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The Myth of the Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaire

A new book dismantles the myth of a class-blind public.

Ted Murphy / Flickr

“I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians,” wrote John Steinbeck of his fellow Americans. “Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”

There’s a grain of truth in this. Americans have more faith in upward economic mobility than nearly anyone. We have a special — which isn’t to say totalizing — attachment to the idea that class origin is not destiny, and that anyone who works hard and is smart enough has a shot at a high standard of living. This meritocratic conviction sometimes shades into a belief that rich people’s wealth is deserved while poor people are lazy and unintelligent. Consequently, it’s not too hard for your average New York Times reporter, say, to find non-affluent Americans who do empathize and identify with the rich over the poor, confirming the stereotype of the “temporarily embarrassed capitalist” with objections to increased social spending or defenses of tax cuts for the mega-rich.

But such people are anomalies. Americans are more concerned about wealth inequality than we’re given credit for, and the popular image of working-class Americans siding with the rich, or ignoring the social importance of class, is overblown.

“Contrary to accounts of class indifference,” writes political scientist Spencer Piston in his new book Class Attitudes in America, “ordinary people routinely discuss the poor and the rich when talking about policies, candidates for office, and political parties.” Not only that, but Americans are most likely to sympathize with the poor and resent the rich, not the other way around.

Piston pored over two and a half decades of surveys collected by American National Election Studies (ANES) and found that:

Those individuals who mention the poor in their responses to these survey questions do not typically say that they worry about government giving the poor free handouts. Instead, they express the concern that government is not doing enough to help poor people get by. Those who mention the rich, meanwhile, do not usually worry that government is strangling innovation by overtaxing ‘job creators.’ Rather, they complain that rich people are not paying their fair share in taxes.

He also conducted his own nationally representative surveys, which led him to similarly conclude that:

Americans are more likely to express sympathetic views — and less likely to express resentful views — toward the poor than toward the rich. These findings belie the common contention that most of the American public views the poor as deserving of their low status, and the rich as deserving of their high status.

To further test his claim, Piston conducted experiments in which one group of participants was asked to evaluate a hypothetical politician who transfers resources to the poor, while another was asked to evaluate the same politician except he transfers resources away from the poor. The politician who transferred resources to the poor was more popular in every iteration of the experiment, suggesting that Americans are strongly influenced by their class attitudes in making political decisions.

Piston demonstrates the principle by exploring the 2016 Democratic presidential primary between the economic inequality-focused Bernie Sanders and the status-quo candidate Hillary Clinton. Despite being anointed from the outset by the Democratic Party establishment, Clinton nearly lost to Sanders, who came seemingly out of nowhere and had a fraction of his opponent’s resources. How did he do it? Piston conjectures:

Americans liked Sanders because he appealed to their resentful attitudes toward rich people. Sanders’s campaign was centered on criticisms of the rich: he railed against the “billionaire class,” promised to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, proposed limiting the ability of bankers to get rich from taxpayer bailouts of their institutions, assailed Hillary Clinton for her Wall Street speaking fees, and argued that a handful of very wealthy people determine who gets elected to public office. His campaign routinely and relentlessly depicted the rich as undeserving of their wealth, to the extent that Clinton (and others) sought to discredit him as a single-issue candidate.

Not only did Sanders almost beat the candidate of the Democratic Party establishment, but since the election he’s emerged as the most popular politician in America. And Sanders’s message remains primarily centered on economic inequality, strongly supporting Piston’s thesis that Americans actually do care about class.

Keeping Voters in the Dark

But wait — don’t we have a Republican president and two Republican-controlled houses of Congress? Haven’t both parties continued to garner support even as they whittle down the welfare state and pass policies that facilitate wealth redistribution to the top? At first glance these facts appear to contradict Piston’s argument. But as Piston points out, who’s in office and what policies they pass aren’t by themselves reflective of the values and preferences of the electorate. Perhaps they would be in a more perfect democracy, but at present the symmetry between what the public thinks and what the government does is far from complete. On the contrary, the people with the most power in society have the greatest ability to shape policy, primarily by leveraging the very wealth that most Americans resent them for.

“The belief that most Americans do not support downward economic redistribution is one of the defining myths of our time,” writes Piston. “It dominates the op-ed pages and pervades the airwaves.” But the evidence just isn’t there. As Piston shows, Americans by and large support social spending on education and health care, fighting poverty and ending homelessness, and assisting women, children, people with disabilities, and the elderly. The majority of Americans support means-tested programs like Head Start, Supplemental Security Income, and the Earned Income Tax Credit — and support for universal programs like Social Security and Medicare, which are also redistributive, is through the roof. And the majority of Americans support taxing the rich more to fund these programs.

There is one important exception to this general trend. When people can’t easily identify who will be the ultimate beneficiary of a particular state program or policy — that is, whether the rich or the poor will come out on top — then support for that program plummets. Obfuscation from media, politicians, and corporations can have a detrimental effect on public support for social spending. This isn’t proof that the majority of ordinary Americans side with the rich, Piston argues; instead what we’re seeing is a blocked avenue for expression of the majority’s class politics. “If clear cues are not present, citizens cannot bring sympathy for the poor and resentment of the rich to bear on their voting decisions,” he writes. “Politicians search for wiggle room by confusing and distracting the public. It is easier for government to do little about the growing gap between the richest and the rest when the public is kept in the dark.”

As Piston argues, American legislators have pursued pro-corporate and austerity politics not because of but in spite of the public’s attitudes about class. If he’s right that Americans are more class-conscious than we think, then there’s a vacuum in our political sphere, waiting to be filled by political actors — electoral and otherwise — who genuinely aspire to redistribute our nation’s wealth and build an economy that serves the working class.