Political Economy

Does Inequality Make People More Conservative?

Oct 6 '10

Yes, according to some “new research”:http://web.utk.edu/~nkelly/papers/inequality/KellyEnns_preprint.pdf (pdf) from “Nathan Kelly”:http://web.utk.edu/~nkelly/ and “Peter Enns”:http://falcon.arts.cornell.edu/pe52/. 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”:http://www.unc.edu/~jstimson/.) 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”:http://www.econ.nyu.edu/cvstarr/working/1996/RR96-17.PDF (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:

bq. 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 (2000)”:http://www.amazon.com/Why-Americans-Hate-Welfare-Communication/dp/0226293653/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1286326839&sr=8-1 …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).

bq. 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.