Subjectivity and the Economic Inequality Conundrum: Considering the American Case
This research takes as its predicate the contradiction between growing survey evidence that Americans are aware of, and bothered by, increasing economic inequality, on the one hand, and popular support at the ballot box for policies and politicians who exacerbate that inequality, on the other. Polls show lopsided majorities voicing discontent at the fact that the wealthiest 1% of U.S. households now accounts for more than one- fifth of the total annual national income. No matter what distributional metric is utilized, one bottom-line fact is beyond dispute: over the past 30 years, the (very) rich have gotten richer—at rates unprecedented since the Gilded Age—while median household income has remained stagnant since the 1970s and actually fallen since the 2008 financial crisis. While survey data have steadily grown to document the mass public’s dissatisfaction with this state of affairs, federal and state electoral outcomes (in 2010 and thereafter), along with fiscal policymaking traceable to such cases of collective choice, reveal a different picture. If majorities of American voters recognize and detest the dimensions of cumulative economic inequality, why does this not translate into perceptible policy-driven behavior at the ballot box? In this research we report a pair of Q studies that, we argue, can contribute to a freshened methodological perspective on this conundrum. When the issue of economic inequality is investigated from an intensive, Q-methodological standpoint that abandons the constricting logic and dictates of the large-sample survey, what we find is a more compelling yet complex and ambivalent understanding of inequality than has heretofore emerged from large-sample surveys seeking to calibrate public sentiment toward economic opportunity, fairness and inequality in contemporary America. A concluding discussion underscores the implications of these findings—and the methodological alteration underpinning them—for “real-world” policymaking and for public opinion research addressing heightened inequality in the American economy.