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Public Theology: Conservative Egalitarians
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Conservative Egalitarians
A book by Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs suggests Americans are ready for Class Warfare after all.

By Sam Pizzigati

Book: Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs, Class War? What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality. University of Chicago Press, 2009. 142 pp.

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Why do lawmakers today so rarely dare to take any action that the super rich might find objectionable? Do politicians see public anger over Wall Street bonuses as just a short-term phenomenon sure to fade away? Do they fear that the public, down the road, will punish any pol who tries to trim America’s rich down to a more democratic size?

Or are lawmakers, with their reluctance to take on the rich, simply bending before the powerful political winds that wealthy special interests so relentlessly blow?

The cynics among us will naturally choose the latter option. They’ll find plenty of support in Class War?, a just-published analysis of American public opinion from two political scientists at the top of their game, Northwestern’s Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs from the University of Minnesota.

Page and Jacobs have crunched the data from 70 years of public opinion polling on wealth and opportunity in America – and added into the mix results from an in-depth 2007 national poll conducted on their behalf by researchers at the University of Connecticut.

Their basic finding? The conventional wisdom on American inequality — that most Americans don’t particularly care about wide gaps in income and wealth because most Americans admire the rich and want to become rich themselves — simply does not hold water.

Page and Jacobs have previously documented this point in various academic settings. With this slim new jargon-free book, they’re taking their message to a wider audience — and making their case with precision and simplicity.

“Ordinary Americans are not ignorant of the extreme inequality of income and wealth in the United States,” the two note in Class War? “They are not indifferent to the enormous, widening gaps between the super-rich and everyone else. They do not reject government action to deal with those gaps.”

Page and Jacobs readily acknowledge the data that demonstrate the “conservative” values that run through the American body politic. But these values, they argue, also encompass a commitment to equality. Indeed, the two suggest, we ought to consider most Americans “conservative egalitarians.”

“Americans both embrace the American Dream,” they posit, “and recoil from the extreme, growing gap between the rich and everyone else.”

In fact, the two scholars add, “the hope and expectation of living the American Dream is actually leading majorities of Americans of diverse backgrounds to oppose extreme inequality, as unfairly curtailing opportunity to all and stacking the deck in favor of the rich and their offspring.”

Page and Jacobs emphasize, at every opportunity, the diversity of public support for a less unequal United States. A solid 56 percent of Americans, they point out, believe “the government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich,” and this majority goes far beyond the usual blue-state suspects.

“Most upper-income Americans and most rank-and-file Republicans,” Class War? relates, “favor redistribution to narrow the cavernous gaps between the rich and everyone else.”

Contemporary American politics does not, in any significant way, reflect this public opinion reality. But what else should we expect? We live in a deeply unequal society where wealth and power have both concentrated at the top.

This wealth and power will remain in place, there at the top, until challenged from below. Class War? just may give a good many more Americans the confidence to do that challenging.

Sam Pizzigati is editor of Too Much.

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Date Added: 5/25/2009 Date Revised: 5/25/2009

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