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Public Opinion and Political Vulnerability: Why Has the National Endowment for the Arts Been Such an Attractive Target?

Working Paper #7, 1999

Becky Pettit & Paul DiMaggio


Federal government arts programs appear to deviate from the rule that legislative behavior closely follows public preferences. Between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s, despite stability in public opinion, the NEA evolved from Congress’s bipartisan darling to its controversial scapegoat. We inspect 55 items from public opinion surveys and re-analyze data from 2 state and 8 national surveys undertaken between 1975 and 1996 to resolve this puzzle. Our conclusions: (1) Arts support is not a salient issue to most voters, leaving legislators relatively unconstrained. (2) Positive responses to general questions about arts funding often mask complex, ambivalent views. (3) The core constituency for federal arts support – college graduates – is difficult to mobilize because their interest in the arts is balanced by skepticism about federal government programs. (4) Opponents of arts spending successfully built on ties to Christian conservative and Republican loyalists to mobilize the stable minorities opposed to the NEA. As a result, arts politics in the U.S. has consisted of a standoff between a committed minority of 15 to 20 percent of the public that strongly opposes federal support for the arts and a weakly committed majority of about 60 percent that favors the federal role.

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