At first glance — and second, and third — Americans look to be marching off in two diametrically opposed directions. On immigration, Democrats and Republicans could not have more contrasting views; cities, which have become distinctly progressive bastions, are enacting a host of liberal ordinances, while the substantial number of states under Republican rule are moving well to the right of the GOP orthodoxy of just five years ago; and the federal government, its power divided between the two parties, has frozen into inaction.
Most polling tends to confirm this view of the United States as a house divided. But a new survey of our compatriots’ beliefs from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which queried a far larger number of respondents than typical polls, has unearthed one area of remarkable agreement: Across party lines, Americans believe that our economic system is rigged to favor the wealthy and big corporations, and that our political system is, too — so much so that by nearly a 2-to-1 margin (64 percent to 36 percent), Americans believe their “vote does not matter because of the influence that wealthy individuals and big corporations have on the electoral process.”
To be sure, the PRRI survey shows that on a host of issues, the rift between Democrats and Republicans is huge. Asked whether immigrants strengthen or burden the nation, 63 percent of Democrats said “strengthen” while 66 percent of Republicans said “burden.”
But on economic questions, anti-corporate and more economically egalitarian sentiments have been rising in both parties. Fully 86 percent of respondents cited corporate offshoring of jobs as a major cause of the nation’s economic problems, up from 74 percent in 2012. Seventy-seven percent (including 67 percent of Republicans) said that corporations were not paying a fair share of their proceeds to their employees. Seventy-nine percent (including 63 percent of Republicans) said that our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, up from 66 percent in 2012. Seventy-six percent of Americans, including 60 percent of Republicans, favor raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Support for requiring employers to provide paid sick leave (85 percent) and parental leave (82 percent) is massive and bipartisan.
The federal government, in most Americans’ view, bolsters the economy’s unfairness. The highest level of bipartisan agreement in the survey came on particular questions of whose interests the government is looking out for. Ninety-three percent of Democrats and 88 percent of Republicans said it tended “very” or “somewhat well” to the interests of the wealthy; 90 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans said it did the same for big corporations. No such agreement is apparent, however, when respondents were asked about the government’s assistance to other groups and strata. Seventy-six percent of Democrats, for instance, said the government looked out for Christians, while only 51 percent of Republicans agreed. Just 32 percent of Democrats said the government looked out well for low-income Americans, while 61 percent of Republicans said it did. On a host of issues, white working-class Republicans made clear their conviction that government policies favor minority and immigrant interests over their own, and that the nation — its economy and its culture — has gone into decline as, and because, it has become more racially diverse.
It’s those beliefs that have driven a large share of the white working class into Donald Trump’s column rather than Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.), even though its members plainly agree with Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) perspective that the economy is rigged to favor the wealthy and big business. While the PRRI survey makes clear that there’s remarkably little support anywhere for what we might term the Chamber of Commerce’s agenda, years of talk radio, Fox News and now the Trump campaign have tapped into and built a right-wing populism that focuses the white working class’s blame for its woes downward — at the racial other — rather than up.
Nonetheless, the political takeaway from the survey for Democrats in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular, is clear. To bolster their political credibility — not to mention to foster a more vibrant and equitable economy — they need not only to push to make taxes much more progressive and diminish the role of money in politics but also to alter corporate practices and structures so that workers again receive a fair share of the proceeds. That means bolstering the right to form unions and giving employees a major share in corporate governance and seats on corporate boards.
To paraphrase William Butler Yeats, most Americans believe this is no country for anyone but the rich. The only way Democrats can change that perception is to change that reality.