Survey Research and the Politics of Old Age Welfare

A recent paper appearing in Theory in Action, co-authored by William R. Earnest and FSU Sociology Professor Irene Padavic and supported by FSU’s Pepper Center on Aging, tackles a flawed proposal from Robert Binstock about minimizing intergeneration conflict over elderly benefits and uses it to analyze how assumptions grounded in interest group liberalism inform current survey research practice. Survey research undergirds much of the current public discussion of support for elderly benefits, and by presenting “this group versus that group” choices that assume competing generational interests, it diminishes the possibility of forming cross-age coalitions to combat the systemic crisis we face. 

Binstock holds a chary view of the possibility of cross-age coalitions.  While acknowledging that corporations seeking to privatize elder services are a key group purveying this fatalism, he does not fully take up their challenge.  We argue that his culturally-framed ideological analysis—urging a revivalof   New Deal-derived “compassionate ageism” principles—ignores that they were made possible only by the New Deal’s class-framed coalition politics.  Rather, he falls back on the hope that cultural principles of intergenerational solidarity may somehow be revived via Thomas Frank-inspired reframing, and in the meantime we should engage in holding actions that concede cutbacks to try to calm the political waters while waiting for compassion to return.  This conflict-wary solution overlooks the possibility that a political and cross-age coalition centering on class interests might be revived and indeed is likely necessary for the Social Security Act’s redistributional principles to be reaffirmed. 

What is truly ideological in Binstock’s overly modest proposal is his unacknowledged assumption of limits constraining political action.  We trace how in the early decades of the 20th century political science’s commitment to interest group analysis displaced more class-oriented approaches.  This conceptual struggle anticipated the real development of an extensive system of bargaining—undergirded by Keynesian rationales for government economic intervention and characterized by Theodore Lowi as “interest group liberalism,” (IGL)—that took shape as the New Deal social accord was implemented to contain class conflict.

The supersession of class interests by more narrowly defined group interests promoted a system of political entrepreneurship:  mass interests were reformulated by parties serving as gatekeepers peddling access to government-allocated resources. “Catch-all” major parties—the Democrats and Republicans—developed to mediate and channel political initiatives within the IGL bargaining system.  Interest definition and strategy formulation were arrogated by the parties in a process that occurred over the heads of citizens, leaving them with a merely plebiscitary role.  With the two major parties claiming to be the only game in town, citizens’ dissatisfactions with political outcomes were derided as “special interests” selfishly defying the compromises imposed from above by the parties, and thus they had only muted impact.

Interest-defining and -mobilizing organizations like the AARP symbiotically complement catch-all parties.  We show how even when the AARP was aware of members’ strong support for third parties, it suppressed development of these dissonant interests.  Far from trying to discover what dissatisfactions underlay third-party support, the AARP concocted a cross-party unity campaign asserting the nonpartisan character of its interests, symbolized by Champ, a half elephant-half donkey, or “elephonkey.” Thus was AARP members’ clear wish for a more partisan and less accommodating approach stymied while the organization proclaimed the universality of older people’s interests.

What is the role of survey research that we alluded to above?  Survey research methodology developed collaterally with the mid-century rise of the IGL system and its catch-all parties.  Purportedly offering an accurate summary of political attitudes, survey research has played a crucial role in the formation of a collective orientation to what is politically possible.   Review of 80 years of the comprehensive Roper data set shows that question items typically constrain respondents to a narrow interest-group reference frame, for example in questions like “Do you think [group x] has too much influence in Washington?” In such questions, respondents’ thought is bounded by simple preference statements within an ideologically-bound frame. 

As the New Deal accord underlying interest group liberalism breaks up under neoliberal attack, novel questions appropriate to a period of systemic strain and political fluidity must be formulated. Researchers must overcome conceptual lag and allow respondents the opportunity to think not about which political actors in a pregiven political universe they approve of but rather whom they would consider aligning with and against in a process creating fresh political agency.  Rather than soliciting self-understandings that disorient respondents with reference to a long-established but fraying sociopolitical map, we argue that surveys should anticipate new orientations that facilitate reformulating political alliances.  One such likely alliance is between generations against social forces bent on creating illusions of scarcity as they promote greater inequality of both wealth and power.  Researchers can assist respondents—and, of course, the larger public—in reflecting outside the catch-all party framework that has desiccated the political sphere and  leaves old age policy, along with all other “safety net” policies, increasingly vulnerable.

Image result for irene padavic

Dr. Irene Padavic is a Professor of Sociology. Learn more about this publication at the Theory and Action website.

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