The Peasants Still Have Their Pitchforks

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The Peasants Still Have Their Pitchforks

Americans want what 21st century politics has so far not delivered: real options for challenging concentrated wealth.

New research from Berkeley political scientists gave Americans a choice of seven policy options on taxes, with the first three all involving raising taxes on the rich and the last three all involving options that would cut the taxes rich people pay. Americans overwhelmingly chose the first three options. (Photo: Darya Mead/Flickr/cc)

What can we expect Congress to do about America’s staggeringly top-heavy concentration of income and wealth over the next two years? Absolutely nothing.

What do Americans want Congress to do about that concentration? A good bit.

We know the first answer from the simple math of last week’s election results. Republicans now hold a chokehold on both chambers of Congress. No legislation that would even slightly inconvenience America’s awesomely affluent has any chance of even coming up for a vote.

The answer to the second question reflects, in part, exit polling that the Washington Post and other major media outlets jointly conducted on election day. That polling included a suggestive question about the nation’s economy.

“Do you think,” the pollsters asked, “that the U.S. economic system generally favors the wealthy or is fair to most Americans.”

A stunning 64 percent said they believe America’s economy “favors the wealthy.”

"A stunning 64 percent of Americans feel the nation’s economy favors the wealthy."

Last Tuesday’s exit polling didn’t probe any deeper than that. The polling didn’t, for instance, ask voters about what they feel elected leaders ought to be doing to tilt the nation in a more equitable direction.

But another important piece of polling, released before last week’s elections, did go deeply into that question.

The researchers behind this little-noticed polling, Berkeley political scientists David Broockman and Douglas Ahler, didn’t set out to explore what Americans want done about inequality. They went looking instead for a better understanding of the “moderate voter.”

Pundits, these two researchers believe, tend to mythologize voter “moderation.” Many Americans, the two posit, support public policy positions more “extreme” than the positions that most Democrats and Republicans in Congress support.

To test that proposition, Broockman and Ahler fashioned a national survey that gave voters seven different policy options in 12 contentious policy areas ranging from guns and abortion to labor rights and immigration.

For each issue, the seven choices included the mainstream Democratic and Republican position, as extracted from public statements made by current U.S. senators in news releases, press reports, and online.

"Americans support tax-the-rich options that go well beyond what their elected leaders are seeking."

Two other options reflect “extreme” Senate positions on each issue, one held by Democratic senators outside the Democratic Party Senate mainstream and the other by Republicans outside the Republican Senate mainstream. Two more options represent “extreme” policy positions — one progressive, one conservative — that have no current Senate advocates.

The final option in the survey list: a “moderate” position to the right of most Senate Democrats and the left of most Senate Republicans.

In their policy options on taxes, Broockman and Ahler defined this “moderate” position as the status quo: maintain current federal tax rates. The mainstream Democratic position: up taxes about 5 percent on those making over $250,000. The mainstream GOP stance: cut taxes, even for high earners.

On the “extreme” conservative end of the seven policy options on taxes, the Broockman and Ahler survey gave two choices. The “extreme” Senate position: move to a “flat” income tax and have everyone, rich and poor alike, pay taxes at the exact same rate. The more “extreme” position: replace the income tax with a tax on consumption.

The most “extreme” progressive option in the Broockman-Ahler poll: establish a maximum annual income by taxing all income over $1 million at a 100 percent rate. The “extreme” progressive option that has some Senate support: raise taxes on those making over $250,000 by more than 5 percent.

And how did the American public react to these seven tax policy options? Just over two-thirds — 67 percent — opted for the three options that involved raising taxes on the rich. Only 22 percent chose any of the conservative tax options.

No prominent elected leader is calling for a 100 percent tax on income over $1 million. Yet this option has a surprising level of public support.

The combined support for the two “extreme” progressive positions — a 100 percent tax on income over $1 million and over a 5 percent tax increase for those making over $250,000 — more than doubled support for the two “extreme” conservative positions, by a 40 to 19 percent margin.

The public support Broockman and Ahler found for what would be, in effect, a “maximum wage” may rate as their survey’s most remarkable finding.

No prominent elected leader in America is currently banging the drums for a 100 percent tax rate on income over $1 million. Yet this option received more support — 13 percent of those surveyed back it — than the “flat tax,” a proposal prominent GOP national figures have been pushing for decades.

Americans overall, this new polling suggests, want a tax system that targets the concentration of income at America’s economic summit. And Americans don’t just make this tax-the-rich preference plain to pollsters. They vote that way, too, whenever they have that opportunity.

Last Tuesday, voters had that opportunity in Illinois. On that state’s ballot: an advisory referendum on the question of whether Illinois should impose a new 3 percent tax on income over $1 million to help improve education funding.

The measure drew overwhelming support, with 63.6 percent voting yes to the notion of a “millionaire’s tax” and only 36.4 percent voting no.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for a millionaire’s tax in Illinois. Political observers see no chance whatsoever that Illinois lawmakers, even with last week’s vote, will seriously consider such a tax in their upcoming session.

And people wonder why so few Americans turn out to vote.

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the Institute for Policy Study's online weekly newsletter on excess and inequality.

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