For decades the left has claimed that American politics is, at its core, a battle between rich and the rest. In their view, it’s the 1 percent versus the 99 percent — those who won the lottery of life versus those who never had the wherewithal to buy a ticket.
Today, many Democrats see the salvation of their party in reemphasizing these old class warfare tropes. Their calculation may be right: Young voters, decades removed from the devastation of the Cold War, seem to be taken by socialist dogma. Bernie Sanders attracted more primary voters under the age of 30 than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined.
But research demonstrates that, contrary to the left’s claims, American politics is primarily a struggle between rival cultures, not rival classes. Study after study demonstrates that the upper, middle and lower classes do not differ very much in their policy preferences.
According to one estimate, the correlation between the policy preferences of the top 10 percent of income earners and median income earners is extremely high (for statisticians, the Pearson correlation coefficient is 0.94; a 1 would indicate identical preferences). In fact, survey data suggest a majority of all three classes — high, middle and lower — agree on 80 percent of policy questions.
Part of the reason the political divisions on the basis of class are weak in America is that other factors — such as race, religion, geographical region, gender and age, to name a few — better predict policy preferences. When these other important factors are taken into consideration, income generally ceases to be relevant to political opinions.
Even when it comes to support for government action on economic inequality and welfare spending — policy considerations that would seem to pit rich against poor — race, religion, marital status and education level are still more predictive of political attitudes. This is true for the rich as well as the poor.
Contrary to those on both right and left who claim that (unlike the rest of us) the top 1 percent perceive and act on a unified class interest, surveys of the top 10 percent of income earners find that the rich are no more unified in their policy preferences than the middle or lower class.
These data are, admittedly, imperfect. Most studies of income and political opinion analyze the political views of the top 10 percent of earners. The cutoff for that category is $113,000 of household income. While this is a comfortable wage, a couple, each of whom makes a little less than $60,000, are probably not sipping Moet & Chandon in the Hamptons, nor are on a first-name basis with their member of Congress.
The problem is there are, by definition, very few people in the top 1 percent; most polls do not scoop up nearly enough data to allow meaningful statistical analysis. However, the little data that do exist suggest the political opinions of the merely affluent more or less approximate those of the very rich.
There may still be an elite class divided from the rest of America by taste, location and political views. But this ruling class is defined less by money than by where they live (coasts and big cities), what schools they attend (and for how long) and how comfortable they are with the norms and values cultivated in America’s elite institutions. Secular, uber-educated city-dwellers do have clear and clearly distinct — and reliably statist — policy preferences.
Make no mistake, America is seriously divided. But the battle lines cut across country clubs and garden parties just as they divide Thanksgiving tables and living rooms. The combatants in this fight are not rival classes but rival cultures.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times