This one’s for Vanessa.
In my new series, Redefining America, I take cherished qualities we hold dear and talk about how our policy and public opinion belie those qualities. As with Profiles in Awesome (which, with rare exceptions a la Bernie Sanders, profiles ordinary people and organizations doing the work that keeps our country moving forward), I hope for this series to embody Howard Zinn’s spirit. One of the most important things he brought us as a historian and thinker was self-reflection on a national scale- directly addressing the ways in which we bear responsibility for things and thus have the opportunity to affirmatively take action to make them better. Our national myths only delay the point of time where we confront our issues head on.
Today’s episode highlights what is to me a disturbing degree of disdain for the working poor, as contrasting the US and Europe:
Before taxes, incomes in the United States are more unequal and more volatile, which would seem to call for more, not less, redistribution. Some argue that America has less redistribution because disadvantaged Americans find it easier to climb out of poverty, but poor Americans are actually less likely than poor Europeans to move up the income ladder.
We concluded that the redistribution gap between the United States and Europe could best be explained by America’s greater ethnic heterogeneity and more conservative political institutions. Countries with more ethnic diversity generally spend less on social programs.
Before welfare reform, US states with more African-Americans were significantly less generous to their welfare recipients. My colleague Erzo Luttmer found that people in the United States who live around poor people of a different race are more likely to oppose welfare spending. There is a long historical literature, written by scholars like C. Vann Woodward, documenting the role that racial divisions have played in blunting the appeal of populist redistributors in the United States and elsewhere…
Over decades, the success of the left in Europe and the right in the United States has led to wildly different beliefs about the nature of poverty and success. We found that 60 percent of Americans thought that the poor were lazy, while only 26 percent of European share that view. Fifty four percent of Europeans think luck determines income; only 30 percent of Americans concur. These differences don’t reflect economic reality. The American poor work longer hours than their European counterparts. They instead reflect the long-run ability of politics to shape public opinion. Institutions, like proportional representation, that empower the left do a good job of explaining which nations have opinions associated with the left, like the view that chance determines success.
A year ago, I wondered if the Obama victory signaled the declining significance of race and an American lurch to the left. But countries change slowly. In 2009, a Pew survey found that only 29 percent of Americans think that success comes from forces outside their control, as opposed to 52 percent of French respondents and 66 percent of Germans. No one should be surprised that American voters, even in Massachusetts, pushed back against a progressive agenda. By world standards, we are a conservative nation. Those who would change that fact need to dig in for a long fight.
I would actually disagree with the author’s final conclusion. I’d say it’s more likely that yes, conservatives were empowered in Massachussetts but that that speaks as much to the fact that many of us are more progressive than the Obama agenda, more of us are disgusted by what are really conservative approaches to economics, and that progressives tuned out because 1) it was an off-election, 2) Coakley sucked, 3) the DNC sucked.
As with my post on conservative identity politics and bipartisanship, it’s not so much that we are a conservative nation as that we are a contradictory and often-selfish nation (which the article above affirms by showing how heterogeneity- living with others- decreases support for social spending, which is perceived as benefiting others). But I may be arguing semantics at that point.