NYT: Inequality and Hardheartedness
Does Rising Inequality Make Us Hardhearted?
Over the course of American history, support for economic redistribution has been the exception, not the rule. In the 20th century, support for redistributive policies emerged as a dominant force in national politics only in the Depression decade of the 1930s; it was intermittently influential from 1945 to 1965.
More recently, a 2008 study of public attitudes during periods of mounting inequality found that “when inequality in America rises, the public responds with increased conservative sentiment.” This conservative shift applies to all income groups, including the poor, according to the political scientists Nathan Kelly of the University of Tennessee and Peter Enns of Cornell. “Rather than generating opinion shifts that would make redistributive policies more likely,” Kelly and Enns write, “increased economic inequality produces a conservative response in public sentiment.”
The Kelly-Enns study examines poll data and inequality trends between 1952 and 2006. In an email Enns wrote earlier this week, he added that more recent data shows a continuation of the trend: “Between 2006 and 2011 (when the most recent data are available) inequality has mostly continued to increase and the public has shifted in a more conservative direction — especially since 2008. This relationship is consistent with our previous findings.”
A key tool Kelly and Enns use for their work is a statistical analysis of the policy mood of the country developed by James Stimson, of the University of North Carolina. Stimson, using data from all available commercial and academic surveys, including American National Election Studies and Gallup, illustrated his findings in a graph, Figure 1, which covers the years 1952 to 2012. The graph tracks swings in public opinion, both to the left and right, using responses to polling questions measuring levels of support for government programs.
Fig. 2: Views of ‘Capitalism’ and ‘Socialism’
PEW RESEARCH CENTER
From 1992 to 2012, according to Stimson’s analysis, overall support for liberal, pro-government initiatives has declined. These results suggest that President Obama’s plan to dedicate the remainder of his term to reducing inequality, to which he devoted a major speech last week, will face significant political opposition inside and outside of Congress.
Obama argues that government action is required to redress the growing disparity between rich and poor, diminished opportunities for upward mobility and economic stagnation. Public opinion, at least according to the Stimson analysis, is moving in precisely the opposite direction. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey gives us a glimpse of some of the headwinds Obama faces. Pew found that among all voters, capitalism (a rough proxy for deregulated markets) is viewed favorably by a 50-40 margin and socialism (a rough proxy for interventionist government) negatively by 60-31.
An exception, according to Pew – illustrated in Figure 2 — lies in the views of black and Hispanic voters. Both groups hold more negative than positive views of capitalism: blacks 51-41, and Hispanics 55-32. Blacks hold a positive view of socialism, 55-36; Hispanics, by a modest 5 points, a negative view, 49-44. This Pew data suggests that pro-government activists of the kind Obama needs to back his inequality agenda remain a minority.
One of the crucial questions in determining likely support for or opposition to government initiatives to remediate inequality is whether a voter believes that people are poor because of their own bad choices or thinks that poverty is the result of what pollsters call “circumstances”: dangerous neighborhoods, inadequate housing, bad schools, discrimination.
Fig. 3: Wide Gaps in Opinions about Why People Are Poor
PEW RESEARCH CENTER
A Pew survey, conducted in 2012, produced results that demonstrated the nation’s ambivalence on this question. The more voters blame poverty on a lack of effort by the poor themselves, the more inclined they are to say that there are legions of “undeserving” poor for whom taxpayer-funded government programs are not warranted. The more a respondent blames poverty on external circumstances, the more likely he or she is to support government action to remedy those circumstances.
Overall, according to Pew, 46 percent of the public does not fault the poor, agreeing that their plight is the outcome of unfavorable circumstances, while 38 percent are more judgmental, declaring that poverty stems from a lack of individual effort.
This relatively modest eight-point difference among all voters masks very large partisan — and significant racial and ethnic — divisions. A decisive majority of Republicans (see Figure 3), 57-27, say that people are poor because of a lack of effort, while an even larger majority of Democrats, 61-24, say “circumstances” are the cause of poverty. Whites are split, 41-41, while blacks back circumstances 62-28, as do Hispanics, 59-27.
In his Dec. 4 speech at the pro-Democratic Center for American Progress, Obama acknowledged the racial and ideological hurdles he faces. He told his audience:
“We’ve got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern. And we have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.”
Voters are notoriously conflicted in their ideological outlook — what Stimson, writing with Christopher Ellis of Bucknell, described in a 2009 paper on belief systems as “the contradiction in American ideologies, a contradiction often seen in joint preferences for both conservative symbols and liberal policy action.”
This bifurcation – conservative in theory, liberal in practice – suggests that by using broad terms with liberal ideological connotations like “inequality,” “more widely shared” growth and “decreased mobility,” Obama risks activating voters’ “theoretical” conservatism, as opposed to a strategy that stresses specifics in non-ideological terms, a kind of practical liberalism: raising the minimum wage, raising tax rates on unearned income, job training, early education.
Just as there is a split between voters’ principled conservatism and practical liberalism, there is growing division between voters’ liberal leanings on social issues and their more conservative views on economic issues.
According to Gallup survey from May, economic liberals remain a small fraction of the electorate, just 19 percent, less than half of the 41 percent who describe themselves as conservative or very conservative on economic issues (37 percent say they are economic moderates).
In contrast, the number of voters identifying themselves to Gallup as liberal on social issues has been steadily growing. The percentage of self-described social issue liberals reached a record high in May, at 30 percent, closing in on the 35 percent who call themselves social conservatives, and nearly matching the 32 percent calling themselves socially moderate.
The substantial gains of the left on cultural and social issues and recent electoral victories in New York and Boston have created a misleading perception among liberals that the country is moving in the same direction on economic issues. That is not the case: an ethos of self-reliance and individual responsibility continues, as it has for the past 237 years, to grip the American imagination. A switch to an ideology founded on redistribution, with economic justice as its core principle, would require a major upheaval, the likes of which we have not seen for some time.