Sen. Bernie Sanders' success in the Democratic presidential primary contests Iowa and New Hampshire suggests that voters are moved by his message that rich people have rigged the economic system to their advantage, and that government should do something to change that.
Both Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have promised to tax wealth and deliver universal health care, free public preschool and college education, and a stronger social safety net. The two candidates have also promised to reform the campaign finance system so politicians are less beholden to the wealthy, and have focused on raising money through small donations.
What's puzzling is that both Sanders and Warren are millionaires. Although somewhat more moderate on policy, the two billionaires in the Democratic race - Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg - also say they want to reverse the nation's growing economic disparities. Last week, The New York Times published an opinion article from Bloomberg outlining initiatives to reduce economic inequality.
It cannot be simultaneously true that "millionaires and billionaires" are rigging the system and yet are also trying to level an uneven playing field. Are these affluent Democratic contenders' political views characteristic of millionaires and billionaires generally? In short, no. Our research finds that wealthy people are more likely than others to believe the system is fair, and are more economically conservative than others. These Democratic candidates represent a small but significant minority.
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What do the rich think about the fairness of our economy?
Wealthy people have a great deal of power to influence economic and political outcomes in the United States, and so it's important to understand what they believe to be the causes of - and possible solutions to - economic inequality. The economic elite are, by definition, members of a small group not well represented in typical surveys. They tend to keep their views on economics and politics to themselves. The few high-quality surveys of this group confirm that, on average, wealthy Americans are more libertarian than the general population, but there's certainly more to learn.
To better understand the perspectives of the economic elite, we worked with the company YouGov to survey online a broad and diverse sample of 450 highly affluent Americans, whom we defined as those living in households with pretax incomes of more than $350,000 per year and/or more than $2 million in financial assets. The resulting sample represents about the top 3% to 5% of U.S. households in income and wealth. In addition, we surveyed 450 Americans from the general population as a comparison group. YouGov is the industry leader in assembling representative samples from its millions of opt-in participants. We also demonstrate that our samples reflect the populations they are intended to represent by comparing their characteristics to the probability-based Survey of Consumer Finances and employing population weights.
We began by asking why our respondents thought some people are more successful than others in life. Is success a result of hard work, intelligence, luck or being born into wealth? We also asked respondents why they thought people differed in drive or intelligence - because of upbringing, choices, DNA? We asked respondents to award such factors a score on a seven-point scale, with seven being very important and zero not important at all.
To better understand the political implications of these beliefs, we asked for respondents' views on economic policy, including the government safety net, taxes on the wealthy and economic inequality.
Finally, we asked people to share their age, gender, race, education, region and religiosity. We control for these characteristics throughout our analyses.
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Wealthy people are more likely than others to believe the United States is a meritocracy
All economic groups in our survey viewed "hard work" and "being intelligent" as better explanations for success than "coming from a wealthy family" and "being lucky." This is consistent with the nation's long-standing belief in meritocracy: that people become successful via hard work combined with talent.
Nevertheless, our affluent respondents were even more likely than others to attribute success to individuals' characteristics and behavior, on average awarding "hard work" and "intelligence" close to the top score. Further, respondents from the top 1% of U.S. households in income and wealth were the most likely to insist that these success-linked traits are either chosen or innate rather than environmentally caused.
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What are the political implications of believing in meritocracy?
Not surprisingly, respondents' beliefs about what causes economic inequality correlated with their beliefs about what policies the U.S. government should enact. The affluent with the most economically conservative political beliefs were the most likely to say that inequality comes from character traits such as hard work or intelligence, especially when they believed those character traits come from either individual choices or genetics. Meanwhile, affluent respondents had more liberal policy leanings when they said inequality grows from forces outside the individual such as luck, family ties or upbringing. As a result, there's a noticeable ideological divide among the affluent.
Our comparison group of the less affluent wasn't as consistent in connecting their beliefs about meritocracy to politics. On the one hand, like the affluent, middle- and lower-class Americans who said outside forces shape individuals' economic fortunes tended to support progressive economic policies. On the other hand, there was little evidence that ordinary Americans who thought inequality boiled down to character were especially conservative.
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Is there an ideology of affluence (or two)?
In a nation well-known for its belief in meritocracy, those at the very top are, on average, the most likely to view our deep economic divides as fair. Our billionaire president has frequently echoed this. He is particularly enamored of genetic theories, saying, for example, "Some people aren't meant to be rich. . . . It's just something you have, something you're born with."
Our study suggests that the belief that people deserve whatever success or failure comes their way results in the libertarian ethos many highly affluent people hold. In keeping with these views, the Trump administration has reduced taxes on the wealthy, diminished government services for lower-income Americans and plans to shrink the safety net further.
Our data also suggest that Sanders, Warren, Bloomberg and Steyer are not outliers. A nontrivial minority of the wealthy disagree with their economic peers, believing that the system is rigged and that the government should do something about it.
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Suhay is an associate professor and graduate program director in the department of government at American University's school of public affairs, and lead editor of the forthcoming "Oxford Handbook of Electoral Persuasion," with Bernard Grofman and Alex Trechsel. Klasnja is an assistant professor in the school of foreign service and department of government at Georgetown University. Rivero is a research data scientist at Westat. For other commentary from The Monkey Cage, an independent blog anchored by political scientists from universities around the country, see http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage.
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