Friday, August 11, 2017

Inequality, Race, and Political Polarization

Keith Payne is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina whose specialty is the psychology of inequality and discrimination.  He has produced an interesting and enlightening book titled The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die.

Payne argues from psychological and anthropological studies that humans are wired in such a way that they are constantly monitoring their surroundings and interactions with others in order to ascertain whether or not they are maintaining their status level.  He also argues that objective indicators of status, such as wealth, educational achievement, and job title, are often less important than subjective feelings of status as experienced by each individual.  Rather, presumed status seems to depend on how we compare ourselves to those we choose as peers.

Payne asks us to consider levels of status as rungs on a ladder.

“It is true that, on average, people with higher incomes, more education, and more prestigious jobs do rate themselves higher on the ladder.  But the effect is relatively small.  In a sample of, say, a thousand people, some will rate themselves at the top, others will rate themselves at the bottom, and many will be in between.  But only about 20 percent of their self-evaluation is based on income, education, and job status.”

Poor persons can feel comfortable with their status if their peers, to whom they compare themselves, are in similar situations.  On the other hand, a mere millionaire who lives in a world of multimillionaires can experience the stress normally associated with poverty.  That is an important concept to grasp.

“….inequality is not the same thing as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it….Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not.  Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

The health and longevity problems that are associated with poverty have been well documented.  What Payne is saying is that the same problems arise for people who are not objectively poor, but who merely feel poor because they suffer a status deficit.  Inequality then includes not only those who are of low income and are objectively poor, but those who have sufficient income to not be considered poor yet feel poor.

“We have to take subjective perceptions of status seriously, because they reveal so much about people’s fates.  If you place yourself on a lower rung, then you are more likely in the coming years to suffer from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.  The lower the rung you select, the more probable it is that you will make bad decisions and underperform at work.  The lower the rung you select, the more likely you are to believe in the supernatural and in conspiracy theories.  The lower the rung you select, the more prone you are to weight issues, diabetes, and heart problems.  The lower the rung you select, the fewer years you have left to live.”

“Let me be clear that I am not simply asserting that, if you are poor, then all of these things are more likely to happen to you.  I am stating, rather, that these things are more likely to happen to you if you feel poor, regardless of your actual income.”

In previous articles we discussed Payne’s conclusions on how inequality affects health and longevity and how it increases tendencies to believe in conspiracy theories and to be religious.  Here, the subject will be Payne’s observation that inequality and political polarization appear to be related.

Payne presents some rather compelling indications that the nation’s politics have become more polarized over the years and that inequality has something to do with it.  There are numerous studies that have been made of the degree to which members of one party are likely to vote with members of the other party on the various policy issues that arise.  All such investigations arrive at the same conclusion: bipartisan voting has become very rare.  A plot of one measure of this polarization against the Gini index (a measure of income inequality) for the United States provides an impressive correlation.

Payne also claims that this polarization consists of not only disagreement on policy issues, but it is also characterized by distrust and a lack of respect between the parties.  To support this contention he describes the results of PEW polls taken over past decades.

“Polls from the Pew Research Center have revealed that the percentage of ordinary Americans who have a ‘very unfavorable’ opinion of the opposing political party has steadily grown over the last three decades as inequality has increased.  In 2014, about a third of respondents thought members of the opposite party were not just mistaken, but were a threat to the nation’s well-being.  A third of conservatives and a quarter of liberals said that they would be upset if a family member married someone of the wrong party.  These trends are dangerous, because when opponents become enemies, people can justify almost anything in responding to them.”

But correlation does not prove causation.  We must evaluate Payne’s reasoning in concluding inequality as a causative factor.

He tallies a number of the ways in which liberals and conservatives differ in thought processes and worldviews.  Of particular relevance are the differences in the way the two types view inequality within society.  In short, conservatives tend to view inequality as a necessary consequence of unwise choices made by individuals; liberals tend to see inequality as an inevitable consequence of a socioeconomic system with defects that should be corrected.

“The….fundamental distinction between conservatives and liberals is their willingness to accept inequality.  Again, most conservatives do not want inequality for its own sake.  Instead, they view it as an outcome of an emphasis on individual rights, abilities, and responsibilities.  When individuals outcompete others, the result is always some degree of inequality.”

“Liberals….see individual merit as just one factor among many that determines success or failure in a competitive market.  They tend to consider the economic system as a whole rather than just the individual players within it, which means taking into account such factors as monopolies, old-boy networks, institutional racism and sexism, and cycles of advantage and disadvantage that shape people’s outcomes for reasons that have nothing to do with individual virtues.”

Liberal and conservative tendencies are not totally innate and immutable characteristics.  Most people can and do change their outlooks as conditions change.  In particular, threats to social order seem especially powerful in moving people to the right politically.

“In study after study, subjects who see the world as a threatening and dangerous place tend to be more politically conservative.  Those who see the world as safe, and are motivated by exploring and trying new experiences, tend to support more liberal views.”

