Five questions with Sean McElwee, Data for Progress

Sean McElwee Data for Progress

This piece was originally featured in The New Common Sense newsletter from our Economy and Society Initiative. Read more from this edition.

In order to identify replacements for neoliberal ideologies and build a post-neoliberal paradigm, an important first step involves defining it and identifying what policy preferences correlate with neoliberal attitudes. The Hewlett Foundation is funding an ambitious project by Data for Progress (DFP), the progressive think tank and polling firm.

The firm is working with a team of academics to understand the prevalence of neoliberal beliefs and how they relate to policy preferences, part of an effort to understand how those base-level beliefs might be changing in a time of paradigm shift. We spoke with Sean McElwee, DFP’s founding executive director, to learn how this project is taking shape and what it aims to achieve.

Where are you with the project right now?

So far we’ve done three rounds of surveys, each reaching approximately 1,200 to 1,500 likely U.S. voters, with many more in the works. Our Data for Progress team is working alongside academics Denise Baron, Alexander Furnas, Thomas Ogorzalek, and Spencer Piston. Separately, we are also surveying academics studying neoliberalism or related fields, to try to forecast trends in the prevailing neoliberal ideology and how society relates to it.

What have you found so far, and what do those findings suggest about the importance of the subject?

Our findings have been consistent across all three rounds of the survey, suggesting that neoliberal ideology is fairly stable, and that we’ll really be able to identify people who subscribe to neoliberal ideology specifically — as well as those who do not — and why they do. That means that advocates trying to run policy interventions — like on climate change, for example — can be acutely targeted to that neoliberal attitude.

How did you develop this approach — are you building off past research or polling work?

This research is innovative and first-of-its-kind, but firmly grounded in existing insights. The current phase, which we call Wave 1, rigorously identifies the psychological underpinnings and policy attitudes associated with neoliberal ideology, building off research that members of the team have been doing on public attitudes toward welfare policies, political psychology and ideology, and the ideological structure of elite opinion — and its divergence from the general public.

This phase of the project is firmly tied to what we know about these measures, but makes the significant advance of developing and analyzing a novel measure for neoliberal ideology. Wave 2 will be entirely brand-new and groundbreaking, but firmly connected to both existing research — this is a trending area of public opinion research that is developing quickly.

In terms of findings, what most surprised you in terms of unexpected connections between neoliberal attitudes and policy preferences?

I was surprised how deep-seated the individual worldview was within neoliberal attitudes. For example, one of the strongest relationships we observe is between neoliberal ideology and an understanding of yourself as intensely individualized, rather than connected to other people or broader communities. So far, we’ve seen that neoliberals understand themselves as individuals to their core. They see themselves as the source of their success — or failure — and don’t consistently see themselves as connected to broader movements or influenced by social forces.

It was also surprising that political and policy preferences related to equality, such as attitudes toward welfare and wealth redistribution, were not strongly associated with neoliberal ideology. From what we’ve seen so far, how neoliberal you are does not predict whether or not you support policies to decrease social or economic inequality.

Were there any findings that confirmed your expectations?

Neoliberal ideology is unsurprisingly correlated with right-wing political ideology, with the strongest correlations being between neoliberal ideology — specifically dimensions related to individual responsibility — and the value of markets. There’s a strong neoliberal preference for law and order, but only from a right-wing perspective; there’s no equivalent correlation with left-wing authoritarianism. That doesn’t mean that there are no left-leaning neoliberals, but that they don’t have strong preferences for leftist conceptions of law and order. Also, trade unions and taxes had a weak correlation with neoliberal ideology among respondents — with the exception of support for police unions.

What’s potentially groundbreaking about this work, and what comes next?

It’s daunting to try to measure the economic policy hegemony, and more importantly, what might be next. This research is at the forefront of figuring out what worldviews might replace neoliberalism, and can help identify what political persuasion interventions will be effective. We also want to keep digging into other policy areas, such as climate policy and foreign policy, for their relationship to neoliberal attitudes. Take climate as an example — if we can understand the relationship between reactions to climate policy and neoliberal attitudes, we can potentially run more effective interventions that resonate with individuals’ ideological frames more precisely, and ultimately help push us toward climate action.

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