What’s puzzling is that both Sanders and Warren are millionaires. Although somewhat more moderate on policy, the two billionaires in the Democratic race — Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg — also say they want to reverse the nation’s growing economic disparities. Last week, Bloomberg published a New York Times op-ed outlining initiatives to reduce economic inequality.
It cannot be simultaneously true that “millionaires and billionaires” are rigging the system and yet are also trying to level an uneven playing field. Are these affluent Democratic contenders’ political views characteristic of millionaires and billionaires generally? In short, no. Our research finds that wealthy people are more likely than others to believe the system is fair, and are more economically conservative than others. These Democratic candidates represent a small but significant minority, as we’ll explain below.
What do the rich think about the fairness of our economy?
Wealthy people have a great deal of power to influence economic and political outcomes in the United States, and so it’s important to understand what they believe to be the causes of — and possible solutions to — economic inequality. The economic elite are, by definition, members of a small group not well represented in typical surveys. They tend to keep their views on economics and politics to themselves. The few high-quality surveys of this group confirm that, on average, wealthy Americans are more libertarian than the general population, but there’s certainly more to learn.
To better understand the perspectives of the economic elite, we worked with the company YouGov to survey online a broad and diverse sample of 450 highly affluent Americans, whom we defined as those living in households with pretax incomes of more than $350,000 per year and/or more than $2 million in financial assets. The resulting sample represents approximately the top 3 to 5 percent of U.S. households in income and wealth. In addition, we surveyed 450 Americans from the general population as a comparison group. YouGov is the industry leader in assembling representative samples from its millions of opt-in participants. We also demonstrate that our samples reflect the populations they are intended to represent by comparing their characteristics to the probability-based Survey of Consumer Finances and employing population weights.
We began by asking why our respondents thought some people are more successful than others in life. Is success a result of hard work, intelligence, luck or being born into wealth? We also asked respondents why they thought people differed in drive or intelligence -- because of upbringing, choices, DNA? We asked respondents to award such factors a score on a seven-point scale, with “7” being very important and “0” not important at all.
To better understand the political implications of these beliefs, we asked for respondents’ views on economic policy, including the government safety net, taxes on the wealthy and economic inequality.
Finally, we asked people to share their age, gender, race, education, region and religiosity. We control for these characteristics throughout our analyses.
Wealthy people are more likely than others to believe the United States is a meritocracy
All economic groups in our survey viewed “hard work” and “being intelligent” as better explanations for success than “coming from a wealthy family” and “being lucky.” This is consistent with the nation’s long-standing belief in meritocracy: that people become successful via hard work combined with talent.
Nevertheless, our affluent respondents were even more likely than others to attribute success to individuals’ characteristics and behavior, on average awarding “hard work” and “intelligence” close to the top score. Further, respondents from the top 1 percent of U.S. households in income and wealth were the most likely to insist that these success-linked traits are either chosen or innate rather than environmentally caused.
What are the political implications of believing in meritocracy?
Not surprisingly, respondents’ beliefs about what causes economic inequality correlated with their beliefs about what policies the U.S. government should enact. The affluent with the most economically conservative political beliefs were the most likely to say that inequality comes from character traits such as hard work or intelligence, especially when they believed those character traits come from either individual choices or genetics. Meanwhile, affluent respondents had more liberal policy leanings when they said that inequality grows from forces outside the individual such as luck, family ties or upbringing. As a result, there’s a noticeable ideological divide among the affluent.
Our comparison group of the less affluent wasn’t as consistent in connecting their beliefs about meritocracy to politics. On the one hand, like the affluent, middle- and lower-class Americans who said outside forces shape individuals’ economic fortunes tended to support progressive economic policies. On the other hand, there was little evidence that ordinary Americans who thought inequality boiled down to character were especially conservative.
Is there an ideology of affluence (or two)?
In a nation well-known for its belief in meritocracy, those at the very top are, on average, the most likely to view our deep economic divides as fair. Our billionaire president has frequently echoed this. He is particularly enamored of genetic theories, saying, for example, “Some people aren’t meant to be rich. … It’s just something you have, something you’re born with.”
Our study suggests that the belief that people deserve whatever success or failure comes their way results in the libertarian ethos many highly affluent people hold. In keeping with these views, the Trump administration has reduced taxes on the wealthy, diminished government services for lower-income Americans and plans to shrink the safety net further.
Our data also suggest that Sanders, Warren, Bloomberg and Steyer are not outliers. A nontrivial minority of the wealthy disagree with their economic peers, believing that the system is rigged and that the government should do something about it.
Elizabeth Suhay is an associate professor and graduate program director in the department of government, School of Public Affairs, American University, and lead editor of the forthcoming “Oxford Handbook of Electoral Persuasion,” with Bernard Grofman and Alex Trechsel.
Marko Klašnja is an assistant professor in the School of Foreign Service and Department of Government at Georgetown University.
Gonzalo Rivero is a research data scientist at Westat.
Read more of TMC’s analysis about the 2020 presidential election:
- Who’s the most electable Democrat? If you look at the swing states, it might be Warren or Buttigieg, not Biden.
- The Obama effect has helped Joe Biden with black voters. Will it last?
- The Democratic candidates are unabashedly liberal. Is that what Democratic voters want?
- Joe Biden isn’t the only ‘electable’ candidate. Here’s what Democratic primary voters are thinking — and how to change it.
- Trump thinks racist rhetoric will help him in 2020. The data suggests otherwise.