Economic inequality is high and rising, but Americans aren’t clamoring for government action to address it. Nathan Kelly finds that rising economic inequality, rather than making the public favor redistribution, actually helps Republicans electorally and leads to policies that further entrench it and away from policies to combat it. Meghan Condon finds that Americans react to inequality by comparing themselves with those who have less, rather than to the rich, imaging themselves better off than others who they think don’t work as hard. They both say rising inequality does not make it easier to address through political action.
Guests: Nathan Kelly, University of Tennessee; Meghan Condon, Loyola University Chicago
Studies: America’s Inequality Trap and The Economic Other
Matt Grossmann: Why rising inequality doesn’t stimulate action to address it, this week on The Science of Politics. From the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
Economic inequality is high and rising, but Americans aren’t clamoring for government to do a lot more about it, and related policies are often stymied. We might expect economic inequality to lead to more efforts to address it, but instead it makes people compare themselves with others below them and helps Republicans in policy that advances inequality.
This week, I talked to Nathan Kelly of the University of Tennessee about his Chicago book, America’s Inequality Trap. He finds that rising economic inequality, rather than making the public favor redistribution, actually helps Republicans win elections, and leads to policies that further entrench it, and a way from policies to combat it.
I also talked to Meghan Condon of Loyola University, Chicago, about her Chicago book with Amber Wichowsky, The Economic Other. She finds that Americans react to inequality by comparing themselves with those who have less, rather than to the rich. Imagining themselves better off than others, who they think don’t work as hard.
They both say rising inequality does not make it easier to address through political action. Kelly finds that rising inequality makes it harder to solve both, by affecting institutions and the public.
Nathan Kelly: The core question of the book surrounds how it is that rising economic inequality has changed American politics in a variety of ways, and I looked at several different pathways through which rising inequality might feed back into the political system. A couple of those pathways related to the policy making process in American political institutions, and a couple of pathways related more to sort of traditional political behavior with even some connections to political psychology.
So the two more institutional pathways had to do with how rising inequality has affected the ability of Congress to pass new laws. And one of the core findings there is that as inequality rises, it does make it harder to pass new legislation. And importantly, the effect of new legislation is very different depending on the existing level of inequality. So when inequality is low, there’s really no effect. There’s no linkage between legislative productivity and distributional outcomes. But if inequality is already high, then Congress failing to get things done actually further exacerbates economic inequality. So there’s a situation there where high inequality feeds back on itself through the political system, through the pathway of basically legislative gridlock.
Another part of the policy-making process that I looked at was the extent to which legislators are able to make bipartisan policy changes. I mean, because we know that even in context of very high polarization over the last couple of decades, Congress does still get things done. They do still come together in bipartisan ways to make policy. But what I focused on was the types of policy that get made when polarization is high and when gridlock is prevalent. And what I found is that the places where it’s most likely for the parties to come together and make policy in the context of high inequality are in policy domains where it’s likely that the policy outcome will further exacerbate inequality. So when inequality is high, bipartisan policy-making is more likely to exacerbate economic inequality. So that’s a second way in which we sort of have what I refer to as an inequality trap, where rising inequality changes American politics in ways that further reinforce inequality.
And then there are the more behavioral pathways. And there, I looked at public opinion and voting behavior. And with regard to public opinion, what I essentially found is the public opinion is not a super central part of this story, this feedback loop. There’s not very strong evidence that the public responds very consistently in one way or another to rising inequality, so it’s not as if rising inequality makes people fundamentally more conservative or fundamentally more progressive. There’s not much of a response, except for among a small portion of people actually at the lower end of the income distribution. And so for poor people, there does seem to be some evidence that they actually become less supportive of redistribution as inequality increases. So that’s not the kind of response that would, that would produce a sort of cyclical self-correcting pattern. It’s one that would be self-reinforcing, at least in that segment of the population.
And then with regard to election outcomes, I’ve found that in general, Republicans are benefited by rising inequality. They tend to perform better in congressional elections and presidential elections when inequality is high, and there are obviously a lot of other factors that go into collection outcomes, but everything else sort of held constant, Republicans perform better when inequality is high, and Republicans enact policies that tend to exacerbate economic inequality further. So there’s a potential there for a feedback loop that leads to the title of the book, America’s Inequality Trap, where as inequality rises, it leads to changes in the political system that sort of trap us in inequality and potentially even exacerbate inequality further.
Matt Grossmann: Condon and Wichowsky find biased comparisons inhibit responses to inequality.
