President Obama and indeed most Democrats talk a good game about income inequality.

Maybe they haven't noticed that income inequality has become greater during the last six years, when the Democrats controlled the White House and set the agenda?

And there is other bad news on the redistribution front–Americans still don't support redistribution.

As Walter Russell Mead, Via Meadia columnist with The American Interest, notes, there are two popular explanations on the left. Democrats of the Bernie Sanders school assert that Americans do want more redistribution but their will is blocked by plutocrats who control the political system. Elite social issues liberals believe that more Americans would support redistribution, if the evil right were not so successful in duping socially conservative Americans into voting against their interests.

But the magazine says that a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research by researchers at Yale and Princeton calls into question both these assumptions.


First, consider the Sanders theory. The thrust of the paper (written by Vivekinan Ashok, Ilyana Kuziemko, and Ebonya Washington) is that Americans’ support for economic redistribution has remained constant or declined since inequality began rising in the 1970s. Public support for the statement “government should reduce income differences between the rich and the poor” has trended gradually downward for the past forty years, and public support for the statements “government should do more to solve the nation’s problems” and “government should do more to help the poor” has trended sharply downward. (Support for the statement “government should ensure that everyone has a decent standard of living” has remained flat or risen modestly). So while it may be that elites do push public policy in a less redistributive direction than the voters would like, the data suggest that the decline of New Deal/Great Society liberalism over the past generation is largely the product of changing public opinion rather than the secret machinations of plutocrats.

Now consider the “elite social liberal” theory that many low-to-middle-income Americans (especially working class whites) ignorantly vote against their economic self-interest because of their primitive views on race and culture wars issues. It is conventional wisdom on the left that many poor whites moved to the right economically in the post-Civil Rights era because of racial resentment. Like all matters of conventional wisdom, this theory probably has an element of truth—but it is complicated by the facts that blacks moved even more dramatically against redistribution than whites did over the forty year period addressed by the study. “While there has been no significant movement on the issue by whites, in both datasets, blacks, who have a much higher desire for redistribution on average, have significantly decreased their support,” the authors write.

The authors also more-or-less explicitly tested the Thomas Frank hypothesis that cunning Republican demagoguery on God, guns, and gays leads low-information voters to support a plutocratic agenda. They control for views “on certain ‘hot-button’ issues—abortion, homosexuality and gun control” and find that “these single issues explain less than 10 percent of our trends in redistributive views by age and race.” In other words, it appears that public opinion on economic redistribution is mostly independent of public opinion on social issues.

Ultimately, while the data in this study don’t provide any concrete explanations for one of the political-economic paradoxes of the past generation—that Americans have not moved in favor of wealth redistribution even as the economy delivers more and more unequal returns—they do suggest that this trend is more complicated than many on the left would like to believe. They also highlight the perils of a materialistic model of politics that assumes that people’s preferences are based on clear incentives, rather than a complex matrix of cultural, historical factors.

That Americans haven't yet espoused redistribution as an answer to growing inequality doesn't mean they won't. The increasingly leftward Democratic Party continues to hammer on the issue, and the GOP front runner is a guy who does not represent or propound the GOP's classical economic ideas.