Thursday, January 25, 2007

Conservative optimism 

Arthur Brooks this morning:
...the data do not tell us that conservatives are uncaring; they actually tell us that conservatives are optimists. Conservatives are relatively untroubled by inequality, and unsupportive of government income redistribution, because they believe the American economy provides private opportunities to succeed. Liberals are far more pessimistic than conservatives about the possibility of a better future for Americans of modest means.

Consider the evidence. While 92% of conservatives believe that hard work and perseverance can help a person overcome disadvantage, only 65% of liberals think so. This difference of opinion, contrary to the convention, is not because conservatives earn more money. In fact, lower-income conservatives are about twice as likely as upper-income liberals to say they think there's "a lot" of upward mobility in America. If a liberal and a conservative are exactly identical in income, education, sex, family situation, and race, the conservative will be 20 percentage points more likely than the liberal to say that hard work leads to success among the disadvantaged.
He's quoting from the 2005 Maxwell survey; here's the new 2006 survey. Interesting results in that survey include:
Among those who think everyone has the opportunity to succeed, President Bush�s job approval rating in 2005 and 2006 was 49.5 % approve � 42.1 % disapprove, a relatively positive reaction at a time when his overall ratings were 31.1 % approve � 59.3 % disapprove. Among those who think only some have the opportunity to succeed, his ratings were 11.3 % approve � 81.6 % disapprove.

Those who are optimistic about opportunity, do not see a haves-have-nots society, who do not see inequality as a serious problem, and think government should do less and emphasize individual motivation are much more likely to identify with the Republican Party. Those with opposing opinions are much more likely to identify with the Democratic Party. The parties are attracting voters with very different views, which provides them with the electoral base to be strong advocates for diverging positions.
But in general, 88% of respondents to this poll thought that, "given the effort you have put in and the talents you have ... things have worked out for you have been fair" or somewhat fair. Less than ten percent think family background drives economic outcomes.

I read these polls with an eye towards the distinction between how people view their own experiences versus how they view others' experiences. People tend to be more willing to ascribe other people's problems to circumstances than their own; they believe their situation is he fruit of their own hard work. There's a lesson in that, I think, for how the political parties can talk about inequality in the 2008 election.