Meghan Condon: Our book asks how Americans think about the rich, the poor, and inequality, in an era of rapidly growing economic divides. And it asks why we don’t see more robust, broad-based support for government action to decrease economic inequality in the US. Our focus is on people’s social experience with class, how contact in comparison across class divides is changing, and how it affects our politics.
So as humans, we compare ourselves to others all the time. And I think one of the best ways for anyone who’s listening to get the intuition for the book, and think through just how important social comparison is to how we see ourselves and our society, is just to think for a second about all the social comparisons you have made already today with people at work, on the street, in the media. Think through how those made you feel, whether the comparisons you made between yourself and others brought you up or brought you down, made you feel big or small, made you feel empowered, envious, covetous, less than.
And then what we do, what Amber Wichowsky and I do is we take a step forward and we ask how those comparisons affect our politics, how we see ourselves in the social hierarchy, and what we want government to do about the differences between us. The book shows how people understand inequality through interpersonal status-based thinking, and demonstrates that opportunities for cross-class interaction and comparison have declined over the last half century in ways that insulate American politics from growing inequality. So we find that when it comes to inequality, focusing on different comparisons with the rich, the poor, or the middle class changes what people want government to do, and whether they feel empowered to make those demands.
In several experiments and observational studies, we find when Americans compare upward with the rich, they perceive their own status as lower. And that, for middle, and working class, and poor Americans means that they’re perceiving their status more accurately. People comparing upward with the rich like that also want government to strengthen the safety net and redistribute resources. Support for food assistance, education, unemployment insurance, they all go up with upward comparison. But at the same time, in some cases, looking upward can make people feel less efficacious. So while they may want more from government, they feel less empowered to make those demands.
Downward comparison with the poor boosts status perceptions. It makes people feel that their own status is higher, but it doesn’t change policy opinions or advocacy. People comparing with the poor feel better about themselves, but not much differently about the role of government or their own political power.
And then the next thing that we investigate is where those comparisons come from. And we find that these comparisons are structured by our communities, the media, political messages, and even psychological cravings to look up or down. Americans as individuals are actually deeply sensitive to inequality, but the American response to inequality is muted by countervailing forces. And I can talk more about these as we go, but the big lens are growing economic segregation, which has made the rich increasingly invisible for most Americans, in particular depressing opportunity for upper comparison. And then second, misleading class images in the media fill that gap left blank by personal lived experiences, allowing class stereotypes to increasingly structure the comparisons we imagine. These images and stereotypes are really persistently racialized and gendered in the US. And then third, economic anxiety and precarity, which are absolutely exploding in the US, make people crave downward comparison to feel better about themselves in uncertain times. And again, this decreases the upper comparison. It makes people more accurate about status and supportive of the safety net.
Taken together, the evidence in the book explains that the American response to inequality has been anemic, because at the same time that economic inequality has grown, most Americans have had fewer of the specific types of social comparative experiences that make that inequality salient and mobilize support for redistribution and empower public action.
Matt Grossmann: In part, due to these social comparisons, Kelly finds no self-correcting patterns for inequality.
Nathan Kelly: There are some different theoretical models that might lead us to expect what you might call a thermostatic response to rising inequality. So there’s lots of parts of the political system, right? Where if something moves toward the left, then the input that produces that leftward movement is likely to shift in the other direction over time. And so there’s a lot of self-correction that happens in American politics. There’s a lot of back and forth where things don’t move too far in one direction or the other before a correction happens.
So part of the expectation is just that, that we see these sort of self-correcting patterns all over the place in American politics. So if that’s the kind of pattern that we would see with inequality, what would we expect to see? Well, we would expect to see rising inequality helping Democrats do better at the polls, perhaps pushing public opinion in a more progressive direction in order to sort of arrest rising inequality of things that are sort of out of equilibrium in some way.
And of course there are also sort of more rigid economic theories that expect public opinion and election outcomes to move in a self-correcting way in response to inequality. There’s the famous Meltzer and Richard model of the size of government, where they talk about how basically the median voter is going to shift to the left as inequality rises. And if that happens, then in the American context, Democrats should do better. People should be shifting in a progressive direction. Now, that theory has had … Probably the best way to say it is the evidence has been mixed on that theory over time. And then I think this book is just one more piece of evidence that’s like, “Well, that theory doesn’t really work.”
But there are actually some really good reasons to expect what I found in the book, which is either a non-response to rising inequality in the public, or if there is a response, that it actually moves things in a conservative direction and helps Republicans. To some extent, there’s this idea of status bias in public opinion, and in the sense that people sort of become used to whatever the current context is. And so if that current context involves inequality, they just become used to inequality being higher, and then they don’t request a response, because they just adjust to the new situation.
