America’s Cognitive Dissonance

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As Matt Yglesias says, the latest Pew survey suggests that America is increasingly “a nation of hardened class warriors.” Even among independents, large majorities think that corporations and the rich are too powerful, our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, and Wall Street is bad for the economy. What’s more, there’s a big decline in the number of people who think hard work leads to success and a big increase in the number of people who think they’re part of the have-nots.

But I wonder how much a survey like this really tells us. Remember the old saw about American being ideologically conservative but operationally liberal? What it means is that Americans like the idea of small government and rugged individualism, but in practice we’ve shown over and over again that in real life we want safety nets, we want environmental regulations, and we want government programs of all sorts. And we’ll fight like lemmings to keep them around.

Unfortunately the Pew poll doesn’t ask enough questions to test whether the same thing is true here. But I suspect it is. Americans say the current system is unfair and favors the rich, but if you ask about specific things we could do to change that, I’ll bet support drops off dramatically. You can see some of this in the question about threats to America’s well-being. Only 56% name the power of banks and Wall Street, while 76% think the national debt is a big threat. This is not a sign of a country that’s seriously bent out of shape about growing inequality.

Sure, lots of people support modestly higher taxes on the rich, but serious reform to cut Wall Street down to size or reduce the influence of corporations and the rich? The kind that people feel strongly enough to march in the streets about or elect a Congress that agrees with them? We’re not there yet. For the moment anyway, we’re ideologically class warriors but operationally in favor of the status quo.

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