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Redistribution is More Popular Than You Think

David Callahan

Conservatives are trumpeting a new video in which a younger Obama embraces the dreaded socialist sin of redistribution. His earlier words will no doubt hurt Obama among some segment of the electorate -- even though most voters in both parties, whether they realize it or not, actually favor a host of redistributive policies. 

Polls have typically found only lukewarm public support for redistribution when Americans are asked directly about this idea. For example, a 2011 Gallup poll found that just under under half of people said they favored policies that would "redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich."

That said, a majority of Americans believe that wealth is concentrated too much at the top and think we as a society need to address this problem. Only 35 percent said the distribution of wealth was fair in that 2011 Gallup poll (taken before Occupy Wall Street); 57 percent said it should be more evenly distributed.

Concerns about inequality may explain why Americans strongly support sharing the wealth through redistributive policies -- although the public may not fully understand just how redistributive such policies are. Consider four policies that redistribute income, all of which are quite popular:

Social Security and Medicare. Both these entitlement programs for seniors are redistributive. Affluent taxpayers don't get as much in benefits as they pay in taxes, while low-income retirees -- along with the disabled and indigent recipients on SSI -- get more in benefits than they paid in. Voters in both parties support these programs.

Public Financing of Education. In most U.S. communities, affluent residents with more expensive homes pay more in school taxes than those with smaller homes, a clear subsidy. And, of course, residents without kids at all are subidizing those who do have kids. This system is redistributive -- and quite popular. 

Progressive Taxation. Many Americans may balk at the naked idea of taxing the rich to transfer money to other groups, but there is strong majority support for the basic principle of progressive taxation -- namely, that the wealthier you are, the higher your tax rate should be. Polls have found very strong support for the "Buffett Rule" and President Obama's proposal to roll back the Bush tax cuts on high earners. 

Tax Credits for the Poor. Tax breaks for low-income workers have long enjoyed bipartisan public support, most notably the Earned Income Tax Credit. These programs incentivize poor people to work and also help out struggling parents with kids. More broadly, polls have shown strong public support for lowering taxes on low-income families and raising them on high-income families -- which is, of course, a form of redistribution. 

All these facts go to a bigger point I make here often: Americans may lean to the right, ideologically, but they lean to the left operationally. What they say they believe, and what they actually support, are often quite different. 

So, yes, conservatives may draw blood with the charge that Obama is a redistributionist -- but that doesn't mean that the President can't simultaneously score points by touting redistributionist policies.