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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

There’s a big gap between American attitudes toward “income inequality” and “unfairness.” Americans don’t want the government to “redistribute income,” they want it to stop favoring the wealthy and powerful and to make them pay their fair share.

In a New York Times Op-ed piece oday Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut makes a critical distinction between American attitudes toward “income inequality” and “unfairness”

…while Americans are hearing more and more about class conflict, there is little indication that they are increasingly divided along these lines. People don’t necessarily want to take money from the wealthy; they just want a better chance to get rich themselves. They care about policies that give everyone a fair shot — a distinction that candidates in both parties should understand as they head into the 2012 campaigns.
…A Gallup poll last month found 54 percent believing that income inequality was an “acceptable part of our economic system” — a slight increase, in fact, over the 45 percent that held that view back in 1998….What’s different these days is that a despondent public, struggling with difficult times and an uncertain future, is upset over a perceived lack of fairness in public policy. For example, 61 percent of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.

Although the strong support Occupy Wall Street received might, at first glance, seem to support the view that Americans want income redistribution, it really doesn’t. What Occupy was challenging that deeply resonated with many observers was the concentrated economic and political power of the 1% and their ability to use that power to “rig the game” in their favor and against the 99%.
As Kohut notes:

Pew’s surveys in recent years present a detailed picture of these frustrations. One major complaint is tax policy: Dissatisfaction with the tax system has grown over the past decade, but the focus is not on how much respondents themselves pay, but rather on the perception that the wealthy are simply not paying their fair share. Just 11 percent of Americans say they are bothered by the amount they pay, while 57 percent of respondents say they are bothered by what they believe are unfairly low amounts paid by the wealthy.
…The issue here is not about class envy. Rather, it’s a perception that government policies are skewed toward helping the already wealthy and powerful. While a December Gallup poll found few respondents wanting the government to attempt to reduce the income gap between rich and poor, 70 percent said it was important for the government to increase opportunities for people to get ahead. What the public wants is not a war on the rich but more policies that promote opportunity.

In a related NYT piece Stanley Fish echoes the same point:

The difference between equality and fairness can be illustrated by considering the issue of Mitt Romney’s taxes. In the eyes of most Americans, it is O.K. that Mitt Romney makes more money than they do; there’s no demand for the equalizing of income so that he can be brought down to their level. But it is not O.K. (or at least the Democrats will argue) for Mitt Romney to be paying a lower tax rate than his housecleaner. It’s unfair. So inequalities that arise from the unequal abilities of people and even from the unequal distribution of luck and birth are all right; but the kind of unfairness that occurs when someone plays by different rules than the rules you are held to isn’t…

This is a critical distinction for politics and vital for 2012. As Fish correctly notes:

President Obama can take the fairness mantra all the way to the bank — and to a second term.

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