The United States is one of the most economically unequal nations in the West. According to some estimates, the current levels of inequality in the U.S. are at their highest since the onset of the Great Depression. Yet although they were predicted to be a key topic in the 2016 elections—and Bernie Sanders’ surprising primaries performance notwithstanding—, economic inequality received scant attention on the presidential campaign trail. In fact, the words “income inequality” were mentioned only once throughout the four and a half cumulative hours of the three presidential debates. The speaker of these words? Not Hillary Clinton, nor Donald Trump. Rather, it was Lester Holt, NBC’s moderator of the first Presidential debate. The question about inequality was asked, artfully dodged, and never mentioned again.
The lack of political attention devoted to economic inequality may seem surprising given its societal consequences. Economic inequality is associated with poor health; decreased political participation; lower psychological wellbeing; and higher rates of violent crime, bankruptcy claims, divorce filings, and mortality. Why do so many politicians dodge questions about economic inequality? And why are voters letting them get away with it?
One reason is that Americans generally care more about economic mobility than economic inequality. Maybe more than any other country, America has traditionally accepted high inequality for the sake of a more dynamic and upwardly mobile society. And politicians often cater to such beliefs, deflecting difficult questions about inequality with easy soundbites about mobility and opportunity. Our elected representatives know that for most Americans, the American Dream is about rising up the ladder, not about the distance between the economic rungs.
Ironically, dodging questions about inequality may help politicians keep the American Dream alive. In my new research, I have examined how misperceptions about economic inequality bolster people’s belief in economic mobility. I found that because Americans vastly underestimate the gap between the rich and the poor, they overestimate their chances of moving up in life. And the more politicians obscure the realities of inequality, the more Americans can keep believing in their chances of rising up the economic ladder.
In one study, I gave hundreds of Americans information about the distribution of wealth in the United States. One group of participants were given accurate information about inequality—for example, that the richest 20 percent of Americans own more than 80 percent of the total wealth. A second group was given misleading information that depicted the U.S. as much more egalitarian than is actually the case. A third group was not given any information at all. All respondents were then asked to predict their future standing on the economic ladder. Would they be better off in ten years than they are today, or did they worry about remaining in their current economic position?
The results were eye-opening. Participants who saw an egalitarian (and fictitious) image of the U.S. were confident in their ability to rise up the economic ladder. The same, however, was not true for participants who were given accurate information about inequality. For these participants, learning about the true scope of economic inequality weakened their belief in economic mobility.
Alarmingly, not giving participants any information was as bad as giving them explicitly false information. The unfounded belief in the American Dream was as strong among participants who didn’t receive any information about inequality as it was among those who were given intentionally misleading information.
Politicians who dodge the inequality question may be capitalizing on just that phenomenon; as long as constituents remain unaware of the true scope of inequality, they will keep believing in economic mobility. To retain their constituents’ belief in the American Dream, politicians don’t need to lie about economic inequality. They just have to ignore it.
Why is this the case? The answer seems to lie in people’s theories about why the rich are rich and the poor are poor. Although Americans have historically believed that success is the fruit of hard work and perseverance, economic inequality undermines these beliefs. Talking about inequality weakens the belief that the rich are rich because of who they are and how hard they work. Disregarding inequality, on the other hand, keeps this belief intact. Therefore, when politicians dodge the topic of economic inequality, they are banking on Americans’ tendency to believe that a person’s economic standing reflects their work ethic, talent, and perseverance.
These results highlight the intimate relationship between inequality and the belief in economic mobility. To keep the American Dream alive, politicians must either talk about “fixing” inequality or disregard it altogether. All too often, they opt for the latter.
Politicians have a vested interest in keeping the American Dream alive. That is, when people believe that they can move up in life, they are less likely to complain about their present struggles and are more likely to focus on their education and their work. A strong belief in the American Dream goes hand in hand with political complicity, and the not-so-implicit message it sends is this: you and you alone are to blame for your economic hardships. To change your life, change yourself—not the system.
Economic inequality is not going away any time soon, and letting politicians get away with dodging the issue is not helping. With the 2018 mid-term elections around the corner, it is time to shift the discussion away from the promises of mobility, and towards the reality of inequality. The voters’ message to all candidates across the political spectrum should be clear: Don’t dodge the question. If you really care about mobility, focus on inequality.
Shai Davidai is an assistant professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research. He received his Ph.D in Social Psychology at Cornell University. Recent courses he has taught at the New School include ‘The Psychology of Happiness,’ and ‘Judgment and Decision Making.’