And then there’s also the book that I think is paired with this one, the Condon and Wichowksy book, that looks at where people make comparisons, and they tend to make comparisons in a downward direction rather than an upward direction. And if they do make comparisons in an upward direction, it actually makes them feel less efficacious and less like they can actually achieve things in politics. And those patterns are precisely in line with the results that I find in this book.
Matt Grossmann: He says bipartisan actions, like financial deregulation, even increase inequality.
Nathan Kelly: Part of the story of the book is that Democrats and Republicans actually joined together in a bipartisan fashion to deregulate the financial industry. Historically, Democrats had been the party that was most supportive of financial regulation, and Republicans tried for quite a while to chip away at financial regulation and deregulate that sector. And by the 1990s, there was actually sufficient support among Democrats. Not the entire party, but a sufficient portion of the Democratic Party actually joined with Republicans to repeal Glass-Steagall.
And so one of the things I look at in the book is why and how that happened, and it gives rise to the question of whether this is really a permanent thing, or whether the Democrats joining with Republicans was kind of a temporary blip that happened in the 1990s, kind of the Bill Clinton era of the Democratic Party. And so I think the jury is still out on that question, but part of what seems to have driven some Democrats toward financial deregulation was actually the amount of inequality that exists. If you go back into the congressional record and listen, and look at some of the speeches, you see Democratic members who are typically pretty progressive members of Congress, talking about how their constituents are falling further and further behind, that they need access to credit and part of the reason that they need to deregulate the financial industry is to open up credit access to their lower income constituents that are falling further and further behind in terms of inequality. And so, I don’t think the evidence on this is totally airtight, but it’s certainly suggestive that rising inequality made it possible for Democrats to shift toward financial deregulation. Since then, of course there’s been some reregulation has happened, but the reregulation that’s happened has been pretty mild in comparison to the old Glass-Steagall framework. And Democrats have not completely gone all in on fully reregulating the finance sector. So I think it’s actually likely that we’re not going to see Democrats completely reverse on this over a long period of time, as long as inequality remains as high as it is.
Matt Grossmann: Trying to understand dynamics over time is hard, but Kelly uses several techniques.
Nathan Kelly: When we’re doing these time series models, they’re looking at these long-term trends in how variables relate to each other. One of the key things that we’re always doing is anytime we’re looking at an outcome, we’re always controlling for previous values of that outcome. So we’re essentially making sure that we’re looking at change in an outcome while we’re looking at change in an input. So by controlling for a long series of previous values, in some cases on an outcome variable, that helps to guard against this whole… Have you missed something? Is there something else going on because we’ve controlled for previous dynamics so if there are other things pushing an outcome variable in a particular direction, we essentially will have accounted for that already by controlling for previous values of the outcome. But there are these long-term trends that we have to account for as well, and this doesn’t completely get rid of that problem.
And so one of the things that we want to also be sure to do is if there were really big, exogenous macro level factors that we haven’t accounted for in these time series models that we do at least statistically account for. And so throughout the book, one of the things that you’ll see is footnotes pointing to more detailed methods decisions. And one of the things that was done repeatedly was including a variety of time trends in these models to make sure that we weren’t just seeing journalistic trends driving the results, and almost without exception, when you include those longterm trends, doesn’t fundamentally alter what we see in terms of the results. So that does provide some reassurance, at least that we’re capturing what we think we’re capturing when we estimate these models.
Matt Grossmann: In the economic other Condon and [Wakoski 00:16:55] look at the micro level, asking people to imagine interactions with richer or poorer people.
Meghan Condon:We joined several research methods to understand American perception of class and inequality and the drivers of support for government action. We use a combination of survey data and large-scale experiments, but also qualitative research. And so we ask the thousands of people in our studies who are imagining conversations and interactions with the rich and the poor to write a little bit about what they imagined, to write about who that rich or poor person is in their imagination, what they think and might talk about, how they feel. And what comes to light and when it comes to the poor is that Americans really hold a dominant public image of the poor as lazy, undeserving. This image is racialized and gendered. We show experimentally that people are imagining a poor person in their minds as a black woman, disproportionately. And they tell us this in their qualitative answers. So people talk about imagining… They give pretty detailed descriptions.
