The Democracy Poll: Americans and the Economy

Our first-ever poll produces some encouraging results—but also shows that some old modes of thought die hard.

By The Editors

Tagged economyInequalitysocial justice

As the Democratic field for the 2020 presidential campaign begins to fill out, we begin to sense that the next election will be pivotal for two reasons. The first and more obvious one involves whether this country will reelect Donald Trump, assuming he’s on the ballot. The second reason is perhaps less dire but intellectually more interesting.

We are at an inflection point in the Democratic Party’s history, and in the economic history of the country; similar, perhaps, to the mid-1930s and the late-1970s. In the first period, the country embraced Keynesian, demand-side economics. In the second, during a time of pummeling inflation and wage stagnation, the country turned away from Keynes and toward Milton Friedman and supply-side economics.

To us, on the merits, the two systems aren’t close. Keynesian principles helped drive the greatest era of expansion, prosperity, and equality the United States has ever known. Supply-side economics has been good for the top 10 or 15 percent, great for the top 1 percent, but rather bad for everyone else. Yet, because it’s done so well for the people who have money, finance political campaigns, and run things, and because the Democratic Party never quite made the case for an alternate theory of growth (despite this journal’s frequent efforts), supply-side has hung around well past its sell-by date.

That date may finally have come. There are numerous signs that the American people are beginning to question the supply-side assumptions that dominated our economic debates for four decades. Are the signs real?

That’s what we set out to learn with our first-ever Democracy poll. Conducted in January exclusively for the journal by Change Research, the poll asked respondents a range of questions about their opinions on a host of economic matters and tested their knowledge of economic policy. The purpose was to try to learn what presumptions about economics—about growth and fairness, about government intervention, about the two parties—people carry around in their heads. We also wanted to learn how much people know about certain economic realities, in order to find out how much educating Democrats and progressives need to do.

Results? There is some good news. People have pretty progressive attitudes on health care and on some aspects of government investment and intervention. They also reject some basic philosophical conservative arguments about wealth, poverty, and other matters. But here are the catches: They still have little faith in government; they still share a number of conservative assumptions about how the economy grows; and yes, they still seem to think the deficit trumps everything else. The answers show us that our side still has considerable work to do to dislodge economic ideas that people have been told were gospel for a long time.

A few quick highlights. On the plus side:

  • Our respondents said health care should be a right rather than a good one has to earn by 57-43 percent.
  • There was also majority support, 54 percent, for Medicare for All among respondents, even when they were told their taxes would “go up, perhaps by a lot.”
  • When asked how much of the wealth the top 1 percent should hold, a plurality of 26 percent of our sample said 20 percent. (The real number is 90 percent.)

And on the downside:

  • Respondents still think the Republicans are better for the economy, by 49 to 40 percent.
  • They believe Ronald Reagan created more jobs than any other recent President. (In fact, it was Bill Clinton.)
  • When we asked them whether the free market better provides for people’s needs or if the government should steer investment “in some cases,” they chose the free market 59 to 41.
  • We will present the results in three sections. First, we’ll discuss the questions that were designed to try to tell us something about respondents’ economic views in a broad, philosophical sense. Second, we’ll dig into the details of what kinds of preferences they expressed on a range of specific economic policy questions. And finally, we’ll share the results of the questions that sought to measure respondents’ knowledge of economic policy.
Broad Philosophy: Deficit Fear, but Good News Elsewhere

We started with a question that we thought would tell us a lot about how people think economically in broad terms. We asked people what they thought the “biggest economic problem” facing the country is and gave them four choices: the national debt and deficit, inequality, wage stagnation, and slow growth.

The top answer—by far—was the debt and deficit, at 52 percent. Inequality was a distant second at 24.7 percent, wage stagnation third at 19.6 percent, and slow growth a distant fourth at 3.7 percent. As you’d expect, results varied among those who identified themselves by party. Among Democrats, inequality was the top choice and the debt and deficit the second choice, but even among Democrats it was relatively close—47 to 31 percent, respectively. Just more than three-quarters of Republicans said the debt and deficit were the biggest problem (and Republicans who named inequality? Just 3 percent!). Among Independents, 53 percent said the debt and deficit were the biggest problem, while inequality just barely beat wage stagnation as the distant second choice, 23 to 21 percent.

