The Redistribution Reality

Democrats Face a Nation Increasingly Skeptical of Their Mission


Two fascinating pieces at the New York Times last week reveal liberal anxiety over American views of wealth redistribution. The first, by Thomas Edsall, recounts how the political discussions surrounding Obamacare turned Americans against wealth redistribution. The second, by Neil Irwin, wrestles with why Americans reject efforts to “soak the rich.” Both highlight the supreme shortcoming of the Obama presidency–the Democrats’  failure to allay Americans’ skepticism about the ability of the federal government to solve everyday problems. More importantly, these pieces expose a problem for a Party and an ideology facing an election in 2016.

“With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, the share of Americans convinced that healthcare is a right shrank from a majority to a minority. This shift in public opinion is a major victory for the Republican Party,” Edsall writes. Gallup provides polling numbers supporting Edsall’s assertion. Irwin points to similar polls showing a growing reluctance to tax “the rich” to fund programs for the poor. Understanding why these shifts occurred represents Democrats’ greatest challenge.

Edsall quotes Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard’s School of Public Health, to conclude that the debate over Obamacare’s specifics changed the public’s opinion about redistributing wealth in the healthcare realm.

“Critics started raising concerns about the cost of these plans–higher taxes and premiums for those with coverage, more government interference in physician choices, and of course the potential of abortion coverage.”

If you’re a conservative, Irwin argues, you account for this shift by claiming that Americans are coming to their senses. Americans understand that the high taxes of the middle 20th century came at a high economic cost whereas lower taxes on the wealthy spurns economic growth. If you’re a liberal, Irwin claims, you likely attribute this shift to the seductive charm of right wing rhetoric that misinforms the electorate and transforms phrases like “spread the wealth around” into perjoratives. Of course, no liberal theory would be complete without intoning that its opponents object to serving “someone with a different color skin.”

Irwin refrains from substantiating either the liberal or conservative accounts for the attitudinal shift, and instead, promotes the claims from a National bureau of Economic Research working paper written by Jimmy Charite (et.al.), and another working paper from the Brookings Institution. Charite finds that Americans are more willing to redistribute wealth if they know that the rich people being taxed are nouveau riche.

“Rich people who have been rich for a while have gotten used to their money, so it would be unfair to tax them heavily.”

Brookings claims that Americans reject redistribution if they believe that they will lose their own benefits to serve someone else.

Charite’s research misses the mark entirely, as most Americans care less about how long someone’s been rich than they do about how someone made their money. Brookings’ conclusion strikes me as so obvious that it warrants no further examination.

Therefore, of the three explanations for why Americans increasingly dislike wealth redistribution, Edsall’s (or Blendon’s) makes the most sense. The crux of Edsall’s conclusion supports the conservative assertion that Americans have come to their senses about wealth redistribution. In theory, Americans can be convinced that anything can (and maybe should)  be free. When the details of a policy to make that a reality surface, though, we recognize that wealth redistribution leads to worse outcomes for everyone.

This represents bad news for the Left. Democrats strive to equalize Americans’ wealth through redistribution–wealth they believe is concentrated not based on the principles of the free market that rewards creativity, risk taking and hard work, but rather by chance, vice and, of course, oppression. Fewer Americans supporting redistributive efforts threatens a key claim to Democratic legitimacy. With the 2016 Presidential race creeping to the front of Americans’ minds; Congress and governorships nationwide controlled by Republicans; a field of dynamic Republican candidates focused on winning the White House; and a singularly uninspiring Democratic presidential candidate representing liberals’ only choice; this news could not be more dire for leftists.
No wonder the topic yielded so much attention at the New York Times.