elections and the importance of participating in politics.  Labor unions used to play this role for many more Americans than they do now; AARP still does this for seniors. What’s really needed is civic renewal, and the reconnection of citizens with each other and government through organizations. Frankly, the future of democracy depends on it.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts can be found here.