Another philosophical question produced happier results. We asked respondents whether they thought health care should be a right or is a good a person has to earn. They said health care should be a right by 57 to 43 percent (none undecided on that one!). And on this question, Independents sided with Democrats, though of course with less intensity. Democrats said “right” by 93-7, and Independents by 57-43. Republicans said a person has to earn health care by 81-19.

Another question attempting to gauge the electorate’s broad economic philosophy asked people whether they believed the free market or the government did a better job of looking after people’s needs and steering investments. Here, the whole sample chose the free market by 59-41. Democrats said by a wide margin that government should steer some investments (73-27), and Republicans said the opposite by a wider margin (84-16). Independents opted for the free market by 57-43.

We also asked our sample two questions about why they think some people are rich and other people are poor. By 58-42, respondents said people are poor because they lack opportunity and not because they lack initiative. And by 57-43, respondents said people are rich because they’re born with certain advantages rather than that they are harder working. The differences between the parties was stark. Fully 93 percent of Democrats said the poor lack opportunity, while 77 percent of Republicans said they lack initiative; 83 percent of Republicans said rich people work harder, while just 9 percent of Democrats said that. Independents supported the Democratic position on both questions: They said the poor lack opportunity by 58-42 and that the rich have advantages of birth by 61-39.

On the topic of wealth, there is also very broad support for the idea that the rich should pay more in taxes than everyone else. The overall sample agreed with that statement 73-27. Democrats were 95-5 in favor, Republicans almost evenly split, and Independents supportive by 70-30. When we asked how much more the rich should pay—for example, what rate they should pay on dollars earned above $1 million, respondents chose numbers higher than the average middle-income rate of 23 percent, but only Democrats were willing to go significantly higher. About 54 percent of Democrats said 50 or 60 percent. A bare majority of Republicans said 30 percent, and Independents were in between, with 35 percent choosing a 40 percent rate.

Finally, in another attempt to gauge respondents’ feelings about the private and public sectors, we asked them whom they’d blame if they lost their jobs. Overall, 43 percent said they’d blame the private sector, 26 percent said government, and 21 percent said themselves. Democrats’ top culprit was the private sector (58 percent), Independents’ was also the private sector (but just 42 percent), while Republicans said they’d blame not government but themselves (33 percent). At least they’re consistent on personal responsibility.

Specific Policies: Good News, Except when It Comes to Government

The answers to our specific policy questions closely mirrored philosophical views; respondents were highly contradictory, supporting a more equitable society with greater investments, yet still skeptical of government and in favor of deficit reductions. In other words, they hold onto economic ideas that make achieving the more just society they desire difficult.

First, we hoped to gauge Americans’ preferences regarding wealth and income disparity. Good news here: The American people support a vastly more equitable society than that which exists. Although many respondents showed uncertainty about how much wealth the top 1 percent should own, when they did have an opinion, they were mostly in favor of them owning about 70 percent less than they do—these respondents thought the 1 percent should own 20 percent of the nation’s wealth, compared to their current 90 percent. In total, a plurality of 43 percent were unsure, followed by about a quarter who chose 20 percent.

This uncertainty was also evident when respondents were asked how much more a CEO should make than the average worker. The public is far from supportive of the 300 times more that CEOs currently make.

Again, a plurality was unsure (45 percent), but this was followed by a preference for 50 times, at 42 percent. Republicans were likely to be unsure of their preference (63 percent), yet their second choice was 50 times more (at 23 percent); meanwhile, a majority of Democrats support CEOs receiving 50 times as much money (58 percent). Independents, by a plurality of close to 50 percent, prefer 50 times as well. That 50:1 ratio hasn’t existed in this country for decades.

