In his latest New York Times op-ed, Thomas B. Edsall addresses a weighty question at the intersection of policy and conscience, which is likely to be repeatedly raised throughout 2014, “Does Rising Inequality Make Us Hardhearted?” Edsall explains:
…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…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.
Edsall adds that a 2011 Pew Research Center survey “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.” Edsall notes the exception of African and Latino American voters, who feel otherwise. Other polls have indicated surprisingly small opposition to an expanded role for government and even “socialistic” policies.
On the question of “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,” Edsall adds:
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 8-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.
Edsall also notes that “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.” It’s as if many voters are more comfortable calling themselves conservatives, even though they support progressive policies when offered the choice.
Citing Gallup data indicating that few voters are comfortable identifying themselves as “economic liberals,” Edsall wonders if “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.
Readers won’t have much trouble finding other polls which indicate that substantial majorities support various populist economic proposals, regardless of how respondents describe their individual political beliefs. For now, at least, Edsall’s analysis suggests Dems should give as much thought to how they describe their economic ideology as they do to the policies they advocate.