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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