Cynicism in America

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Is the economic system "rigged"? Several presidential candidates claimed they believed it was -- and that they'd clean it up, if elected.

"It's not just the political system that's rigged, it's the whole economy", Americans were told by Trump last summer. But was the cheering at such rallies representative, or did political speeches just attract passionate people?

According to recent data, the former explanation is correct. Survey evidence shows that a majority of the electorate does not believe the economic system in the United States is fair: that means political candidates were responding to broadly held perceptions.

Data: YouGov; Chart: JZ.

When nearly 8,000 Americans were asked in November 2016 whether "Our economic system is biased in favor of the wealthiest Americans", three quarters of respondents said they either agreed or strongly agreed.

Suppose that only those people who "strongly agreed" with the statement deeply believe that America has a fairness problem. The chart above shows the prevalence of this opinion for different groups. Being very liberal, or simply being a Democrat is a good predictor of cynicism. Or, Americans who are critical of the economic system often express their opinion by voting for left-wing candidates. Of course, many of the groups listed on the chart overlap.

What do we do with the fact that 38 percent of "All Americans" strongly agree the system is biased?

One survey question is not enough to interpret exactly what people are thinking. If respondents simply believe that children of richer people have a head start in life, they are not wrong (see the recent book by Richard Reeves). But if many people believe that some small elite is pulling all the strings, then we have a recipe for anger, unhappiness, paranoid thinking, and feelings of powerlessness. If many citizens really share these feelings, they spell bad prospects for the future. Cynicism discourages political participation, and investments in human capital.

A natural interpretation of the survey is that there is more animus towards the rich than is commonly believed. The Sanders phenomenon was not a blip. Sanders-style candidates denouncing the "billionaire class" are bound to crop up, and they may be successful.


  • The YouGov crosstabs are posted here.
  • The data used to make the chart above is show below.

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