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The Complex Politics of Redistribution

Perhaps the volume hasn't been quite as loud as it was in 2008, perhaps a lot of the discussion has been subsumed into coded language, but the 2012 presidential election is still very much about redistribution: when it's fair, when it isn't, and, perhaps most importantly from a political perspective, whether Americans like it.

Just look at the last couple weeks. At about the same time Mitt Romney was catching flak for his secretly videotaped comments about the allegedly lazy, freeloading 47% of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes, the GOP was hammering President Obama for saying back in 1998 that "I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody’s got a shot."

Now, as it turns out, the clip of Obama was a bit selectively edited. But the fact remains that while we're not hearing quite as much hysterical cauterwauling about socialism and redistribution -- at least not in such explicit terms -- this election is still very much about core questions of who should gets what, and who should pay for it.

So how should we approach these questions? I'd argue we need to start asking them in much more specific, pointed ways. As David Callahan pointed out in his recent posts about redistribution (which are well worth a read, particularly if you're new to this question), there's huge variation in how Americans respond when queried about redistribution.

It's a complicated subject that political scientists and polsters have been chipping away at forever, but if one had to sum it up in a paragraph, it would read something like this: Americans say they don't like big government in the abstract. But they do like receiving government services and subsidies of all sorts, and will fight tooth and nail to keep those services and subsidies comin'. They're often hesitant, however, about the notion of these services and subsidies going to people who don't "deserve" them -- "deserve," of course, being a concept that everyone constructs differently, and that has brings with it a morass of race and class issues. On top of all of this, there's a general feeling that the rich don't pay their fair share. And as if this all weren't complicated enough, it's further muddled by the fact that many people who receive government services and subsidies aren't aware of that fact.

So where does all this leave us? It's probably time to stop asking whether Americans are "for" or "against" redistribution. There's now more than enough polling and political science data to allow for a more nuanced, sophisticated account. And Romney's 47% remark may provide a useful datapoint; while the conventional wisdom is that the easiest way for a politician to hurt themselves in these discussions is to embrace redistribution, his remarks may show that the opposite is possible as well. That is, according to Nate Silver, who like most election forecasters is generally skeptical of the notion that most individual campaign events and gaffes nudge the polls on their own, there's at least tentative evidence that Romney hurt his standing by so bluntly attacking the notion of redistribution.

One incident does not a theory make. But still, it's clear we need to ask these questions in a more substantive way. So the next time someone asks you whether you think Americans "like" redistribution, respond with a question of your own: "What exactly do you mean by that?"