Racial Unfairness and Fiscal Politics

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(2) 143 –156
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20972102
Public concern about federal government spending has been
a central theme of American politics in recent years. Eighty
percent of U.S. respondents told Gallup in March 2019 that
they worry about federal spending and the deficit, and large
supermajorities of respondents in major American surveys
have supported spending cuts. Asked to choose between cut-
ting spending or raising taxes as a means of reducing the
federal budget deficit, over three quarters (77%) of respon-
dents in the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study
(CCES) chose the former. Notably, support for cutting spend-
ing was also high (64%) among respondents in the 2016
General Social Survey (GSS), which did not pose a tradeoff
with taxes.1
Why is the American public so eager to reduce govern-
ment spending? Given its implications for government size
and scope, this question requires academic attention. There
have been several rich studies of the anti-spending Tea Party
that arose in the wake of the Great Recession and inaugura-
tion of Barack Obama (Arceneaux & Nicholson, 2012;
Skocpol & Williamson, 2012; Williamson, Skocpol, &
Coggin, 2011); but, research on the Tea Party can only get us
so far in understanding public demand for cutting govern-
ment spending, which is widespread among Democrats and
people of color as well as the white Republicans dispropor-
tionately found among the Tea Party’s ranks. Indeed, in the
2016 GSS, 54% of Blacks and 53% of Latinos favored cut-
ting government spending—a lower incidence than we see
among whites (68%), but still over the majority threshold.2
Similarly, a smaller percentage of Democrats (54%) than
Republicans (80%) supported spending cuts; but, this was
still the position of the median Democrat. To understand
popular support for spending cuts, a broader analysis of the
public is clearly needed.
In this paper, we develop and test a new theory of opposi-
tion to spending amongst the public at large. We argue that
perceptions of unfairness in the distribution of government
money across racial lines play an important role, not previ-
ously recognized by scholars, in driving opposition to spend-
ing in the United States. This is true for Democrats as well as
Republicans, fiscal liberals as well as conservatives, Blacks
and Latinos as well as whites.
In doing so, we build on work showing a strong relation-
ship between racial politics and views on government
spending.3 Racial resentment plays an important role in
driving Tea Party support (Skocpol & Williamson, 2012;
Williamson et al., 2011) and also predicts opposition to
spending in the public at large (Jacoby, 1994, 2000; Krimmel
& Rader, 2017).4 Indeed, these studies have shown that
views on spending are much more strongly associated with
racial resentment than with measures of economic-self
interest.5 The power of racial resentment remains strong
even when controlling for other key factors shaping views
on spending, like partisanship and ideology (Jacoby, 1994,
2000; Krimmel & Rader, 2017).6
972102APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20972102American Politics ResearchKrimmel and Rader
1Barnard College, New York, USA
2Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA
Corresponding Author:
Katherine Krimmel, Department of Political Science, Barnard College,
Columbia University, 3009 Broadway, New York, NY 10027-6598, USA.
Email: kkrimmel@barnard.edu
Racial Unfairness and Fiscal Politics
Katherine Krimmel1 and Kelly Rader2
We provide and test a theory explaining how and why racial attitudes shape public opinion on government spending in
the United States. We hypothesize that many people think the government allocates money unfairly across racial groups,
and “inequity aversion” leads them to reject spending as a result. Using data from an original survey, we find support for
our theory in the sample as a whole, and within racial, partisan, and ideological subgroups. Indeed, unfairness views are
comparable to partisanship in their relationship to opinion on spending. While prior work has shown that whites’ racial
attitudes are correlated with opinion on specific government programs, we show they shape opinion about the appropriate
level of government spending writ large. We also move beyond the study of white opinion, measuring views of unfairness in
the distribution of spending among racial minorities as well.
public opinion, fiscal politics, race and politics, American politics

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