With regard to specific policies, we asked respondents about their level of support for Medicare for All, even mentioning that their taxes would go up. A bit over half of total respondents were in favor. Support was especially strong among millennials (68 percent). There was, once again, a strong partisan divide, with Democrats for and Republicans against, at 91 and 88 percent respectively. Independents were slightly more inclined toward the Democratic position with 53-48 in favor. Half of respondents were told not just that their taxes would go up, but that they would go up “by a lot.” Even then, a majority were still in favor (54-46). Although respondents are not necessarily aware of the exact meaning of Medicare for All, these results indicate that referring to a universal plan under this title is an effective method for amassing support.

Enthusiasm for Medicare for All was demonstrated, once again, when respondents were asked whether they preferred expanding Obamacare, repealing it, or implementing Medicare for All. There was slight plurality in favor of repealing Obamacare. Yet, it received only 3 percent more support than Medicare for All (45-42). Expanding Obamacare barely received double-digit support (13 percent). Democrats prefer Medicare for All over expanding Obamacare by a wide margin (78-16), whereas Republicans prefer repeal (87 percent). Independents are almost equally divided between repealing Obamacare and Medicare for All (44-43).

Although respondents generally prefer a more radical solution to health care, they are less enthusiastic about free college tuition, with most respondents supporting affordable, debt-free tuition. About 55 percent of the sample chose this option, compared to just under a quarter who chose neither, and 21 percent who chose free college. Notably, over half of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents chose debt-free college as their first choice. The argument for free college has apparently not taken off the way Medicare for All has, even among the party’s base.

Despite these bits of good news, many respondents, nonetheless, prefer tax cuts over investments to “improve the economy.” Again, despite obvious opposition to current levels of wealth concentration, respondents show skepticism toward the investments that would be necessary to take it on. Overall, preference for tax cuts was small (52-48), however. And the discrepancy varied greatly by partisan affiliation. Democrats favored investments by over 80 percent; for Republicans it was the opposite. Fortunately, Independents were slightly more in favor of investments (54-46). Respondents seem able to connect the party to the policy in this case, associating Democrats with investments and Republicans with tax cuts.

Unfortunately, our results also indicate that Democrats seem to be facing an uphill battle in convincing voters that their policies are better for the economy. The last four recessions in this country, going back nearly 40 years, have happened under Republican presidents. But still, Republicans are seen as slightly better at improving the economy (49-40). There is a strong partisan divide. Independents are, however, split almost completely evenly (both at around 40 percent). When it comes to growth, Republicans are also viewed as doing better than Democrats (over half of respondents chose them, with Democrats receiving less than 40 percent).

To grasp the extent to which the public is open to Keynesian economics, we asked respondents to tell us what policies they would support during a recession. This is where the contradictions faced by progressives are starkest with support for, at once, both investments and cuts. First off, the good news. To begin with, we asked about cutting corporate taxes; a majority were opposed. In total, about 53 percent were either somewhat or strongly opposed, compared to about 40 percent who showed some support.

When it comes to the government hiring out-of-work Americans, respondents also seem to be quite Keynesian. Overall, just under 60 percent said they would strongly support such a measure, with a majority from both parties either somewhat or strongly supporting it. Support for investing in infrastructure was also high and bipartisan. About half of overall respondents strongly support it. Democrats were more likely to do so (at about 67 percent), whereas a plurality of Republicans somewhat supported it (around 42 percent). A majority of Independents, just over half, strongly supported it. Finally, respondents were generally in favor of unemployment insurance, with more either somewhat or strongly supporting it than opposing it (62-29).

