Is support for the free market falling among white Americans?

Recently, I was discussing with someone the strategic value of an American White identity political movement supporting free market policies. Traditionally, White Americans have supported the free market, at least rhetorically, and so I am inclined to think that it is strategically wise for right-wing political movements to support free market policies, at least rhetorically. However, the fellow I was conversing with remarked that White support for the free market seems to be declining. If this is true, then it may be more practical for a young political movement to support fewer free market policies so that it can appeal to the coming generations of White people. This argument is plausible, but in my opinion polling data suggests that free market rhetoric still appeals to most Whites and probably will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

One way to look at this question is to compare age cohorts. As is well known, millennials are more likely than older cohorts to endorse “big government” or “socialism”. That being said, most White Millenials still favor small government, but the margin is pretty thin:

A study by Reason has convincingly demonstrated that such questions are highly sensitive to framing. For instance, millennials of all races were far more likely to prefer small government when it is mentioned that lower taxes are part of what constitutes small government, and high taxes are part of what constitutes big government:

Similarly, millennial support for “socialism”  vs “capitalism” changes a great deal if you instead ask about support for “government managed economy” vs “free market economy”.

The takeaway here is that most White Millenials still support the free market, but whether this support is by a small or large margin depends on how the issue is framed. In the real world, liberals will try to frame the issue in ways that increase support for big government, and conservatives will try to frame the issue in ways that increase support for small government.

There isn’t a lot of good polling data on generation Z yet, but a recent survey found that roughly 80% of them call themselves “Fiscally conservative”. If this finding is replicated and translates into other, more specific, question, then general Z could be the most pro-free market generation in 70 years.

Given all this, I do not think cohort comparisons support the view that free market ideology is falling among Whites to such a degree that support other economic viewpoints is more practical. It is still the majority opinion among young adult Whites, and we don’t have good reason to think that this will not be the case for the next generation of young adult Whites.

An alternative to cohort comparisons is to simply look at how the White population as a whole has answered the same questions over time. Fortunately, the General Social survey provides us with good data with which to examine such trends.

The GSS has a ton of questions that measure political ideology. I chose to look at two questions that I felt were broad enough questions to get at people’s general ideology, and were asked in enough years to make a meaningful comparison of the White population over time.

For both questions, I looked at the view of “Whites” over time. Prior to 2000 “Whites” includes Hispanics. After 2000, it does not. Each question had a sample size in the thousands and a few hundred within any given year.

The first question I looked at asked participants whether they thought the government should do more or less. In all years, the plurality of Whites said they agreed with both sentiments, and in all years but 1975 the government doing less was more popular than it doing more.

Support for smaller government has gone up and down over the years, but has been generally increasing since the year 2000. As can be seen, this trend changed very suddenly in 2016. I am inclined to interpret this as a “Trump effect”.

The second question I looked at asked participants whether the government should reduce income inequality. In this case, answers varied a ton by year:

It appears as though White Americans supported the government reducing income inequality under Reason, Bush the first, and Bush the second, but opposed it under Clinton and Obama. Given this, the spike in support we see in 2016 may be a “republican in charge” effect rather than a “Trump effect”.

Regardless, there is clearly no consistent upward trend in support for the state lessening income inequality among White Americans.

It would be interesting to look at more specific issues like health care and trade, and I may do that some other time. When looking at broad ideology, I don’t see much support for the proposition that White America is about to abandon free market rhetoric. Given this, it seems to me that supporting the free market, at least rhetorically, is still a good political strategy if you want to win over White Americans.


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