A More Political Look at Economic Mobility

Ron Brownstein, one of the sharpest political analysts in the media today, took an in-depth look at the recently released survey project on economic mobility conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.

Ron focused on the Americans views on this country as a meritocracy, and how that may impacts Obama’s goal of significantly growing the size and role of government.

Included in Ron’s observations:

The poll (which surveyed 2,119 adults from January 27 through February 8) didn’t directly address the immediate political debate; but it charted, with unusual scope, the backdrop of underlying attitudes against which the argument between the parties is playing out. And it offered warning flares for both sides.  Overall, the survey found that most Americans-across class lines-still believe that the most important factor in whether people get ahead is their own talent and effort, not broad social and economic conditions. By a decisive 71% to 21%, those polled said upward mobility depended more on the “individual person and things like hard work and drive” than “outside factors and things like the economy and their economic circumstances growing up.” At least three-fifths of those surveyed at every income level picked individual effort as the key to success.

He also noted:

That inclination to look toward individual initiative as the key factor in success tilted most of those polled toward Republican perspectives on two key questions. While many Democrats from Obama on down argue that the rewards of economic growth have been unfairly tilted toward the affluent for roughly the past quarter-century, ensuring “fairness” was less of a priority for most of those surveyed than expanding opportunity. Asked whether it was “more important…to reduce inequality in America or to ensure everyone has a fair chance of improving their economic standing” just 21% picked reducing inequality, while a resounding 71% put greater priority on ensuring opportunity. Those results were virtually unchanged at every rung along the income ladder, and suggest the limits of a Democratic message that sells redistributive tax policy primarily on the grounds of economic fairness.

He wasn’t all GOP-rosy in his analysis, as Brownstein pointed out some warning signs for the Republicans:

So what’s the bottom line? The pollsters conclude: “At its core, the nation believes that economic mobility is largely determined by individual effort and choices, and [it] values equality of opportunity over equality of outcomes.” That’s a cautionary signal for Obama and his Democratic Congressional allies. But the survey also makes clear that while Americans are skeptical that government is now helping to expand opportunity, they still believe a wide range of government interventions could help to do so. That’s a cautionary signal for Republicans effectively arguing that the most important thing government can do in the current crisis is to simply get out of the way. Above all, for both sides, as Walker says, “the main story is about what makes America different and what makes America unique, and strong and resilient.” Even in the midst of the most unnerving economic downturn since the Depression.

Public Opinion Strategies