A study done by two professors, one a business professor at Harvard the other a psychology professor at Duke University, on popular attitudes toward wealth inequality in contemporary America has shown that although Americans dislike the current levels of economic inequality in this country-and doubtless associate it with the gradual disappearance of the middle class-they are still quite naïve about just how severe the problem actually is. The study done in 2011 showed that "...respondents vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest quintile held about 59% of the wealth when the actual number is closer to 84%." The authors of the report then make an assertion, based on the study, which is startling considering voting behavior in the US since the 1980s-roughly ninety percent of those polled preferred the wealth distribution patterns found in Sweden-or those of even greater equality-to that found in the US at the present time! More startling was that this stated preference for greater equality was said to be highly "robust" across gender, income and even political party identification lines with around ninety percent (or greater) for each category supporting greater equality.
So if greater equality of wealth is so popular how did we arrive at the current situation? Furthermore, why the consistent voting patterns that would suggest contrary attitudes to the ones found in the study? Does all this mean that Americans are ready for an ideological shift? These are important questions because they go to the heart of progressive strategies for political change in the US and what kind of efficacy the Sanders Campaign for the Democratic Party nomination in 2016 could have on the political discourse in this country.
When considering the apparent contradictions between the attitudes voters privately express and their actual voting behavior there are many complications. I've often stated that most Americans are actually socialists who simply don't realize it. They accept things like Social Security, universal single payer health insurance for all, public investment in a wide range of infrastructure to create full employment and free compulsory public education. Public support for labor union and collective bargaining rights has often been shown to cross party lines and a common disdain for incredibly large amounts of inherited wealth is often expressed giving the Estate Tax majority support.
Voter behavior often contradicts expressed beliefs. It is also the case that people respond negatively to ideas that have a long standing taboo epithet attached to them like "socialism" which turns people off to things they'd normally support. The term is held to be a smear. No one who is called a socialist in the media or who openly embraces the term is likely to be elected to office. The cold war and years of early political socialization made socialism very unpopular despite the actual popularity of many of its ideas. But Bernie Sanders isn't introducing radical ideas into the American mainstream, he's actually reminding American voters of the depression era roots of the core of the Democratic party agenda that saved America and made the Democrats so popular. Conor Lynch of Salon online magazine, has noted that with the entry of Senator Sanders into the race as a Democrat, that party is finally "...returning to their roots of the New Deal era, after their 30-year flirtation with neoliberalism has proved to be disastrous for the middle class." Most voters agree with the New Deal reforms and their lasting efficacy of a financially stable middle class with a high standard of living and a steadily growing economy. It's only when American politics began to deviate from the New Deal agenda in the 1980s with the election of Ronald Reagan that the dream of a steadily growing, middle class society began to wane.
If one looks carefully, it becomes obvious that Sanders is actually more in touch with the concerns and views of the average American than any other candidate of either major party. We all recall polls during the health care debate in Obama's term that were misrepresented by the conservative media as "proof" that most Americans opposed any health care reform by Washington. True, many polls showed that support for the President's PPACA bill often fell below 40%. But when combined with those who opposed PPACA because they wanted a more comprehensive, "radical" health care measure such as single payer health care (the famous "Medicare for all" proposal introduced in Congress by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) in 2009) support for health care reform in general always increased to more than half of those polled and sometimes fully three quarters. This is shown by research on opinion polls at the time of the US health care debate that showed that although many voters opposed ACA they overwhelmingly supported its major provisions. Michael Saks, writing in 2012 in the Health Affairs blog explained these seeming contradictions. He reprinted the results of two major opinion polls (a Kaiser Foundation poll and a NYT/CBS poll) on nine key provisions of ACA in March 2012 finding significant to overwhelming support for all of them;
85 percent like the provision on pre-existing conditions
80 percent like the tax credits to small businesses for employee insurance
79 percent like requiring easy-to-understand plan summaries
77 percent like closing the Medicare prescription drug doughnut hole
71 percent like subsidy assistance to individuals
71 percent like the appeals process for unfavorable health plan decisions
70 percent like Medicaid expansion
69 percent like elimination of cost-sharing for preventive services
68 percent like covering children to age 26 on parents’ insurance
He further noted that since the 2012 US Supreme Court decision upholding ACA's constitutionality, conservative opposition to ACA dropped to below 38%! Some of the popular opposition to initiatives like ACA stem from massive disinformation campaigns by the far right falsely proclaiming the existence of "death panels" and alleging "government control of the health care system" or from a distrust of the federal government in general. Yet most Americans continue to believe in Washington's obligation to help those who lack independent means to survive on their own such as the poor and the elderly. Continued support for things like ACA, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Assistance and subsidized student loans indicate that Americans are less anti-government than they would have us believe. The welfare state is likely to see a real comeback less from ideological causes than sheer need as growing numbers of Americans lose their formerly high standard of living. This is a further indication that the economy works more and more in favor of the top one percent than for those below.
