Surveys show Americans are populist class warriors, except when they aren’t

From my New York Times blog today, here’s an example of how contemporaneous poll results can be given exactly opposite interpretations.

Recently in the New Republic, William Galston shared some recent findings from Gallup:

Respondents were asked to categorize three economic objectives as extremely important, very important, somewhat important, or not important. Here’s what they said:

Extremely/very important          Somewhat/not important

Grow and expand
the economy                                         82                                            18

Increase equality of
opportunity for people to
get ahead                                             70                                            30

Reduce the income and
wealth gap between the
rich and the poor                                  46                                            54


When Gallup asked a sample of Americans in 1998 whether the gap between the rich and the poor was a problem that needed to be fixed, 52 percent said yes, while 45 percent regarded it as an acceptable part of the economic system. Today, those numbers are reversed: Only 45 percent see the gap as in need of fixing, while 52 percent don’t. Again, Democrats are the outliers: 62 percent of them want it fixed, versus 24 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of independents. [Actually, 45% is a bit further from 24% than to 62%, so it is the Republicans who are (very slightly) the outliers here. –ed.]

Galston concludes that Obama should tone down the class war: “a campaign emphasizing growth and opportunity is more likely to yield a Democratic victory than is a campaign focused on inequality.”

Meanwhile, in Slate, Matthew Yglasias used some other poll results to come to an opposite conclusion, writing:

Huge majorities of self-identified Democrats and clear majorities of self-identified independents say that there’s too much power in the hands of a few rich people, that the country’s economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, and that Wall Street does more to hurt the economy than to help it.

Under the circumstances, we should expect to see Democrats continue to double down on “tax the rich” themes and populist messages.

See my column for my interpretation of these competing poll interpretations. I write that the ambiguity revealed in these polls actually makes sense: if there were a clear and unambiguous majority in favor of some policy and all its ramifications, we would expect it would have already passed and there would be no remaining political dispute. Democrats and Republicans are no longer arguing about laws against racial discrimination or child labor (with rare exceptions). The very fact that an issue is politically live suggests some flexibility on opinions and helps us understand what otherwise seems contradictory about these poll results.

P.S. I did a Google search and found this note at the website of the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

It is more than a little bizarre to read a column on public attitudes to inequality in the NYT which completely equates reducing inequality with raising taxes. In fact, the main reason that inequality has risen so much over the last three decades has been the increase in the inequality of before-tax income. . . . It is likely that the public would reject most of the policies that have allowed the wealthy to seize a much larger share of income over the last three decades if any politician ever had the courage to raise them. Instead, Gelman and many others would like to restrict debate to “Loser Liberalism,” where the question is exclusively whether we want to tax the winners to help the losers.

My response:

I am working off what Galston and Yglesias wrote, and the commenter above is correct to note that I am not giving any sort of big picture here. Regarding the substance of the matter, my reading of Lane Kenworthy’s recent book convinces me that, whatever the causes of the current inequality, tax increases are a key part of any reasonable strategy to decrease future inequality, partly from the redistributive effect of taxes and transfer payments, but also from the general leveling effect of the government spending that the taxes facilitate.

I don’t know why the Center for Economic and Policy Research writer (based on the labeling of the webpage, the column appears to be by Dean Baker, but I’m not sure) thinks that I “would like to restrict debate to ‘Loser Liberalism.'” For one thing, I’ve never used the phrase “loser liberalism” nor do I even recall ever having seen this phrase before encountering it today. So I think it’s a bit misleading to put it in quotes while talking about what I was writing. Second, I never said I wanted to restrict debate in this way: I was just discussing the interpretation of some recent polls. I have no problem at all with debate on trade policy, insurance, patents, and the other topics mentioned in that Center for Economic and Policy Research column. It’s pretty silly to say that I want to restrict debate when I never have said such a thing!

7 thoughts on “Surveys show Americans are populist class warriors, except when they aren’t

  1. I don’t see any conflict between the two polls. The first is asking about money (“reduce the income and wealth gap”), while the second is talking about power (“Too much power in the hands of a few rich people”, “Wall Street hurts economy…”). That seems to fit in with our culture: if you’re smart and hard-working you can become rich, but don’t expect me to let you take my elevator or skip to the head of the line because you’re now wealthy.

    That’s reflected in the first poll’s high percentage in favor of increased *opportunity*, as expressed directly in the question about the “opportunity to get ahead” and indirectly in the question about growing the economy (which provides the opportunity to get ahead). Wall Street is not symbolic of wealth, but rather of greed and the exercise of power.

  2. “Loser Liberalism” is Dean Baker’s term (from the title of his book) for the argument he thinks you are advancing. He seems to misunderstand the descriptive, non-normative nature of your NYT article. His particular hobby horse is the inequality created by patents and copyrights.

    Inequality is due to the enormous extension of patents and copyright monopolies over the last three decades.

    I’m pretty sure he didn’t intend to say what that statement literally means. It’s not even remotely possible that all inequality everywhere is due to the extension of patents and copyrights since 1981. Surely he believes that some inequality is caused by copyright and patent policy as it was in 1981. I know I’m being unfair to Baker reading his statement literally like that, but I think he was pretty unfair in his reading of you.

  3. The more you interact with these political types the more it reminds me of the quote attributed to Mark Twain, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” I think we can substitute “think” for “sing” for a good summary of how the political punditry approach their sphere of “expertise”.

    I do admire your patience in dealing with their obtuseness, though.

  4. Ha! Someone pissed off Dean Baker. He’s basically telling you to read his book, which I’ve actually been meaning to get to. Seems like Kenworthy’s suggestions take for granted more current policies than Baker does, so Kenworthy’s arguments likely beg the question in Baker’s eyes. But like I said, I haven’t taken time to really go over either’s ideas, so don’t quote me.

  5. Prof. Gelman,
    I have been a long-time fan of both your work and Dr. Baker’s, and I can reasonably say that this is a case of misunderstanding. Dr. Baker’s term “loser liberalism” refers to the unwitting practice of allowing debates to be framed in terms that are favorable to conservatives, such as conceding that conservatives really want “free trade”, “small government”, “low taxes”, when in his view their primary objective is the redistribution of income upward. I’m sure if he were more familiar with your work he would not have thought that you were engaging in this practice, and he has already issued a correction on his blog.

  6. Why should Americans hate the rich? We all want to be rich. We cherish the opportunity to be rich. If we can’t be rich, we want to work hard so our children can be rich.

    And when we are rich, we will still call ourselves “middle class” and be humble and not push our way in line. -Joe Walsh singing “Life’s been good (to me so far)”.

    I don’t think the class warfare approach is a good campaign strategy. People don’t really want the rich to be poorer. They want themselves to be richer, and the way to do that is with jobs.

  7. Pingback: Surveys show Americans are populist class warriors, except when they aren’t - Akins Campaign Strategy

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