Does Inequality Make People More Conservative?

Yes, according to some new research (pdf) from Nathan Kelly and Peter Enns. They rely on a a yearly measure of “policy mood” from 1952-2006. This is an omnibus summary of the public’s ideological leaning, liberal to conservative. (See the graph and corresponding Excel file at Jim Stimson’s homepage.) They also draw on a specific measure of the public’s support for welfare. The question is whether and how both measures respond to inequality.

Their first main finding: increases in inequality are associated with a conservative shift in mood and increasing opposition to welfare. (For more on why this would be true, see this paper (pdf) by Roland Benabou.)

Their second main finding: increases in inequality are associated with a conservative shift among both the wealthy and the poor.

One natural objection: perhaps some citizens, and especially poorer citizens, just do not realize that inequality has increased. But the third main finding contradicts this: over time, the poor are actually more likely to perceive increased inequality than do the wealthy.

Kelly and Enns offer some further speculation on why, in particular, the rich and poor respond in parallel to rising inequality:

Despite the fact that parallelism is not driven by lack of information about income inequality, we think it is possible that the way information about distributional outcomes is framed is important. This idea is rooted in Gilens’s …argument is that during good economic times news stories focus on individualism (enhancing opposition to welfare) and during bad economic times stories emphasize people being down on their luck (enhancing support for welfare).
Given that rising inequality since the 1970s has been driven in large part by gains at the top of the income distribution, media frames over this period may have increasingly emphasized stories of individualism, thus generating a negative link between rising inequality and public opinion liberalism. The decline in inequality prior to the 1970s, by contrast, was driven primarily by increasing incomes at the bottom of the income distribution and may have generated stories emphasizing government’s role in education and job creation. This could explain why declining inequality up to the 1970s pushed public opinion in a liberal direction.

See the paper for some further discussion and appropriate caveats.

4 Responses to Does Inequality Make People More Conservative?

  1. ricketson October 6, 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    It sounds like this correlation was observed on a national level with variation over time. How does the correlation hold up in terms of geographic variation?

    My impression is that areas with greater wealth/income inequality are more Democratic and have greater support for welfare. Is that true, and if so, does it have any connection to the correlation observed here?

  2. ricketson October 6, 2010 at 8:27 pm #

    Just to clarify my previous comment, my understanding is that, in America, cities tend to have the greatest wealth inequality, but the highest support for income redistribution.

  3. Ed October 6, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

    First, in the US “conservative” and “liberal” does not necessarily denote “favors policies to increase inequality” and “favors policies to decrease inequality”. One example of this is immigration, where the “conservative” anti-immigration position would probably lead to an increase in wages for worker types (by restricting the labor pool), while the “liberal” pro-immigration position would do the opposite.

    I’ve had a large enough number of working class people tell me some variation of “I hate liberals! They are only for the rich!” to know that for a big section of the public, liberals are blamed for the increase in inequality.

    Second, this is another example of correlation not implying causation. The public could favor more conservative positions, politicians respond, and inequality increases. I realize this partially contradicts my first point but there are many reasons to contest the validity of this confusion.

  4. Matt Jarvis October 7, 2010 at 7:28 pm #

    Hmm. I think I’d need evidence on the media frames side to write off this seemingly odd correlation first. It’s logical, but I’m also not against the idea that people are irrational.