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Published August 1979 | public
Journal Article

Economic Discontent and Political Behavior: The Role of Personal Grievances and Collective Economic Judgments in Congressional Voting


It is widely assumed that political action is motivated most powerfully by issues that impinge immediately and tangibly upon private life. For example, this assumption pervades the aggregate research that has reported consistent relationships between general economic conditions and congressional election outcomes (e.g., Kramer, 1971). Our analysis of individual-level data, however, indicates that voting in congressional elections from 1956 to 1976 was influenced hardly at all by personal economic grievances. Those voters unhappy with changes in their financial circumstances, or those who had recently been personally affected by unemployment, showed little inclination to punish candidates of the incumbent party for their personal misfortunes. The connection between economic conditions and politics was provided, instead, by judgments of a more general, collective kind -- e.g., by judgments regarding recent trends in general business conditions, and, more powerfully, by judgments about the relative competence of the two major parties to manage national economic problems. These collective economic judgments had little to do with privately experienced economic discontents. Rather they stemmed from voters' partisan predispositions and from their appraisal of changes in national economic conditions.

Additional Information

© 1979 by the University of Texas Press. Manuscript submitted 17 April 1978. Final manuscript received 28 November 1978. Data for this paper were provided principally by the Inter-University Consortium for Political Research, University of Michigan. The Consortium of course bears no responsibility for our interpretation or conclusions. A preliminary version of this paper was delivered at the 85th Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco, California, August, 1977. We would like to thank David Sears who had much to do with the ideas developed here. And for their helpful criticism and advice, we extend our gratitude to Robert Abelson, Jack Citrin, Robert Hoyer, Irving Janis, Samuel Kernell, Dan Minns, W. Russell Neuman, Steven Rosenstone, R. G. Wagner, and Janet A. Weiss.

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August 19, 2023
October 17, 2023