On the downside, respondents also support cutting government spending, reducing the national debt and deficit, and cutting personal taxes. Overall, most respondents were in favor, to some degree, of such tax cuts during a recession (75 percent). Respondents were supportive, to varying degrees, across the ideological spectrum (even some liberal economists support this idea). In total, a plurality of 47 percent was strongly in favor of cutting government spending during a recession (75 percent total support). Even the largest plurality of Democrats somewhat supported it (39 percent). Among Republicans, about 66 percent are strongly in favor of cuts. A plurality of Independents (48 percent) strongly support cutting government spending. Finally, support for debt and deficit reduction is even higher. About 57 percent are strongly in favor. About 71 percent of Democrats either strongly or somewhat support it and, among Republicans, over 60 percent are strongly in favor. Among Independents this number is just slightly less than 60 percent. Those in favor of Keynesian economics must evidently do a better job of countering the longtime scaremongering, from both sides of the aisle, about the effects of government deficits and out-of-control spending.

Finally, we asked respondents for their priorities in terms of major public investments and major social expenditures. A majority (over half) of all respondents chose “building and repairing roads, bridges, and mass transit systems” as their preferred investment out of a list of five. A bit under a quarter chose “funding renewable energy sources.” The only group with any significant preference for renewable energy over transit was millennials (44-30). Democrats are almost evenly split between the two. Republicans, on the other hand, strongly favor investments in transit (over 60 percent), as do Independents, by over 50 percent. About 10 percent of overall respondents would prefer none of these programs.

Respondents are more divided in terms of major social expenditures. Of all respondents, 27 percent chose health care as the most important, with about an equal number choosing increased Social Security benefits. Democrats, by a majority of a bit over half, chose investing in health care, followed by about a fifth who chose Social Security. Meanwhile, Republicans were most likely to support increasing Social Security (about 38 percent), followed closely by trade schools. Importantly, less than 4 percent of Republicans chose health care as the most important, highlighting the partisan nature of this issue. Nonetheless, Independents were more closely aligned with Democrats and chose health care by a plurality as the most important (around a third). It should be noted that about 14 percent of overall respondents would choose not to invest in any of these programs, with almost a quarter of Republicans and 19 percent of Independents saying this, again pointing to resistance among a considerable part of the population toward any form of government intervention.

Policy Knowledge: Not Bad, but Soft on Republicans

Our respondents’ philosophical and policy preferences show seeds of promise mixed with significant obstacles for progressive messaging, and their knowledge of specific political questions shows granular examples of both. The thread that runs through these results is that respondents seem to understand that the rich are getting more than their fair share and that the economy isn’t running as well as it ought to be, but they have no clear conception of what political party or ideology can make things better (or who makes it worse).

For instance, a strong plurality of voters, 35 percent, believe that Ronald Reagan created the most jobs in the past three decades (not Bill Clinton, who actually did). Reagan’s aura may well be unpuncturable at this late date, but it’s at least a clue of the upward climb progressives have on their hands.

Similarly, that the margins of answers to two other questions are as close as they are is damning, given a reality that isn’t at all close. We told respondents that since World War II, “[O]ne party’s presidents have been in office while nearly twice the number of jobs were created as [under the administration of]the other party,” then asked which party it was, and got a statistical tie. Similarly, we asked which party was most responsible for the rise of the federal government’s debt and deficit, and Republicans only received a slim share more of the blame. While Democrats have produced jobs and Republicans debt, partisan loyalty prevents this reality from doing progressivism much good. Independents got it right, narrowly choosing Democrats by 46-36 percent. But overall this ignorance is probably the primary reason conservatives have managed to pull the “deficits for me, but not for thee” trick again and again over the past few decades.

When we get to taxation, the common result is respondents believing that basically everyone pays more in taxes than they do. When asked what a person who makes between $50,000 and $75,000 pays in federal income tax, a full 68 percent believe they pay 24 or 33 percent, when the actual number is 15. Maybe that’s conservative messaging, maybe it’s the money being used ineffectually and so seeming like a bad deal to voters. Either way, liberals have work to do, considering taxes will likely have to increase to fund the kinds of climate and health-care policies we need. An interesting question would be whether voters in higher-tax, higher-benefit countries have a more accurate idea of this question.

