Ideology Über Alles

An interesting study on Americans’ attitudes regarding inequality and wealth distribution has been making the rounds recently.  It highlights once again the ideology problem that plagues any attempt to reconstruct left/social democratic/socialist/whatever politics in the U.S.

The researchers asked survey respondents to choose between three unlabeled pie charts representing the social structures of three different societies — a fictional society with wealth equally distributed between five quintiles; the actual wealth distribution in the U.S., the most unequal country in the industrialized world; and the actual income distribution in Sweden, the most egalitarian country in the industrialized world (the researchers used Sweden’s income distribution because it represented a clearer contrast with the wealth distributions in the fully equal society as well as the U.S.; Sweden’s wealth distribution, though more equal than the U.S.’s, is heavily tilted in favor of the top quintiles).  Overall, 92% of respondents chose Sweden as their ideal wealth distribution, an overwhelming preference that was prevalent in every demographic group, including the rich and self-identified Republicans.

Respondents were also asked to estimate their perception of the current wealth distribution in the U.S., and unsurprisingly, they thought that it is much more egalitarian than it actually is.  They estimated that the top quintile receives 59% of the wealth rather than the 84% it actually claims.  They also reported a desire to see the top quintile receive only 32% of society’s wealth and moreover agreed that the wealth that they currently control should be redistributed to the lower quintiles of the income distribution.

It would be tempting to read these results and conclude that Americans really do want to live in a social democracy, and that all we have to do is go out there and organize them.  If only it were so simple.  As the researchers note, just because a huge majority of Americans might respond favorably to wealth redistribution when asked to respond to a limited survey doesn’t mean that they will actually be disposed to do anything to actually make it happen.  People might be operating under false assumptions as to the sources of wealth inequality and the best ways to deal with it — I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant portion of Americans thought that we could have an ideal wealth distribution if only all of those poor, lazy slobs out there got off the couch and worked for it.

In the language of academic political science, Americans tend to be ideologically conservative and operationally liberal.  As has been long observed, there is a massive disconnect between Americans’ conservative assumptions about how society works (or should work) in an abstract sense and their fairly liberal attitudes toward specific questions of public policy, especially on domestic issues.  The $64,000 question for those of us who don’t want to live in a country where the top 1% of society sucks up almost all of the spoils is how — and even whether — we can break that deadlock.  As I’m inclined to believe that ideological commitment almost always trumps even the most incontrovertible wonkery, we’re not exactly operating from a position of strength.  Millions of Americans are motivated by bone-deep, bedrock beliefs about the world that tend to be immune to even their own specific policy preferences in all but the most peculiar political situations.  The right is operating on an inherently more favorable terrain in which their ideological categories — the market, the work ethic, individualism, and all the rest of it — resonate with many Americans’ instinctual understandings of the ways of the world in a manner that many of our categories simply do not.  I’m not saying it’s impossible for the left to gain a hearing for its vision, because in certain periods in the past — the 1930s and the long 1960s specifically — it has done so.  I just become uneasy when poll data is marshaled to argue that we can have a better society if we just go out there and organize the latently social democratic masses.  If things were that straightforward, we’d be living in Scandinavia West by now.

At this moment, the prospects for attacking the ideology problem don’t look very good.  Even if large majorities of Americans hold progressive positions on a range of policy questions, it’s not like there’s a mass-based organization out there that could potentially mobilize such opinion (paging the labor movement!).  Nor is there a vehicle for representing these views in the electoral system, especially when the Democratic leadership seems to have read the midterm election results as its cue to destroy public education and the last vestiges of the New Deal.  In one of those ironies of history, the starting point for a left in a time of budget cuts and catfood commissions might be the adoption of a Tea Party cri de coeur that perfectly captures the schizophrenia of American politics — “keep your government hands off my Medicare!”  There’s more wisdom in it than we first thought.

Chris Maisano is a member of the Young Democratic Socialists New York City chapter.  He studied at Rutgers and Drexel University and currently works as a librarian at a large public library branch in Brooklyn.  This article was first published in The Activist on 27 November 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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