They talk about imagining woman who is overweight with many children, someone who has a cell phone, use the language, “Has the luxury of a cell phone, but still won’t work or doesn’t have a job.” They talk about imagining interactions where they offer assistance to the poor person, where they are generous and magnanimous and the other person refuses to take advantage of the help that’s offered. One particularly detailed description came from one of our respondents who talked about imagining a conversation with a person who was unemployed because of substance abuse problems, and imagine telling that person about a job that was possible. And that the person, who keep in mind, is completely imagined and fictitious, doesn’t show up for the job interview. So the image that comes out of the poor in our qualitative data really does reflect what social scientists and political observers have been talking about for a long time. I mean, certainly since welfare reform in the 1990s, but even well before that, that Americans have this dominant, shared public image of racialized poverty and the undeserving path [inaudible 00:19:37]
Matt Grossmann: Condon says economic anxiety and segregation push Americans from upward comparisons.
Meghan Condon: Economic segregation, which in communities, in the workplace, even in families and marriages, is growing right along with inequality, but it’s not growing evenly. It’s the rich who are segregating more and more, disappearing into wealthy enclaves and zip codes and neighborhoods, social circles. And so the segregation of wealth means that the great majority of people in the nation who aren’t wealthy themselves are having fewer and fewer opportunities for upward comparison. And then psychologically, when people feel uncertain, insecure, or anxious, we want to compare downward to feel better. We want to say, “Well, at least I’m not her. At least I’m not him.” And so economic anxiety, which is also rising with inequality, makes people try to avoid upper comparison and focusing downward comparisons. So taken together, these countervailing forces are pushing Americans away from upper comparison, away from the comparisons that increase support for redistribution. And it isn’t that we never make these upward comparisons. We always make downward comparisons. That’s not the case. But the conditions in an increasingly unequal society make upward comparison less likely.
Matt Grossmann: Views of class differences come more from nonpolitical sources and they’re distorting.
Meghan Condon: The messages that we receive about inequality from political groups and elites and the images of wealth and poverty in popular culture both matter, especially when people’s daily lives aren’t providing experiences for comparison. So especially in the context of growing income segregation. These other sources of class images are becoming even more important. So I want to say two things here. First, when it comes to political messages, it can be consequential, but despite how it feels sometimes to political scientists or people who are heavily engaged in politics, for most people, this political messaging from interest groups and parties and leaders is really only a tiny slice of their lived experience with class differences and social comparison across economic divides. That’s the reason that we focused in this book on the political consequences of social comparison, coming from other nonpolitical sources, from neighbors and coworkers, entertainment, media, and the like.
So we’re writing actually a followup book now that gives more attention to political rhetoric about inequality. But we wanted to start off meeting people where they are, which for many people isn’t glued to political media. Now people in the United States are drinking from a fire hose of class messages from popular culture and entertainment media. And so we do investigate those in the economic other. In particular, we’re really curious about images of wealth when it comes to celebrity culture, social media and reality television. We watched reality television and some of it’s content systematically and analyzed the data for this [inaudible 00:22:56]. And what we found was that though there are many images of the economic elite in celebrity culture, in social media, in reality television, from Undercover Boss to The Real Housewives to Kim Kardashian, when we watched it systematically, we found that these messages are about class, are highly synthetic and they’re engineered to make people feel good, to be entertained and to feel pleasure and to keep watching.
That’s not how upward comparison feels in the real world. In real life upward comparison, doesn’t feel very good. It’s not pleasurable. It can make you feel worse about yourself. So entertainment media manages to craft upward comparison that feels pleasurable in ways that interrupt that connection with less people’s opinions about inequality. So we call these three ways, the fool, the friend, and the fairy godparent. So reality television, for example, casts the rich as either objects of derision, the fool, so to speak as people who can’t get along with their families and make bad decisions, don’t work hard. We can think about the original example of this as Paris Hilton in The Simple Life who couldn’t do basic working class labor. And so people can watch wealth, but feel superior. The second way is the friend the Us Weekly, the rich, they’re just like us celebrities.
They’re just like us. Many, many celebrities and reality television stars have mastered the art of making it seem as though they have a real social relationship with their fan base. And so people engage in upward comparison with the rich that feels similar rather than distant from those upper-class others. And then finally, the fairy godparent draws on the ideas about the American dream. We can think about shows like Shark Tank or Undercover Boss, where the rich is cast as a fairy godparent of sorts as not this distant other living in a very different life, but as the person who has made it and will help everybody else climb up and reach well. And so taking together all of these images of wealth in entertainment media, don’t work much at all, like real-world cross class experiences. They don’t make people feel resentful. They don’t make people feel distant or more aware of divides. They make people feel good. And so they don’t really fill the gap that’s left blank by lived experience.
Matt Grossmann: Americans are polarized, but partisans on each side are responsive to similar mechanism.
