The Motivated Formation of Economic Preferences

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Johnston, Christopher David
The Graduate School, Stony Brook University: Stony Brook, NY.
Recent research has argued that ideological orientations in the American mass public are, to a large extent, rooted in psychological dispositions related to differential needs for social order, epistemic certainty, and existential security. Citizens high in such needs tend to be conservative in their political outlook, as conservative policies offer institutional stability and a justification of the status quo, while those low in such needs, in their comfort with ambiguity and change, find liberalism appealing. In its focus on a single ideological dimension, however, such work fails to provide a full account of ideology in the American mass public, which, despite the polarization of elites over the last thirty years, remains multidimensional. In particular, work has largely failed to provide an account of economic preferences within a dispositional framework. The present dissertation considers in greater depth the relationship between psychological needs for order, certainty and security and economic conservatism. I argue that the economic domain is unique, relative to the social and foreign policy domains, in that such issues are prototypically hard, or in other words, technical and non-symbolic. Citizens do not, by default, represent such issues in abstract terms related to institutional stability and change; rather, such representations develop in the context of citizen engagement with political elites, and the cues and frames which these more sophisticated political actors provide. This dynamic creates an asymmetry in how preferences are formed between the engaged and unengaged with important implications for the ways in which needs for order, certainty and security are translated into economic preferences, and thus for the structure of mass ideology. Utilizing diverse methods and data across many years of American politics, including both experimental and survey-based designs, I show empirically that needs for order, certainty and security do indeed provide an important structuring force to preferences in the economic domain, but in heterogeneous ways across citizens, and across political time. For the highly engaged, such needs drive economic conservatism, while for the unengaged they drive economic liberalism. In addition, I find that the connection between needs and economic preferences amongst the engaged emerged in the context of the rise of cultural politics in the early 1990s, suggesting that the qualitative nature of psychological constraint is time-bound.