It is a fundamental fault line of contemporary American politics: Republicans adamantly oppose higher taxes on the wealthy, while Democrats consider such taxes a moral and fiscal imperative. This disagreement plays a central role in the election campaign, and it threatens to derail any deal to cut the deficit.
But conservative opinion on this issue may be more malleable than anyone realizes. Newly published research suggests that, for those on the right, support for this specific form of wealth redistribution depends on how the issue is framed.
Writing in the journal Psychological Science,Rosalind Chow and Jeff Galak of Carnegie Mellon University describe an online study featuring 79 American citizens (mean age 28) who expressed their views about income inequality.
A third of the participants read an introductory passage in which they were informed that the rich make far more than the poor. Specifically, they were told census data indicates that the top 5 percent of wage earners make, on average, $111,000 more than the median wage earner.
For another third of the participants, that equation was semantically reversed. They were informed that the median wage earner makes, on average, $111,000 less than the those in the top 5 percent.
Note that they received identical information, but the emphasis was on the poor making less, rather than the rich making more. The final one-third received no information on income inequality.
Afterwards, all the participants answered a series of questions probing their beliefs about why the rich are wealthy and the poor are not. They then indicated their level of support for two tax plans: one that would create a new tax bracket for those with incomes over $1 million, and another that would create a new tax bracket for those with incomes over $5 million. Finally, they indicated their political ideology and household income.
Not surprisingly, among those who received no information on inequality, self-described conservatives were less likely to support the increased taxes. This also held true when the issue was framed as the poor making less than the rich. “In both of those conditions, the more conservative participants were, the lower was their support for the redistributive policies,” the researchers write.
However, among those in the first group—where the issue was framed as the rich making more than the poor—“liberals and conservatives were equally likely to support raising taxes on the wealthy,” the researchers report.
Analysis of their reasoning reveals that “framing inequality in this way makes conservatives more likely to question whether the wealthy are responsible for their own success,” Chow and Galak write.
Specifically, most of the right-leaning participants attributed wealth to the internal qualities of the individual, such hard work and talent. But the conservatives in that first group were just as likely as liberals to attribute wealth to a combination of internal and external variables, such as inherited money, or simply being in the right place at the right time.
On an issue where politicians refuse to compromise (no doubt at the behest of the billionaires who bankroll their campaigns), this small study suggests their supporters have decidedly mixed feelings. If a simple change in wording is enough to get conservatives to move closer to a liberal position, perhaps compromise is closer than we realize.