America, The (Jacksonian) Meritocracy

A fascinating survey released Thursday by the Pew Economic Mobility Project-one of the few million research arms of the Pew Charitable Trusts-illuminates from some fresh angles the complex American attitudes toward opportunity, fairness and government likely to shape public reaction to President Obama's sweeping agenda.

The survey, jointly conducted by the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firm of Public Opinion Strategies, studied public attitudes about whether it's possible to get ahead in America and what it takes to do so. The poll (which surveyed 2,119 adults from January 27 through February 8) didn't directly address the immediate political debate; but it charted, with unusual scope, the backdrop of underlying attitudes against which the argument between the parties is playing out. And it offered warning flares for both sides.
Overall, the survey found that most Americans-across class lines-still believe that the most important factor in whether people get ahead is their own talent and effort, not broad social and economic conditions. By a decisive 71% to 21%, those polled said upward mobility depended more on the "individual person and things like hard work and drive" than "outside factors and things like the economy and their economic circumstances growing up." At least three-fifths of those surveyed at every income level picked individual effort as the key to success.

"People still think that individuals matter a great deal in this country, more so than government in determining their fate and what happens to them," says Glen Bolger, the POS pollster who worked on the survey and accompanying focus groups.

In a separate question, hard work, having ambition, and staying healthy -- all personal traits largely under individual control-ranked one-two-three when respondents were asked what factors determined whether people advanced in life. Similarly when asked why people slip down the income ladder, the top picks were "poor life choices" and "too much debt"-personal decisions again.

As the pollsters wrote in a memo summarizing the results, "Despite the economic downturn...the notion that America is a meritocracy where individuals can apply themselves and move ahead continues to endure. Most Americans, including those on the bottom rung of the income ladder, believe their own economic mobility is within their control and remain optimistic about their ability...to get ahead."

That inclination to look toward individual initiative as the key factor in success tilted most of those polled toward Republican perspectives on two key questions. While many Democrats from Obama on down argue that the rewards of economic growth have been unfairly tilted toward the affluent for roughly the past quarter-century, ensuring "fairness" was less of a priority for most of those surveyed than expanding opportunity. Asked whether it was "more important...to reduce inequality in America or to ensure everyone has a fair chance of improving their economic standing" just 21% picked reducing inequality, while a resounding 71% put greater priority on ensuring opportunity. Those results were virtually unchanged at every rung along the income ladder, and suggest the limits of a Democratic message that sells redistributive tax policy primarily on the grounds of economic fairness.

David Walker, a senior associate at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, says the results point to an important dividing line in public attitudes about the affluent. While voters "don't resent the rich," he says, they do grow resentful "when they believe the rich are getting advantages at their expense." So while a broad message of economic equity might not resonate, he argues, there is more public support for government policies targeted at specific actions viewed as unfair-such as excessive executive compensation in companies receiving public aid. In many ways, that's an updated version of the arguments Andrew Jackson rode to the White House
in 1828.

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Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal, contributes to Quartz, and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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