Thinking Federally: An Experimental Test of How Americans Think about Federalism

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Jacobs, Nicholas, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Sanders, Lynn, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Milkis, Sidney, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

The extant literature on federalism and American public opinion suggests two contradictory theories about how individuals may think about intergovernmental relations. The dominant perspective argues that Americans simply do not consider federalism when making policy evaluations; their preferences overwhelm more abstract considerations of governing principles. Recently, however, several scholars have argued that even if Americans do not make legalistic or theoretical references to federalism, they often think "intuitively" about intergovernmental politics. This study presents the results of a survey experiment deliberately designed to adjudicate these two hypotheses by manipulating the level of government proposing a specific policy across treatment groups. In all but two policy domains, individuals do not consider the centralized-decentralized nature of the policy proposal. For education and police policies, individuals do consider the intergovernmental implications of the policy, but these considerations are highly mediated by respondent's partisan identification. Overall, it appears that individuals can think "intuitively" about American federalism, but that they choose to do so only in limited domains and political contexts. Overwhelmingly, individual preference for government activity obscures concerns for federalism when making policy evaluations.

MA (Master of Arts)
federalism, public opinion , experimental methodology
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