Meghan Condon: Self-identified Democrats and Republicans do differ in their attitudes about inequality and redistribution. We find that as well. Democrats are generally more concerned about inequality, more supportive of redistributive policies in our studies and across the work of others. In our qualitative data, we find that Republicans are more likely to emphasize personal responsibility when thinking about the poor and more likely to hold favorable views of the very rich, seeing them as hardworking and deserving of their great wealth. But at the same time, Republican voters are not as far right on economics as Republican political elites. And we see anger and resentment directed at the top of the distribution among Republicans and Democrats alike. And in fact, in our experiments, Republicans and Democrats reacted in the same way to upward social comparison. Their sense of status found they became more supportive of public policies that help level the playing field.
So their starting points were different, but they moved in the same direction. But there are ways that Republican elites can keep voters in line with their more conservative economic position. And it’s not just by deflecting attention on two entirely different issues. One is to bring in race, ethnicity, and immigration into the picture. Remember, in our experiment where we varied the names of the economic other, white respondents who saw that Latino name got a bigger boost to their perceived status. This is a really important tactic that we see actors on the right using, that employee’s social comparison. Second, remember that because the wealthy elite are so socially invisible in real life for most people, there’s substantial difference in terms of who Americans think the elite are. People think of corporate executives, Wall Street bankers, hedge fund managers. They come to mind for some, but we also find in our qualitative data that when people think of the rich and the elite, for some they’re thinking of public employees and government workers, people with a great deal of security rather than [inaudible 00:28:04].
So for these people, it’s not income that defines those at the top of whether they have protection against economic catastrophe. The response may be a politics that seeks to remove some of the privileges that public sector employees hold, and that might be the result of upward comparison. Elites have a great deal of flexibility when it comes to framing the rich. We have a pretty unified image of the poor in our minds, but a lot of flexibility and a lot of ambivalence about what we think of the wealthy.
So focusing attention on social mobility instead of the gap between the very rich and the rest is also a strategy that political elites can use. Remember Jeb Bush called his failed 2016 bed right to rise and it’s true. American beliefs about social mobility do help temper demands for economic redistribution, but it’s interesting that a figure like Trump emerges in a time when Americans’ faith in the American dream had faltered a bit following the great recession and the long sluggish recovery.
Trump’s rhetoric fits the broader pattern in right-wing populous discourse. He often gives a one-two punch of an upward contrast that can spark resentment pointing to the elite, the rich, then joined in quick succession with a downward contrast that boosts subjective status and deflects anger onto the non elite. It’s a message that takes advantage of the anger inducing upward contrast, but pairs it with a message of downward comparison that serves to counter the potentially demobilizing impact of upward comparison.
Matt Grossmann: Kelly also finds that inequality and polarization go together.
Nathan Kelly: My story certainly overlaps a lot with the polarization story that polarization, status quo bias, all of those things go hand in hand, and those are connected to inequality and interesting ways. The thing that I think I do in the book, that’s maybe more explicit than a lot of the previous research on polarization and inequality is that I actually analyzed legislative productivity explicitly and trace the extent to which polarization leads to gridlock, which then interacts in interesting ways with economic inequality.
I think my book is really filling out the polarization inequality story more than explicitly contradicting it. That said, it seems like if you looked at polarization and gridlock and their relationship to inequality, it’s clear that the more proximate variable to inequality is, is gridlock rather than polarization. So they’re all tied up together and it’s hard to disentangle them completely. But the story I tell in the book is totally with a polarization story, but with just a more of an emphasis on legislative action and inaction rather than polarization.
With regard to the social issue emphasis, I think this is a question that probably is going to require some follow-up research. I see the possibility that part of the reason we have the shift towards social issues is because of rising inequality. I think to some extent, Democrats probably understand the strategic situation, understand that rising inequality isn’t really helpful to them in an electoral sense. And so they have gone along with the shift toward cultural issues that Republicans have also been happy to do.
So, I think that the story of my book is related to the story of a shift to culture war issues. I think the question is whether the culture war issue shift happened and then we had the rise in inequality, whether the rise in inequality really proceeded and precipitated the shift toward cultural wars issues. I think if you look at the timing, it seems to be the case that rise in inequality happened before the major shift to cultural wars issues, but these things were happening in tandem with each other. So teasing out the causal ordering there, I think is a really important question to follow up on actually.
Matt Grossmann: And he agrees that downward comparisons might help explain these dynamics.
