How Americans Think About Fairness and the Economy


There is massive new Pew Research Center poll (185 glorious pdf pages) that dissects the attitudes of Americans on all sorts of things. There is much to mull over, starting with the study’s division of the American populace into eight ideological groups: Solid Liberals (all left all the time; like me, more or less), Steadfast Conservatives (fiscally and socially conservative), Business Conservatives (corporatist, but not so down on gays and immigrants), Young Outsiders (socially liberal Republicans), Hard-Pressed Skeptics (left-leaning, working class, disillusioned), Next-Generation Liberals (like the Solid Liberals, but unconvinced of the need for social programs or anti-discrimination legislation), Faith and Family Left (like the Solid Liberals, but homophobic), and (boringly) Bystanders, who are what they sound like: disengaged and uninformed.

These groups break down mostly as you’d expect (although the right is more polarized than the left). The study is full of charts that show the spread of each group’s opinions across some typical left-right divide, and they all pretty much look like this one:


Interestingly, though, that trend breaks down when survey participants are asked whether the economic system in this country unfairly favors the powerful. Predictably, 88% of Solid Liberals say yes, but even a slim majority of Steadfast Conservatives (48% to 47%) say yes. Of all the groups, only (surprise!) the Business Conservatives tend to think that the economic system is fair. But! Somehow, a lot of people from most of these subgroups (42% of the Next Generation Left, for example) think that poor people are poor principally because of a lack of effort on their part. And 63% of Americans from across this spectrum believe that black people who can’t get ahead are “mostly responsible for their own condition.”

I find all of this fascinating, but I’m not sure I’m smart enough to tease out the deeper meaning. Actually, I think I know what the deeper meaning is, but since it’s pretty much the conclusion I always reach, I’m open to the possibility that I’m being my usual dogmatic self and not getting it. It seems to me that Americans’ deep belief in the up-by-the-bootstraps magic of the American Dream is blinding us to the fact that structural inequities screw most of us over most of the time. Please, dear readers, if you think I’m wrong on that point, politely explain why (being careful not to hurt my feelings). And whether you think I’m wrong or right, tell me why you think people can generally think a system is unfair in favor of the rich, but also generally believe that the poor are to blame for being and staying poor.

Photo by the author.


10 Comments / Post A Comment

beastlyburden (#6,122)

“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” — John Steinbeck

ThatJenn (#916)

While I’m also a solid liberal and what I’m about to say is not representative of my own views, I just want to say there’s not an inherent conflict between saying the system unfairly favors the powerful and saying poor people are mostly poor due to lack of effort. It’s possible to believe that the game is both partly rigged and winnable with sustainable effort. (I may have misunderstood what you were saying, but it seemed you were surprised by this combination. To me it is highly familiar… sounds like most of my family.)

@ThatJenn That’s a good point. I wonder whether most people in fact see it that way (which is certainly a defensible point of view) or whether most people simply don’t put as much careful thought into it.

ThatJenn (#916)

@Josh Michtom@facebook I think many people look at their own financial progress and only consider the ways privilege has worked against them (the ways in which they are NOT among the powerful benefiting from perks), not the ways it’s worked for them. I’ve certainly done the same in many arenas and it’s sort of the whole way privilege works. It’s certainly easier to think about the ways you’re doing well in spite of being screwed over than to think of all the additional systematic ways the world is screwing equally awesome people without your advantages.

seakelps (#5,146)

@Josh Michtom@facebook @ThatJenn
That would be a very interesting thing to consider indeed. I certainly think my family is largely like this as well – most acknowledge that the game is rigged for the rich, but also hold that if you fail then you didn’t play well enough with what you had. Put another way, you can’t complain you failed because the game was rigged – that is just sour grapes. And since you can probably change how you play easier than you can change the game, it’s better (or at least less depressing) to focus on that.

shallowpate (#1,701)

I wonder if Solid Conservatives and Steadfast Liberals disagree about who is powerful.

@shallowpate Another excellent question. But please note: it’s Solid Liberals and Steadfast Conservatives. I have no idea why.

shallowpate (#1,701)

@Josh Michtom@facebook I’ll never get over the shame. ;-)

Josh I understand your confusion about the conflict between thinking the game is rigged but also believing that the “losers” of said game are to blame for losing. I think people feel that way because most people , especially privileged people, want to be the victim. They feel like the system is unfair to them or people like them but not to everyone else. It’s quite sad that no one has empathy. Also I want to say I hope the next generation liberals don’t believe anti discrimination and social programs are unnecessary because that would mean the next generation of liberals aren’t liberal at all. That’s a sad realization for a progressive liberal. Lastly, I really wish these polls would stop asking Americans about black people. It’s already clear people dismiss black history in this country and don’t care about the plight of black people.

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