One of the mysteries of political life is why the Democrats insist on playing class warfare even though the tactic has not worked in multiple elections (Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, the November mid-terms) since Obama’s election.

A study, Inequality and the Dynamics of Public Opinion: The Self-Reinforcing Link Between Economic Inequality and Mass Preferences, released by two political science professors (Peter Enss of Cornell and Nathan Kelly of Univ. of Tenn.) sheds light on a possible reason.  The study reveals the counter-intuitive conclusion that as income disparities increase, both rich and poor become more conservative.

The paper is dense, and has the usual caveats you would expect in an academic political science paper, but here is the money quote (page 15):

… we have shown that public opinion moves in a conservative direction in response to income inequality. This conservative shift in sentiment in response to rising inequality occurs among both the rich and the poor. In fact, if politicians looked to changes in preferred welfare spending or changes in global policy preferences, it simply would not matter whether they noticed the most or least wealthy Americans; their preferences move in tandem and respond to economic inequality similarly over time.

As reported by The Cornell Chronicle:

New research findings add complexity to the basic assumption that humans act in their own economic self-interest. By analyzing hundreds of survey questions from 1952 to 2006, Peter Enns, assistant professor of government, and Nathan Kelly of the University of Tennessee found that as inequality rises, low income individuals’ attitudes toward redistribution become more conservative. Their paper appears in the October issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

“It’s a bit of a conundrum,” Enns admits.

The researchers also examined public opinion data on the question: Should government increase spending on welfare, keep it the same or decrease it? “As inequality rose, the high- and low-income respondents on average become less supportive of spending on welfare,” Enns said. “And this is not because low-income people are unaware of inequality; our results show they are more aware of it than most people.”

The researchers found that higher levels of household income inequality in the United States generate more conservative public opinion. “We broke down pubic opinion by income group and found the high- and low-income groups responding in a similar way, both becoming more conservative when inequality rises,” Enns said. “We were very surprised to observe that the self-reinforcing aspect of inequality holds for high- and low-income groups, and how they move together in parallel over time.”

This conclusion has interesting implications, because so much of Obama’s rhetoric and so much of Democratic theory is premised on the assumption that jealousy by the “poor” due to income disparities would lead to a more liberal electorate.  If the authors are correct, just the opposite happens.

So, the class warfare rhetoric is counter-productive for Democrats.  Shhhh, don’t tell anyone.

(h/t to a Cornell employee and reader who shall remain unnamed for alerting me to this study.)

Related Post:
Obama The Divider, Part 101010

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