Payne resorts to additional psychological studies to arise at a connection between increasing inequality and political polarization.  He begins with this observation.

“The fact is that the higher a person’s income is, the more likely he is to vote Republican.  The richest third of the population votes more Republican than the middle third, who vote more Republican than the bottom third.”

This suggests that wealth and the status that comes with it prompts a conservative viewpoint.  Remember that one of Payne’s central tenets is that it is the subjective feeling of status that is more important than objective measures of status such as wealth.

Payne and others constructed an investment game in which participants would earn money from picking stocks in which to invest.  Information was provided on the various stocks to give the impression of real consequences from decisions made, but the game was rigged and some were told they performed much better than most while others were told they performed much worse than most.  The purpose was to create subsets of high status winners and low-status losers and evaluate how their artificially created status affected their reasoning. 

To make the game politically relevant, a redistribution function was imposed in which the winners were taxed a certain percentage in order to provide funds to the losers before moving on to a replaying of the game.  Participants were also allowed to propose changes to the way the game would be played in future rounds, including modifications in the rules for how voting on changes would be carried out.  To make the game even more politically relevant, players were provided the opinions of others on how the rules should be modified.

An interesting—and troubling—effect was noted.

“As expected, subjects judged the other player to be more incompetent, more biased, and less rational when he disagreed with the subject than when he agreed.  When we looked closer at the data, though, we noticed an interesting detail: The perception of the other player as biased and irrational was driven entirely by the group who were told that they did better than their peers.  Something about feeling superior in profits made people feel superior to other players about their opinions also.”

As Payne explains, a person feeling high in status will believe themselves to be in command of the facts and view lower status people with a bit of disdain.

“If I see the world as it is and you disagree with me, then I have only a few possible interpretations of your behavior: You might be incompetent, you might be irrational, or you might be evil.”

Payne presents this summary of his results and the conclusion that he draws.

“The subjects who thought their earnings were inferior wanted to increase redistribution….But they wanted everyone’s vote to count equally, regardless of whether the other player agreed or disagreed with them.  The subjects who thought they were superior wanted to reduce redistribution, and they also voted to reject the votes of those who disagreed with them.  The more they saw the other player as incompetent and irrational, the less they wanted his vote to count.”

“This research was the first to show that feeling superior in status magnifies our feeling that we see reality as it is while our opponents are deluded.  It supports the idea that as the top and the bottom of the social ladder drift farther apart, our politics will become more divisive.  That is exactly what has happened over the past several decades.”

Payne provided some interesting insights with his study, but basing his conclusion on it seems a leap too far.  His game produced artificial feelings of status.  In politics, there are real feelings of status at play, and our polarized situation has roughly a 50-50 split between two parties where each views the other as incompetent, irrational, or evil.  An argument based on economic inequality alone would have a difficult time arriving at equal populations.

 Recall that Payne claimed that the standard indicators of status such as money, educational attainment, and job status, consisted of only about 20 percent of what determines a person’s view of his place in the hierarchy.  Consequently, some other driver of status must be activated in order to get the polarization we see.

Payne provides the data needed to provide a more compelling explanation for why inequality could be responsible for our polarized politics.  He had the disadvantage of writing his book before the Trump election results were available and perhaps assumed a primary effect was only secondary in importance.  Payne included a chapter on racial bias and inequality in which he concluded that race was an important political factor and racial bias was exacerbated by economic inequality.  He also presented this result based on numerous studies: while signs of explicit bias have retreated in recent years, implicit racial bias remains buried deep within most of our psyches.

“Having reflected on what a fundamentally good person you are, you will conclude that implicit bias is other people’s problem.  Although we would all like to believe ourselves to be members of the ‘not racist’ club, we are all steeped in a culture whose history and present is built on massive racial inequality.  Research has shown that a majority of even well-meaning people—and their children—show signs of implicit bias when tested.”

It is difficult to view Payne’s chart illustrating the rise of political polarization tracking increasing economic inequality without recognizing that another powerful change was taking place at the same time.  Starting in the 1970s, the Republican Party began a transformation from one with conservative-fiscal and moderate-social policies to one dominated by the former slave states of the South.  Those states once provided reliably Democratic voters on issues that didn’t affect white racial dominance, but they became disenchanted with that party when it strongly supported civil rights for blacks.  Both Nixon and Reagan sent out messages to unhappy segregationists letting them know that they would be welcome in the Republican Party.  And so they came and drove away most moderates.

Another significant event was the election of Barack Obama in 2008.  It was no accident that Republicans took polarization to new levels when he took office.  And it was no coincidence that the Tea Party arose from the Republican ranks at about the same time.  Nor was it coincidental that hate groups and armed militias—training for the day when they would have to overthrow the government—formed in unprecedented numbers across the nation.

