Introduction: The Politics of US Social Policy Preferences in Comparative Context

Comparative research on social inequality and public opinion concerning the welfare state and redistribution has flourished in recent years in the wake of the availability of new data sets such as the ‘Role of Government’ and ‘Social Inequality’ modules of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP),2 as well as refined methods (Coughlin, 1980; Shapiro and Young, 1989; Brooks and Manza, 2006; Brooks and Manza, 2007). This new research has supplemented hypotheses generated in the venerable ‘US exceptionalist’ tradition of historical-sociological and political-scientific research, articulated over the past two centuries by scholars ranging from Tocqueville to Sombart to Lipset to Skocpol (Tocqueville, 1956; Lipset, 1963; Sombart, 1976; Skocpol, 1995a; Skocpol, 1995b; Lipset, 1996; Lipset and Marks, 2000). We now know that the nexus between social inequality and social-policy opinions in the US is unique in the world in several key respects. Recent research has also shown that a threefold polarization in income, partisan affiliation and political ideology is increasingly dividing Americans into different camps (Bafumi and Shapiro, 2006; Galston and Nivola, 2006; McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal, 2006; Shapiro and Bloch-Elkon, 2006). What is problematic about the link between public opinion on welfare policies and these policies themselves in the US? Why do politicians who advocate popular social policy positions so often lose elections? What role do national security considerations play in voters’ decisionmaking? And what effects do empirically manifest polarizations in income, partisan affiliation and political ideology have on Americans’ social and defense spending priorities and voting behavior?