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Another Problem with Inequality: Social Tension

David Callahan

Class conflict is now the biggest source of social tension in America, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center -- bigger than racial conflict or tensions around immigration. Two-thirds of Americans now believe there are strong or very strong conflicts between poor people and rich people, a 19-point jump from two years ago.

Occupy Wall Street can claim some of the credit for focusing public attention on class. But hard economic times and bitter fights over taxes and budgets are surely the larger factors at work. While class-based struggle over who gets what is a perennial feature of American politics, it's hard to recall a time when the stakes of that struggle have been as clear-cut as they are today -- with Republicans trying to preserve record low taxes on the rich by whacking a host of programs for low-income Americans. The public is clearly paying attention to what's happening and the Pew poll reflects that.

Especially remarkable is the degree to which class has displaced race in the public's perception of what is dividing the country. Just 38 percent of Americans see strong conflicts between blacks and whites. That's good news to anyone interested in addressing inequality, since racial fears have historically served to distract Americans from economic injustice. (Declining concern about racial conflict may be bad news for those trying to eliminate the racial inequities that remain very real and baked into the structures of American society -- unless, that is, you think tackling class is the real key to reducing these inequities.)

But don't look for pitchforks in Aspen anytime soon. The poll finds that people's attitudes toward the rich themselves hasn't changed at all in recent years -- with nearly half of Americans believing that the rich got wealthy because of "their hard work, ambition, or education." (The other half of the public believes it's who your family is and who you know.)

Still, the public's growing perception of class conflict provides important ammo to opponents of inequality. As we have often noted here, inequality is bad for a variety of reasons -- big income gaps stunt growth, narrow opportunity, and poison democracy. The Pew poll highlights another corrosive effect of the growing economic chasm, which is that it undermines the cohesion of American society. Or, to put it another way, inequality makes America a more tense and less enjoyable place to live. In the worse case scenario, the current trajectory could lead to social disorder and violence. It wouldn't be the first time that class conflict got this bad in America.

All of which is to say that those who pooh-pooh inequality should pay attention to this new Pew poll. Defusing class tensions may not be the best reason for reducing inequality, but at different points in the past, America's leaders have to sought to foster more equity for precisely this reason. Social harmony is a pretty vague goal, for sure. But nearly everyone recognizes it as an important one.