Nathan Kelly: The economic other book is really, really useful and I think it provides a whole lot of information about one of the possible mechanisms for the aggregate patterns that I’ve seen, not just in this book, but repeatedly and other work that I’ve done as well. Exactly quantifying how much of the aggregate pattern is due to the downward comparison bias. In a sense, I think is really hard to say. I couldn’t even really guess at a quantification of that and I think it would be interesting maybe to talk about if there’s a way to sort that through and try to figure out how to piece together what proportion of the response to inequality is due to this downward comparison bias.
I mean, I haven’t thought of how to do that and maybe an obvious way that some listener is like, “Oh yeah, that would actually be very easy to do. You should just do this and they can do that, and that would be wonderful.”
Matt Grossmann: Condon points out that both projects also show economic anxiety and racial politics going together.
Meghan Condon: Nathan Kelly shows for example, that racism is associated with less support for redistribution. That this relationship has magnified when inequality is high. He hypothesizes that high inequality activates a scarcity mindset among the less of where there’s greater tendency toward out group bias and greater unwillingness to provide resources to others. We observed similar dynamics in our research. So for example, in one of our experiments, we randomly assign subjects to an economic anxiety condition where they’re first asked to write about their economic worries and financial situation before continuing on with the study.
Everyone in the study was then asked to select a news article about a person at either the top or the bottom of the income ladder to read about and compare themselves to. So they got to select their comparison target up or down. Our central finding in this study is that Americans may prefer not to make any cross class comparison if given that option, but when they must, the more economically anxious they feel, the more they prefer to compare with the poor, rather than the rich. These downward comparisons protect against ego threat.
They give us a status boost, but remember that for many white Americans, poverty is deeply racialized and thus these downward comparisons also activate racial biases among white Americans that damp and support for egalitarian policies. In another experiment, we show that white Americans, particularly white Americans without a college degree, get a particularly large boost in status when they engage in downward comparison with an ethnic racial other.
So I think that our results are broadly very consistent with anything Kelly’s work and examine more than micro foundations of some of these patterns and the social roots of some of the experiences Americans are having that are guiding their thinking.
Matt Grossmann: Americans perceive the poor more as black women and the rich more as white men.
Meghan Condon: Race is a central part of our story. If you think about economic inequality through the lens of social comparison, class politics is identity politics because we imagine the economic other as a person with race and with gender. And when we think about class and economic divides in the United States, we are thinking about race and gender, even if we don’t admit it, or sometimes even if we don’t fully recognize it.
So we’re social scientists and if we try to explain economic difference in some sort of statistical representation, we’re likely to pick one indicator. Maybe income, maybe wealth, and show you how it varies across people all on its own. Maybe we’ll bring in race or gender into the story by showing gaps or different distributions, but the economic indicator is its own separate thing. When it comes to social comparative thinking about class, economic difference is absolutely never scrubbed of race, gender, or other social categories. It’s animated by them.
Economic difference is almost literally fleshed out by social groups and identities in our minds, and this is very true, consistently true in the United States and across all of our studies. We have experiments and surveys in the book that consistently document the fact that Americans across identity groups are again, likely to imagine the poor as a black woman and the rich as a white man. That is deeply ingrained in our mind and we aren’t seeing that change.
Along with many other scholars, Amber and I believe that this welding together of race and gender and class in our public images is definitely one of the primary reasons we don’t see thinking of the poor bringing about more support for assistance. And we’re able to test this idea directly. So we ran one experiment in which we varied the identity of the person at the bottom of the ladder.
Half of the people in the study saw a name that was designed to make them assume the person was white Jake or Catherine Kowalski. The other random half saw a Hispanic name Consuela or Jose Hernandez. White subjects in this study without a college degree, which are growing part of the Republican base were much more sensitive to this treatment. And in this case, contrasting with an ethnic racial other boosted their sense of status, even above the class comparison.
Others have similarly shown that racial attitudes affect support for redistribution, and Amber and I really believe that attention to social comparison reveals the absolute impassability of solving mysteries about class in American politics without investigating race or gender.
Matt Grossmann: Kelly says the US might not stand out for inequality stimulating the impact of racial resentment.
Nathan Kelly: The question about whether the US is an outlier here, or whether the US is somehow special or has a particular problem with an inequality draft is a good one. I think that it’s highly likely that the United States is not the only country experiencing these sorts of patterns. I think it may be the case that the United States has this problem on a grander scale than other countries in part, because of the policy-making institutions that are more unique to the United States and that there is more of a status quo bias in terms of policymaking in the United States system.
