AJPS Author Summary: Making Austerity Popular: The Media and Mass Attitudes toward Fiscal Policy

Author Summary by Lucy Barnes and Timothy Hicks

Their article titled, “Making Austerity Popular: The Media and Mass Attitudes Towards Austerity” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

AJPS-AuthorSummary-MakingAusterityPopularThe Financial Crisis forced public debts and deficits to the forefront of the political agenda across the advanced economies. The conventional wisdom is that reductions in benefits and increases in taxation should be deeply unpopular with electorates. Despite this, the near-decade since 2010 has seen huge fiscal consolidation: it’s the age of austerity. This poses a puzzle: how has popular acquiescence for a political project with adverse material effects been sustained?

While there have been notable scholarly treatments of austerity from an elite perspective, there has been far less work studying how this phenomenon has become accepted (or not) amongst the mass public. This is a rather surprising omission in the literature, and one that our article seeks to partially rectify.

We have two theoretical starting points. First, on the back of the generation-long Great Moderation, the issue of fiscal balance has been of relatively low salience in most developed democracies for quite some time. As a consequence, its (re-)emergence in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis of 2007/8 was into an environment in which citizens had relatively weak prior commitments. Second, the question of what is the appropriate fiscal stance at any given point in the economic cycle is challenging to reason through. Without a reason to think much about fiscal balance before, and little ability to reason through policy options to their own or the wider economy’s material interest, the mass public is particularly susceptible to suasion as to the appropriate policy. In addition, dissensus on the part of technocrats in this area provides multiple credible expert positions for the news media to exploit. This is exactly the set of circumstances that we should expect the news media (and other elites) to be able to strongly influence policy attitudes.

From this starting point, we demonstrate three empirical regularities about the British case in the period 2010-2015. First, using data from the British Election Study (BES), we show that which newspaper people read is a very strong predictor of responses to a question asking about the necessity of “eliminat[ing] the deficit over the next 3 years.” This is true even after controlling for a range of demographic features, household income, attitudes about redistribution, and party identification.  Indeed, the magnitudes of the newspaper effects are similar to those for party identification.

Observationally, then, it seems to matter where people read their news.  But does this change what they read? Media coverage can only matter in a meaningful way if the content of what is being read varies across news outlets. Given that, our second empirical step is to analyze the content of all articles in each of The Guardian and The Telegraph during the 2010-2015 parliament that mention the word “deficit.” These are leading broadsheet newspapers that are at opposite poles ideologically whose readers have very distinct deficit attitudes according to the BES data.

Using a Structural Topic Model, we are able to show that there are three distinct topics used by these two newspapers that directly relate to fiscal policy. Importantly, there are notable, and readily explicable, differences in the way that these two leading broadsheet newspapers wrote about fiscal policy during this period. The Guardian tended to focus on what was being cut (i.e. public services) while The Telegraph focused on taxation and debt magnitudes. In that light, it should be unsurprising that the readers of these two newspapers could come to different views about the necessity of austerity.

The third and final step of our empirical analysis is to demonstrate that the kinds of distinct news reporting that we uncover really can have causal effects on attitudes. We ran two survey experiments in which we randomly assigned respondents to a read a short paragraph about fiscal policy that was inspired by content from either The Guardian or The Telegraph.  The results show that respondents are indeed affected by the distinct presentations of the topic, with Guardian-assigned respondents notably more comfortable with deficit spending than those shown Telegraph-content.

About the Authors: Lucy Barnes is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University College London. Timothy Hicks is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University College London. Their article titled, “Making Austerity Popular: The Media and Mass Attitudes Towards Austerity” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s



The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

%d bloggers like this: