Inequality and Conservatism?

Two researchers have just released an interesting study finding that the more wealth inequality goes up, the more a population’s “liberalism” goes down. We get more conservative as a nation when our economy gets more unequal. You wouldn’t have thought that would you? But according to their study (which you can find here, it’s true.

They looked at public moods during rising inequality from 1951 to 2009. Unsurprisingly, inequality grew fastest during the 1980s and the 2000s, two eras that were unusually friendly toward the wealthy. They found that during a rise in inequality, the public mood swings more conservative, and when there is a rise in equality, the mood swings more liberal. For example, when the economy was more unequal, the public’s support for social programs was at its lowest. When the economy was more equal, as during the 1960’s “War on Poverty,” the support for social programs was high.

They also found that the swing to the right during rising inequality was with both the rich and the poor. That was really surprising.

But why does that happen. When I read the report, I wondered if maybe the poor just don’t realize that the world is as unequal as it is. But their research concluded that that wasn’t the case. As it turns out, the poor actually over time are more likely than the wealthy to see and recognize an increase in inequality. That sounds odd too, but wealthy people notoriously don’t think that they are wealthy or that there is much of a significant gap between rich and poor. But even when poor people know that there is a growing gap, they still lean more to the right when the gap grows wider.

One theory is that during good economic times news stories focus on individualism (enhancing opposition to welfare) and during bad economic times stories emphasize people being down on their luck (enhancing support for welfare). And since the media seldom covers poor people, except as tragic figures during a hurricane or flood, the poor perhaps don’t have an easy frame of reference from which to think about the wider span between liberal or conservative. So if the only options presented in the media about the economy are middle and right, they will only respond to pollsters with a center to right opinion. However, while that might explain why America in general has been trending to the right since the beginning of the golden age of globalization (roughly 1982), it doesn’t explain why the trend is more pronounced during swings of high inequality. Why did both rich and poor become more conservative on economic issues during the Bush administration, even though the gap between rich and poor soared to its widest in history?

Another theory says that while during times of big gains for people at the top the media tends to cover rich people (i.e. the 1980s and 2000s) which encourages a turn toward conservatism, during times of social equality it tends to cover government’s role in helping the poor (as in the “War on Poverty” of the 1960s), which may in turn have created a turn in public opinion toward liberalism.

There are two takeaways from this.
First, while may be snarky to say this, one important learning for those who are truly wealthy is that the more unequal they can make our economy, the more the public will support them in doing it. That sounds unfair to say that, but it’s actually a little bit true.

The second is that runaway inequality as we are experiencing right now undermines our ability to thrive as a nation. People lose their enthusiasm for growing, taking risks and playing by the rules if they know that the rich are going to get richer and suck up all of the currency out of the economy for themselves. Why try when you know that you’ll ultimately lose? Very literally, when the rich get richer there is a slight draw on the amount of money in the economy left over for the rest of the people and it creates a downward pressure on wages. One of the reasons why we didn’t feel that very strongly during the 2000s was that huge numbers of us made up for our flat-lined incomes by borrowing against our homes or buying homes we couldn’t afford thinking that the price would continually go up and make us rich. Now that that balloon has busted, we are feeling the very real reality of an economy that staggeringly rewards the top and depresses the poor and middle It’s crippling, discouraging, and damaging to our future as a democracy.

It’s interesting that some in Congress use this argument all the time, that if we don’t reward the wealthiest people at the very top (who they tend to call the “middle class”), that group will get discouraged and not work and not invest. The argument is dubious for those at the top, but it is very real for those at the bottom. It’s not an accident that the polarization of our Congress is occurring at the same time that we have a polarization in our economy. One drives the other. Income inequality has shredded our belief that we are one nation (“under God”?) and it is fast at work shredding our potential for an effective government.

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