But a lot of the other factors that contribute to the inequality trap in the United States are very likely to be present in other countries as well. There is comparative evidence that as inequality rises, attitudes toward immigrants and anti ethnic minority attitudes do increase. And so one of the patterns that I saw in the book was that really racial resentment, racial animosity was one of the key drivers and how people respond to rise in inequality.
So people who have more racist attitudes are much more likely to respond in a conservative direction when inequality rises. And that’s if you control for the more general ideological orientation. I mean, I think that kind of pattern it’s not specific to the United States, just because we have this particular racial history in our country. It does seem to exist in other countries as well, based on the comparative evidence.
I actually think that increasingly the United States can be seen very much as just another example of things that are happening around the world. I’ve done some work in Latin American politics and see very similar patterns in South America and central America as we see in the United States. The United States is maybe not as special as we Americans sometimes think it is.
Matt Grossmann: But Condon says Americans aren’t alone, but do have some particularities.
Meghan Condon: We do know from others’ cross national research, that the US is an outlier when it comes to support for redistribution and the public response to economic inequality. So we can add to that, that the US also has a particularly deeply ingrained public image of the poor as black and female and our empirical studies, they don’t extend to other countries. So I can’t say for sure whether Americans respond differently to social comparisons across class divides.
But what I think we provide is a framework for thinking through the forces, in any national context that drive people to make different comparisons. Forces like class segregation, economic anxiety, media exposure to class images, and the connections between social groups like race and gender and economic circumstances. All of these forces are going to govern broad patterns in social comparison across any national context. And all of those factors vary across countries. So I think investigating the politics of social comparison globally is a fascinating question.
Matt Grossmann: Is it really the public that’s the problem here? American support redistributed policies, but Condon says it’s not in a way that matters politically.
Meghan Condon: Americans do support a variety of redistributive policies, education, social safety net programs, financial reform, taxing the wealthy, and that’s true, but support isn’t as high as we might predict based on America’s levels of inequality and how inequality matters cross nationally. Further, we don’t see mass mobilization…
And further, we don’t see mass mobilization of support for policies that might reduce economic inequality in the U.S. We don’t see opinion moving further to the left as inequality rises, opinion is pretty flat, even though inequality is changing rapidly, and inequality is just not a top priority for most Americans. So while we might see majority support for some of these programs, it’s not placed at the top of their priority list. We also don’t have robust counter movements. Labor in the U.S. is weak. We see some bursts of social movement activism, like the Fight For 15 movement, but these moments consistently struggle to broaden coalitions. And the legislative victories are really piecemeal.
So we have intense opinion minorities that are pushing for redistributive action in the United States, but we do lack broad diffuse support. And this opens up space for economic elites to mobilize against any policy that threatens their position. And, of course, they benefit from polarization and gridlock and political institutions that produce status quo bias. Voters have become cynical about government capacity to address these issues and reduce trust to dampen support for redistribution. So broadly, mass support for government action to reduce economic inequality is present, but it isn’t as strong as we expect and it isn’t strong enough to counter these other forces that are driving policy.
Matt Grossmann: And Kelly adds that policy responds more to changes in views than the stable support for redistribution.
Nathan Kelly: If you look at the cross sectional time series data, there is a lot of support for redistribution. And so the question is, well, why doesn’t this happen? And so there’s this whole literature on unequal representation, and to the extent that that literature is focused on cross sections, they find a lot of bias toward upper class interests. But there’s also a lot of evidence that suggests that when the system responds to public opinion, it doesn’t respond to static public opinion, like a measurement of public opinion at a particular point in time. It responds to changes in public opinion, so you don’t need a lot of people to want something. What you need is a lot of people that want something and then they maybe even become more supportive or more people become supportive of a particular policy over time, and that sends the signal to politicians to actually do something.
And so we’ve got a lot of supporting cross sections for redistribution, but it seems like the problem is to the extent that, that opinion shifts over time, it may be being eroded, and how much of that is due to this downward comparison bias and how much of it is due to upward comparisons and a real sense of lack of efficacy as the rich just pull further and further away from everyone else? I think it is very much an open question.
Matt Grossmann: They’re both now looking at political messaging. Kelly finds that the upper class drives the issue agenda away from redistribution.
Nathan Kelly: So the new book is called Hijacking The Agenda, and I think that comparing this book to that book is a lesson in why you should get really smart co-authors to work with, because it makes the work better. I think that book is a really interesting book that brings together different skill sets to the four authors have. What we do in that book is we are focused on the agenda and the legislative process and what it is that Congress pays attention to and what they don’t pay attention to, perhaps more importantly. We looked very specifically at how campaign donations affect what members of Congress talk about. We find that there’s a fairly direct relationship to where the money comes from and what issues members of Congress talk about. We utilize some 500 million words from the Congressional record in order to figure out what members of Congress are talking about.