The Tea Party seems to informally include the core of the Republican voters.  They are neither rich nor poor, but mainly middle class.  They do not hate the rich elite; they admire them and wish they could emulate them. They divide the world into themselves, the “makers,” and those demanding assistance, the “takers.”  The explanation for Payne’s curve likely resides not in income inequality directly, but how diminished economic prospects for the middle class threatened their status as privileged whites.  To see how this works we will turn to an anthropological study of the people of Louisiana.

Arlie Russell Hochschild has produced a fascinating and enlightening volume evaluating the differences between liberals and what might be generalized as Tea Party conservatives in Strangers in Their Own Land:Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  She is a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley who was disturbed and puzzled by the increasing political polarization within the nation.  She chose Louisiana because it appeared to be an extreme representative of the states of the South.

“In the 2012 election, in the nation as a whole, 39 percent of the white voters voted for Barack Obama.  In the South, 29 percent did.  And in Louisiana, it was 14 percent—a smaller proportion than in the south as a whole.  According to one 2011 poll, half of the Louisianans support the Tea Party.”

She set up shop in Lake Charles, Louisiana and set about meeting and talking to people.  She would come back a number of times to re-interview Louisianans over a period of about five years.  She was interested more in the why of their attitudes than the what of their political beliefs.  People are driven by their emotions.  What was the emotional core driving the Tea Party in Louisiana?

Hochschild digested what she was learning and managed to assemble a description that captures and illustrates the perspective shared by those she encountered in Louisiana.  She refers to it as a “deep story,” a concept that is a bit hard to describe, but is clear once an example is provided.

“The deep story here, that of the Tea Party, focuses on relationships between social groups within our national borders.  I constructed this deep story to represent—in metaphorical form—the hopes, fears, pride, shame, resentment, and anxiety in the lives of those I talked with.  Then I tried it out on my Tea Party friends to see if they thought it fit their experience.  They did.”

This is Hochschild’s deep story.

“You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage.  You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominately male, some with college degrees, some not.”

“Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line.  Many in the back of the line are people of color—poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees.  It’s scary to look back; there are so many behind you, and in principle you wish them well.  Still, you’ve waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving.  You deserve to move forward a little faster.  You’re patient but weary.  You focus ahead, especially on those at the very top of the hill.”

Hochschild’s Louisianans agreed that the ordering in the waiting line was appropriate.  Whites come first and then come blacks and other minorities.  It was income inequality that was slowing the line down, and it had the effect of narrowing the gap between whites and the blacks following behind them.  In fact, as the “deep story” continues, blacks and women and others were beginning to butt in line in front of them.  They suspected that someone must be providing assistance to the interlopers.  Barack Obama was, of course, the prime example of those getting ahead of them—unfairly.

“And President Obama: how did he rise so high?  The biracial son of a low-income single mother becomes president of the most powerful country of the world; you didn’t see that coming.  And if he’s there, what kind of a slouch does his rise make you feel like, you who are supposed to be so much more privileged?  Or did Obama get there fairly?  How did he get into an expensive place like Columbia University?  How did Michelle Obama get enough money to go to Princeton?  And then Harvard Law School, with a father who was a city water plant employee?  You’ve never seen anything like it, not up close.  The federal government must have given them money.  And Michelle should feel grateful for all she has but sometimes she seems mad.  She has no right to feel mad.”

Any attempt to help the poor and unfortunate places their position of privilege at risk.  They don’t want help and don’t expect anyone else to get any either.  Hochschild has sympathy and affection for many of the people she has met.  She describes them as friendly and generous.  However, most of their generosity seems to be reserved for their own communities and their social equals.  Embedded in her deep story is the notion that the poor and unfortunate should take care of themselves and not bother them as they look towards reaching their American Dream. 

“For the right today, the main theater of conflict is neither a factory floor nor an Occupy protest.  The theater of conflict—at the heart of the deep story—is the local welfare office and the mailbox where undeserved disability checks and SNAP stamps arrive.  Government checks for the listless and idle—this seems most unfair.  If unfairness in Occupy is expressed in the moral vocabulary of a ‘fair share’ of resources and a properly proportioned society, unfairness in the right’s deep story is found in the language of ‘makers’ and ‘takers.’  For the left, the flashpoint is up the class ladder (between the very top and the rest); for the right it is down between the middle class and the poor.  For the left, the flashpoint is centered in the private sector; for the right, in the public sector.”

So income inequality produces social conflict which gets reproduced in our political life, but the effect of inequality is not always what one would expect.  Whereas people on the left see conflict between a tiny wealthy elite and the rest of the nation, the right admires the elite and wishes they could join them.  For the right—in today’s Republican Party— the conflict is between the white middle class and the poor.

Hochschild’s story was developed in the South, but the emotions and resentments she discovered there are not limited geographically.  As Payne pointed out, racial bias was public policy in the United States for centuries.  That cultural history is not overcome in a moment.  We are only about two generations from the point when open discrimination became illegal.

Donald Trump was elected because he was able to recognize the resentments and fears of middle class whites and convince them that they were not forgotten; rather, he convinced them he would now be their champion.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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