A Snapshot of the Electorate: Economically Disillusioned, Political Disaffected

In a recent NBC-WSJ poll, conducted April 23-27, 54{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans agreed and 43{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disagreed with the following statement: “Because of the widening gap between the incomes of the wealthy and everyone else, America is no longer a country where everyone, regardless of their background, has an opportunity to get ahead and move up to a better standard of living.”

What is especially important about this data is what it means in a political context. Of course, this rhetoric has been growing and shaping the debate for most of Obama’s presidency and even before it.

But importantly, the NBC-WSJ data suggests that for a majority of Americans economic inequity is now seen as a threat to a central premise of the American Dream – that in America everyone has the opportunity to succeed.

Below are some key data from the April poll on this and some other measures.

Partisan segmentation does not tell the whole story. Lest Republicans think this sort of statement only has traction among the far-left base, consider that more than one in three (36{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) Republicans, half (50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Independents, and 51{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of residents in GOP-Controlled Congressional districts agree with the statement. And, agreement is as high among white adults as it is among non-white adults.

table 1

The generational divide is stunning. Over six in ten (61{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) Americans 18-34 years old agree with this statement and just 35{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disagree. Majorities of Americans 35-49 (52{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) and 50-64 (50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) also agree with this statement. Adults 65 or older are split, with 47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} agreeing and 48{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disagreeing with the statement.

table 2

These generational trends exist on social issues like same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization where younger Americans are significantly more supportive than older Americans.

Significant differences also exist by gender and household income. More than six in ten (63{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) women 18-49 agree America is no longer a place where everyone can get ahead. There are only two demographic groups regularly tracked by NBC-WSJ that disagree with the statement by a double-digit margin; Men 50+ and those living in households earning more than $75,000 in annual income.

table 3

There is slice of the electorate that is economically disillusioned and politically disaffected. The NBC-WSJ April poll also found 55{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans agree and 39{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disagreed with the following statement: “The economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.”

We overlaid the 54{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of respondents who agree America is no longer a country where everyone can get ahead with the 55{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of respondents who agree that the system is stacked against them. As the Venn diagram below shows:

  • The top sub-groups that agree the “system is stacked against them” generally lean right, politically.
  • The top sub-groups that feel “America is no longer a country where everyone can get ahead” are generally groups that lean left.
  • In the middle, there is an eclectic collection of sub-groups not frequently in agreement on broad social issues. Majorities of these groups are both economically disillusioned and politically disaffected, meaning they agree that both America is no longer a country where everyone can get ahead and that the economic and political system is stacked against people like them.

    These groups include those living in rural areas, those living in households with less than $50,000 in total income, African-Americans, liberals, those without healthcare coverage, and groups with less formal education.

table 4

Bottom Line

Partisan identification contributes significantly to views on economic inequality. For many Americans, both on the left and right, things in the country seem to be either stacked against them politically, favor the privileged economically, or both. Younger voters are the most likely group to believe income inequality threatens a central premise of the American Dream — that in America everyone has the opportunity to succeed.

Public Opinion Strategies