And we focus on upper class issues or issues that are things that the upper classes tend to care more about, and then on the other hand, issues that the middle and lower classes tend to care more about, and then we look at where the money comes from. And so part of the analysis is a quantitative analysis that looks at data from 1996 to 2007 or so, later than that, actually, we updated into the current decade, and we find the quantitative evidence that there’s a very clear correlation between money coming from business interests and members of Congress talking about the issues that business cares most about. Then we also do a series of very detailed and careful case studies of policymaking and really show how both money and just the positionality of business in the American economy, what we call and what other scholars have called structural business power, really shapes the agenda.
Nathan Kelly: And then we also show that when members of Congress are talking about things in Congress, it’s not just a bunch of hot air. What they talk about actually does translate into action eventually. So the agenda setting stage is super important, and this is really the stage where we can see money mattering perhaps most in the legislative process. So it’s a book that I’m excited about and I hope that people find it interesting as well.
Matt Grossmann: Condon and Wichoswky are looking at whether political messaging might help stimulate action.
Meghan Condon: Amber and I are working on a second book that addresses questions raised in The Economic Other. We’re investigating which political messages dominate contemporary discourse about inequality and which of those messages foster high political engagement and support for aid to the poor. We’re especially interested in how groups and candidates and leaders use race and gender in political rhetoric about economic inequality and how that affects people who hear their messages. We’ve collected a great deal of textual and visual data from candidate ads and social media debates, speeches, organizing group messages, and we’re analyzing them using some of the same techniques we used for the rhetoric of everyday Americans in The Economic Other.
And then in this new book, in a series of experiments, we’re manipulating components of inequality related messages and experiments varying the race and the gender of the comparison target, combining inequality rhetoric with mobilization messages that highlight in-group and intergroup solidarity or descriptive representation. And so our first book, the one we’ve talked about today, paints a pretty disturbing picture of national politics. And we’re in the early stages of the second book, which we’re hoping to contribute ideas about how American democratic life can be more participatory and generous even in an age of rapidly growing inequality.
Matt Grossmann: Condon says liberal politicians are trying to raise the salience of upward comparison, but they’re up against a divisive Trump strategy.
Meghan Condon: I’m not sure that Sanders and Warren are acting on our advice, but their rhetoric is definitely consistent with it. So their messaging is consistent and it’s focused on upward comparison. Others on the left, even Biden toward the end of the campaign, even the actors at the state and local level are sometimes even perhaps more effective in pairing upward comparison creatively with power building messages. And we did see this across the campaign. This is one of the things that Amber and I are investigating right now for our next book project. Trump was another story. His rhetoric is absolutely filled with cross class comparison, but not in a straight forward or unidirectional way. So we might say Sanders and Warren were constantly asking people to look up, to think about the rich, to think about the difference between the billionaire and themselves, to think about their distance from the centers of power and how the deck is stacked against them.
Donald Trump, on other hand, would use a combination of an upward and downward cross class comparison throughout his rhetoric. And one of the things he did, again, was offer this one, two punch of social comparison. So his populous messages of upper comparison, telling people they were being forgotten, underestimated, left behind, talking about the moneyed elite, the media, other advantaged parties who were looking down on them that was consistent. But then in a few different ways, often in the very next sentence or the same sentence, Trump would pivot, I mean, almost in the breath to downward comparison. So sometimes the downward comparison would be really vague saying directly, “You are the elite. You’re smarter. You’re better,” boosting that image. But often, most often, he relied on race and ethnicity to induce downward comparison immediately following that upward comparison.
He’s talking to a largely White audience and he’s inducing them to compare themselves with immigrants, Muslims, and people that he would talk about in crime ridden urban centers, which is often code for Black people. And so what his rhetoric did for his largely White audience was create a dissatisfaction and a desire for change with often a very broad brush, vague, upward comparison, and then having created that craving, given immediate boost to self-concept and status by getting people to think of people in groups that they perceive as less than or as lower status.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and part of the Democracy Group Network. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. If you liked this discussion, you should check out our previous episodes, including Labor Unions and Inequality, Inequality and Polarization, How Views of Inequality Change with Television, Who Speaks for the Poor in Congress, and How Local Politicians Respond to Richer and White Constituents. Thanks to Nathan Kelly and Meghan Condon for joining me. Please check out America’s Inequality Trap and The Economic Other, and then listen in next time.