There are glimmers of hope throughout the results, though. For instance, when asked whether they’d prefer to raise the retirement age of Social Security, or increase the payroll tax cap, a full 72 percent prefer raising the income cap. Our respondents were not bad on their knowledge of the payroll tax, too: Narrow pluralities knew that the individual payroll tax contribution was 6.2 percent, and that contributions capped at around $130,000. That 72 percent figure, added to the positive polling about Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed high marginal rates, shows that a huge swath of Americans are comfortable with the wealthy paying more than they currently are. That Americans are comfortable with higher taxes even when their baseline is wrong is especially remarkable.

One darkly ironic undercurrent to this preference for higher taxes on the rich that’s worth dwelling on, though: Respondents also believe the well-off are already paying higher taxes than they actually do. We asked respondents what they thought a person who makes $150,000 a year pays in federal income tax. The real number is 21 percent, but three-quarters of respondents believed the number was higher, most commonly 36 percent of income. And we didn’t even get into capital gains rates or exemptions that the incredibly well-off are able to use, which make the high tax rates respondents ascribed to the ultra-wealthy seem Scandinavian.

In addition to this, Americans seem ignorant of who the rich actually are. We asked respondents what annual household income was needed to be in the top 1 percent: $430,000, $600,000, $700,000, or $1,000,000. The real number is the lowest, and a full 51 percent said the highest. It’s hard to know exactly how to parse that result, except that Americans have an idea that there is an ultra-elite class, but perhaps because of mass media, they assume that the doctor or lawyer in the next house or next neighborhood isn’t a part of it.

This is similarly found by results where respondents actually overestimate the top 1 percent and 10 percent’s wage earnings. Forty-six percent, a plurality, believe the top 1 percent takes 53 percent of all wages, when the real number is 22. Conservatives would no doubt blame this error on the rich-shaming and class warfare of the left, but it’s probably better understood as a gut instinct that there is something deeply wrong with the economic distribution of the United States, and following that by assuming the worst number is the truth. (For what it’s worth, respondents accurately stated that the top 1 percent of the country owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, so those gut instincts aren’t always off.) It’s beyond the scope of this poll, but if taxes hit those upper-classers and not, say, Kardashians, who knows how support for those policies would increase or decrease.

If respondents overestimate the wealthy’s earnings, they underestimate the earnings of the middle and working classes. The median household income for people with a high-school education is $43,000, but the most common response was $35,000. The median household income for people with a college education is $90,000, and the most common answer was $70,000. This, again, seems to make more sense as a showing of general malaise about the economy and economic prospects. A family that earns $43,000 or even $90,000 may only be one health mistake or one layoff away from financial ruin. A household income of $43,000 in the United States doesn’t feel like a household income of $43,000 in Canada.

We said the through-line to these knowledge questions was that Americans knew something was wrong with the economy, specifically with the economy’s fairness, but that they didn’t know who would fix it (or who had helped improve it in the past). That problem, combined with the strong preference for redistribution from the top that the previous two sections of this poll highlighted, means that a progressivism that highlights the inequities, then proposes to solve them with a more equitable tax system . . . Well, that kind of progressivism would get better poll results.

Conclusion: The Job Before Us

In sum, this poll shows that Americans have a number of progressive instincts. They believe that the rich own too much and pay too little. They think health care is a right, not a commodity. They have a number of egalitarian instincts and a decent grasp of the extent of the inequities in American society.

But, they also believe what they’re told about how terrible the deficit is, and they don’t trust government to be the vehicle to address the inequities. This poll says very clearly that those are the two rocks on which progressive economic arguments continually crash. So someone has to get through to people that a manageable deficit is not a catastrophe (which Republicans believe, but only when there’s a Republican president). And someone absolutely must show them that government does some good. If those two hurdles can be cleared, this inflection point will be the real thing.

This poll was conducted for Democracy by the polling firm Change Research from January 7-9 2019. The sample size was 871 adults, with weighting for likely voters done by age, gender, race, and 2016 presidential vote. The margin of error is 3.3 percent.

Read more about economyInequalitysocial justice

The Editors of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas are Michael Tomasky (Editor), Jack Meserve (Managing Editor), and Delphine d'Amora (Associate Editor).

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