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John Stoehr: On Inequality and Redistribution, Washington is Upside Down

Political labels can be deceiving.


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Flickr image from user mSeattle

By John Stoehr
By arrangement with The Hill

I teach a course at Yale on the classics of campaign reporting (featuring canonical texts like Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960). Among my goals early in the semester is disabusing students of the media’s binary ways of thinking about politics, partisanship, and ideology.

As a journalist, I understand (and depend on) the convenience of terms like “Republican” and “Democrat”; “conservative” and “liberal.” A journalist needs to write, after all, in a vernacular. But as a teacher of books documenting important moments in our political history, I also worry about the distorting affect that we in the media have on voters, citizens, and students of history.

So I dedicate a brief period to talking about the matrix of political ideologies, and how positions in the matrix change over time depending the person holding the position and why. Students are chastened—sometimes stunned—to learn, for instance, that the Democratic Party wasn’t always the liberal party of governance and the Republican Party wasn’t always the conservative party of capital. My wish is that students reassess their own views in the clarifying light of history.

But maybe I worry too much. Maybe students—and voters generally—are smarter than we media people give them credit for. I thought of this after coming across a recent poll by Gallup.

You have probably heard of Gallup, the public-opinion tracking company. What you probably don’t know is that Gallup tends to skew in favor of the Republican Party, according to Joe Scarborough, who is MSNBC’s only self-identified on-air Republican. What I found in this poll wasn’t just counterintuitive, given the Republican tendencies of Gallup; it was counterintuitive given the media’s dominating influence on our understanding of politics, partisanship and ideology.

Reading it is like stepping through the looking glass.

Reading it is like stepping through the looking glass.

Every three years, since 1985, Gallup has asked more than a thousand respondents if “the distribution of money and wealth in this country today is fair” or if “money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people?” The survey doesn’t make much of the difference between the words “money” and “wealth.” It uses them interchangeably. Of those who said money/wealth is not evenly distributed, Gallup asks if “the government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.” (My stress.)

Before I tell you the results, play back in your mind all the things you think you know about conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. As a member of the media, I’ll help: Conservatives believe redistribution is tantamount to theft; liberals are so terrified by conservative attacks that they’d rather talk about economic growth by way of higher education and small-bore technical fixes to public policy. Instead of taking wealth from the rich guy with a yacht and giving it to the fisherman struggling to make ends meet, Democrats prefer a rising tide that lifts all boats.

And given the hell caught by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008, when he said he wished to “spread the wealth” around to help working people like “Joe the Plumber,” no one in Washington wants to strengthen the confiscatory tax policies of the United States government, except maybe that socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Maybe they should. Especially the Democrats.

According to this new Gallup poll, most Americans believe the distribution of money in this country is unfair, and when I say “most,” I mean 63 percent. That perspective of economic injustice hasn’t changed much in thirty years. In the thirteen times Gallup has tracked the question of fairness, an average of 62 percent of respondents say wealth distribution is unfair.

Before I go on, a point about labels.

“Moderates” and “independents” are more or less conservatives or Republicans who don’t want to be identified as such. I say this from experience, but the data lend credence to my hunch. On the question of wealth needing to be more evenly distributed, liberals and Democrats are the same: 86 percent of Democrats and 85 percent of liberals agree. Meanwhile, 34 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of “independents” say wealth should be more evenly distributed. Furthermore, 67 percent of “moderates” and 42 percent of conservatives say the same.

My point isn’t the quibble over labels. My point is to underscore the percentage of Americans who self-identify as far right or just to the right of the political center (whatever that might be) who say that wealth should be more evenly distributed in this land of opportunity waiting for anyone willing to work hard for it.

My point isn’t the quibble over labels. My point is to underscore the percentage of Americans who self-identify as far right or just to the right of the political center (whatever that might be) who say that wealth should be more evenly distributed in this land of opportunity waiting for anyone willing to work hard for it. Even if you took only the conservative percentage—42 percent!—that’s just a breathtaking number given Rush Limbaugh’s scare-mongering: “Redistribution is theft!

Indeed, a quick search for “redistribution of wealth” yields results from conservative, Republican, or neoliberal media outlets discrediting redistribution. From the Washington Examiner: “Why Americans oppose redistribution despite inequality.” From : “The Redistribution Racket.” From The Atlantic: “Redistributing Wealth Is the Wrong Way to Fix a Rigged Game.”

But a third of conservatives appear to disagree. They say the problem of the unfair and uneven distribution of money/wealth in the US can be addressed by the federal government stepping in to levy heavy taxes on the rich—32 percent, compared to 29 percent of Republicans.

The language is abundantly clear. At the very least, nearly a third of conservatives wouldn’t blink if someone on a high perch were to champion redistributive taxation.

A three-point difference is statistically insignificant, but remember: Conservatives are supposed to oppose taxation on principle and redistribution in particular. You know, it’s “theft!” And it’s not like Gallup equivocated in its question on whether the “the government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.” The language is abundantly clear. At the very least, nearly a third of conservatives wouldn’t blink if someone on a high perch were to champion redistributive taxation.

One final thing: There are more people today who believe in heavy taxes on the rich than there were in 1939 at the close of the Great Depression. Gallup incorporated a Fortune magazine poll conducted that year. Gallup asked the same question this year and in 2013: “Do you think the government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?” In 1939, 35 percent agreed. Today, it’s 52 percent.

I’m not sure what that means. As I said, reading this poll is like stepping into the looking glass. It turns upside down the conventional wisdom that says conservatives are opposed to the federal government’s taking a more active role in managing the economy and spreading wealth around more fairly, not just through transfer payments, tax credits or some abstract instrument beloved of bureaucrats. No, a third are OK with redistributing wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.

Granted, this is just one poll. And maybe the Gallup poll isn’t what’s upside down.

Maybe Washington is.

John Stoehr is the managing editor of The Washington Spectator and an op-ed contributor to The Hill, where this originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter @johnastoehr.

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