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Andrea Campbell: Public opinion and policy viewed through an historical lens

Professor studies taxation, Social Security, health insurance and more.
Professor Andrea Campbell
Professor Andrea Campbell
Photo: Stuart Darsch

Andrea Campbell’s core research concerns resemble a list of hot-button political issues pulled straight from the 2012 presidential campaign: Social Security, Medicare, health insurance, taxation. 

But Campbell, who was recently promoted to professor in the Department of Political Science, toes a very non-partisan line in her studies, which focus on the interplay of public opinion and key government policies that touch the lives of all Americans. Campbell’s work “is a bit unusual for political science,” she says, because it bridges the fields of political behavior and historical institutional study. Her approach also offers a unique perspective on political inequality — an interest, says Campbell, at “the heart of my research.”
In a book due out next year, How Americans Think About Taxes, Campbell charts the evolution of public attitudes toward taxation. It is a subject largely neglected by political science, perhaps because “researchers thought that people have always hated taxes,” suggests Campbell. But in her data analysis, which include surveys, State of the Union addresses, campaign documents and presidential addresses since the 1930s, Campbell discovered a great deal of variation in tax attitudes over time.

“Something that will surprise people is the fact that taxes, which seem to dominate the agenda now, were nowhere near as important to politicians and the public in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” she says. Back then, “tax politics used to be a quiet politics, with policy by and large set by lawmakers in Congress, mostly behind closed doors.” But they were not up to nefarious deeds: “Politicians of that era were pragmatic and fiscally responsible in the sense that they both wanted to have taxes high enough to provide programs that public opinion wanted and demanded, and generous enough to fund programs without deficits.”

A big shift came in the early 1970s, a time of economic slowdown, when Americans’ real wages fell and they more keenly felt the burden of taxes.  Enterprising politicians, such as Ronald Reagan, successfully united under the Republican umbrella disparate conservative strands who “all agreed that lower taxes were a good thing,” and gained political clout using the issue. Democrats “were stuck playing defense,” struggling to demonstrate a “strong connection between taxes and the benefits that accrue from them.”

Republicans have succeeded for decades in casting the idea of taxation in a negative light, delegitimizing it as an essential part of the government’s fiscal balancing act. “Taxes epitomize a difficult public policy issue: There is plenty of room for obfuscation on the part of political elites, who can mislead ordinary Americans who don’t understand or who don’t have a great deal of information,” Campbell says.

This issue of framing concerns Campbell, who has also focused on such programs as Social Security and Medicare that are strongly appreciated by many Americans. “The system has moved to one in which money determines how loud your voice is, putting public policy on a path inimical to those without resources.” The stakes in this framing game are quite high, suggests Campbell, and one casualty of the battle may be health care legislation.

Critics describe the Obama health care reform as a “government takeover” or “socialism,” and yet it is actually a prime example of “delegated” social provision, the subject of The Delegated Welfare State: Medicare, Markets, and the Governance of Social Policy, Campbell’s recent book with Kimberly J. Morgan. Eager to satisfy the public’s simultaneous desire for social protections and small government, politicians often delegate responsibility for publicly funded social programs to private sector actors. Hence the Obama reform does not spread health coverage through government insurance but rather by using private insurers. But opponents have turned the individual mandate to purchase insurance, originally a conservative idea utilizing the private market, on its head, vilifying it as an infringement of individual liberty. Such framing has a powerful effect on a public with only limited interest in and knowledge about public policy.

Campbell pursues the health care conundrum and other cases in class, where she details the “two-way street” between public opinion and public policy. MIT students headed for careers in science and engineering, Campbell says, are strongly interested because they “want to have a public policy impact in the long term.” She hopes to “guide students toward leadership and help them understand politics,” whose problems are quite unlike those in engineering. Even when you come up with the right numbers for funding social programs, she notes, it may not be possible to achieve a politically feasible answer. “Some of my students have a tough time getting their heads around this,” Campbell says.

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