One indication that the above is true is a recent Gallop poll that shows the dramatic increase in the number of Americans that believe that Social Security will be their major source of income support at retirement. Those believing that Social Security will be their most important source of retirement income went from a low point of 27% of those polled in April 2002 to a high point of 36% in April of 2015. When combined with those that believe Social Security will provide only a minor share of income at retirement, the number increases to over 80% in every year the poll was taken. Furthermore, according to a 2013 opinion poll released by the National Academy of Social Insurance, roughly 90% of those polled "...say Social Security is more important than ever to ensure that retirees have a dependable income." These sentiments are easy to understand as we are an aging nation. Over the past ten years those receiving retirement benefits has grown and popular support for the program has always been bipartisan.
When it comes to collective bargaining rights for workers, especially public sector workers, support is less unanimous. Still, the overwhelming majority of Americans support the right of workers to organize a union for the purpose of collective bargaining. According to a USAToday/Gallop poll taken in early 2011, at the high point of Wisconsin's state employees fight to defend their collective bargaining rights against a bill submitted by Governor Walker to eliminate or severely curtail them, nearly two thirds of those polled "...would oppose a law in their state similar to such a proposal in Wisconsin..." Similarly, when Governor Kasich of Michigan introduced legislation to curtail the rights of state employees in Michigan to collective bargaining rights, the majority of people in that state stepped up to support union rights for public sector workers. According to a 2012 report by public advocacy group, Progress Michigan,
Progress Michigan and the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) released new polling information today showing strong support for collective bargaining in Michigan. A strong majority of Michigan voters (70%) continue to support the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively over wages, benefits, and working conditions, including a majority (55%) of those who voted No on Proposal 2 [to support collective bargaining rights for public sector workers].
Despite a well funded campaign against the state workers in Michigan, continued support for collective bargaining rights was strongly bipartisan. It does seem as though there is strong bipartisan support for collective bargaining rights in general given that public sector workers' bargaining rights tend to be slightly less popularly supported than those of private sector workers. The right to join a union and bargain collectively is now widely viewed as a fundamental right in a democracy. The defense of such rights is widely supported.
If it is the case that the vast majority of Americans support these progressive measures as well as raising taxes on the rich and protecting the environment from the effects of carbon emissions and other pollutants, why should we expect Senator Sanders to have such a tough time? Why is someone with his track record and beliefs vulnerable to vicious smear campaigns accusing him of supporting "socialism" (whatever that means)? It is because the mainstream media and other elements of civil society continually distort the meaning of the term by associating it with the horrors of such regimes as those of Mao in China or Stalin in Russia. Fear and false analogies are powerful political tools in the United States, especially at election time.
Red baiting is still a powerful force in the United States. Thirty years of a strong conservative wave against the gains of the US middle class has made it commonly used tactic once again. A combination of fear and misinformation has often been used to persuade people from voting in their best interest regardless of their actual beliefs about a variety of issues. The real value of the Sanders campaign is to take back the political discourse for the ninety nine percent ("the one percent/ninety nine percent" divide meme, as it emerged from the Occupy Wall Street movement, is one successful example of counter-hegemony in the realm of public political discourse) and make robust public discussion of class inequality acceptable in American politics. It's a discussion we need to be having. Let's hope the Sanders Campaign gets it started. Most Americans agree with Sanders but can't find their voice in an environment of confusion and fear stoked by the corporate media and right wing elected officials that toe the line of the very rich. Only a mass education campaign to accompany Sanders' political efforts can break the taboo on the "S" word and bring real meaning to American public political discourse for the first time in many decades!