Working Papers

**Please note that papers on this page are works in progress not for citation. Thank you!

As a Taxpayer: The Construction of American Tax Opinion

My dissertation research examines American public opinion about taxation. "Systematic Misperceptions" includes excerpts of Chapters 1-4:

Systematic Misperceptions: How Policy Design and Partisanship Shape Tax Opinion

We know remarkably little about what Americans understand and believe about the taxes they pay. Based on qualitative interviews with Americans across the country, I show the ways in which policy design and partisanship draw public attention to certain aspects of the U.S. tax system, while other parts remain obscured. As a result, though my respondents are in some ways highly informed about taxation, they also suffer from certain systematic blind spots, particularly when it comes to the tax contributions made by lower-income people. On the left, interviewees who would like the rich to pay more in taxes do not consistently recognize which tax reforms would implement this desire. On the right, the hyper-salience of the income tax helps bolster a widespread belief that the poor are unfairly escaping taxation. My results suggest that tax opinion should be recognized not simply as a result of the economic, sociological, or psychological interests of each individual, but as a consequence of political action and institutions.

Additional Dissertation Components:

Taxation and Redistribution

Hertel-Fernandez, Alexander and Vanessa Williamson. 2014. "Not Polarization, Asymmetry: Party Positions and the Politics of State Earned Income Tax Credits." (Under review.)

We examine how the distribution of party ideological positions affects legislatures’ capacity to produce compromise legislation – in particular, one of the United States’ most significant bipartisan social policy compromises, the Earned Income Tax Credit. We depart from the current literature by arguing that it is not partisan polarization that is responsible for causing stalemate on this issue. Rather, the asymmetry in party ideologies matters more than the ideological distance between the parties in explaining the success of this traditionally bipartisan proposal. Our results have important implications for the study of party ideology and social policy development, and suggest that ideological asymmetry needs to be considered as an important factor in legislative gridlock.

Williamson, Vanessa. 2014. "Since the Revolt: The History of Tax Ballot Measures since 1975."

Using a new dataset of all state-level tax ballot measures, I trace the rising success of tax increasing ballot measures across the country – except in the South, where the “tax revolt” has not subsided. In addition, anti-tax measures have narrowed both geographically and in policy scope. These results suggest that the disciplinary focus on American tax opposition has neglected a significant strain of support for tax increases.

Einstein, Katherine, Kris-Stella Trump, and Vanessa Williamson. 2013. "Voter Responsiveness to the Spatial Distribution of Goods."

How do inequalities in the spatial distribution of public goods shape the way people think about government? Are voters more responsive to particular kinds of public investment –for instance, in infrastructure? We examine the effect of a sudden influx of government spending, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), on support for the President’s party. We find that stimulus spending had a positive effect on Democratic vote share, but only in counties that were already Democratic-leaning. Contrary to our theoretical expectations, however, more visible investments did not appear to have a more significant effect than their less visible counterparts regardless of the partisan valence of the county. We discuss possible reasons for these results and directions for future research.  


Williamson, Vanessa. 2013. "Investment or Austerity in the United States."

After an initial effort at stimulative spending in 2009, the political agenda in the United States has turned towards deficit-cutting. What explains this shift in policy? First, the downturn coincided with the turnover of power from a Republican president to a progressive Democrat. The election of the United States’ first black president, at a time when the Republican Party lacked coherent leadership, was a political opportunity for Republican elites who could harness the reactionary popular response. The result has been an acceleration of the decades-long trend of increasing conservatism in the Republican Party. After 2010,Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives were both strategically and ideologically committed to preventing effective federal governance, a tactic that has contributed to “austerity by gridlock.”

Williamson, Vanessa, Carly Knight, and Theda Skocpol. 2012. "Persistence or Decline? The Grassroots Tea Party Since November 2010."

Using a dataset of local Tea Party websites, we estimate the decline of existing grassroots Tea Party groups since the 2010 midterm elections. We measure decline in two ways, looking both at a local Tea Party group’s web activity and the frequency of their events. We find that about 68% of the 824 local Tea Party websites active on or after November 2, 2010,were still active a year later, and 350 groups were still meeting as or more frequently. Looking at group characteristics recorded between February and April 2011, we find that groups that had referred to budgets and spending were more likely to still be active at the end of 2011. In addition, groups linking to Fox News were more likely to survive the year, while links to advocacy organizations in the Tea Party sphere were not predictive of continued activity. Our findings suggest several additional lines of inquiry that may shed new light on the Tea Party phenomenon, and on social movement decline more generally.


Williamson, Vanessa. 2014. "On the Ethics of Crowdsourced Research." (Under review.)

In this article, I examine the ethics of crowdsourcing in social science research, with reference to my own experience using Amazon's Mechanical Turk. As these types of research tools become more common in scholarly work, we must face the fact that many participants are not one-time respondents or even hobbyists. They work long hours completing surveys and other tasks for very low wages, and many rely on those incomes to meet their basic needs. I present my own experience interviewing Mechanical Turk participants about their sources of income, and offer a series of recommendations to the individual researcher and to social science departments and journal editors regarding the more ethical use of crowdsourcing.