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

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
November 28, 2018

Suzanne Mettler is the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions in the department of government at Cornell University. She is also the author of a new book, “The Government-Citizen Disconnect,” which argues that citizens are often unaware of the benefits they receive from the government. I spoke to her about her arguments.

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.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post