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March 25, 2014 12:23 PM Work and Its Rewards

By Ed Kilgore

I noticed an interesting disconnect in a new Battleground survey (jointly conducted by the Republican Tarrance Group and the Democratic Lake Research Partners) out today. There was a battery of questions aimed at divining contemporary attitudes towards what might be termed the American Dream, or more specifically, toward the connection between work and economic success.

The very first tested that ancient proposition: “In America, anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough.” 64% of respondents agreed (38% strongly).

But a bit later, an inverse proposition was offered: “People who work hard for a living and play by the rules never seem to get ahead.” 54% agreed (30% strongly), while 44% disagreed (only 19% strongly).

Right after that, 64% (44% strongly) agreed that “The economic rules in this country unfairly
favor the rich.” And 59% (41% strongly) agreed that “The government should be doing something to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.” But “everyone else” may be an ambivalent concept, since fully 72% (44% strongly) agreed that “Middle class people have it the toughest in our economic system. There are assistance programs for the poor and tax breaks for the rich, but no real help for middle class people.”

It seems that the “opportunity” mantra that Republicans invariably offer—and that Barack Obama often echoes—still has a hold on the American imagination. But the more people think about how it’s working in practice, the less faith they exhibit in it. And there’s clearly limited subscription to the idea that the wealthy are virtuous job-creators who’ve earned what they possess.

Given the strongly moralistic tendency of Americans when it comes to work and its rewards, the erosion of faith in the justice of our economic system is a growing problem for its guardians and beneficiaries.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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