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Polarization around money-related issues

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

This is an excerpt from Defusing American Anger about our polarized, us-vs-them narratives relating to money, the economy, and taxes. To see all excerpts and learn more about them, go here.


To state the obvious: money is important to us. For better or worse, we need it to survive. For this reason, debates related to money, and what the government does with our money, can understandably be emotion-producing. We’ll touch on a few issues related to money that are significant factors in our us-versus-them divides. 

Many people are struggling

A lot of Americans have very little money. And many Americans who have a decent amount of money right now are worried that they won’t have enough for the future. Americans have a lot of financial anxiety.

And some of us view the “other side” as playing a direct role in our financial anxieties. For example, some conservatives with economic anxiety blame liberals’ big-government policies and their propensity for higher taxes. Some liberals with economic anxiety blame Republicans for caring more about businesses than they do employees, or blame them for their lack of interest in having a bigger social safety net. 

You may be aware of how financially stressful things are for Americans, so let’s first take a look at that. 

Despite our rather healthy seeming unemployment rate (3.7% in November of 2022), things are much worse for Americans than they seem on the surface. To quote from Ian Bremmer’s 2018 book Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism

Many American workers have fallen out of the labor force completely and have no plans to return. For every unemployed American man between the ages of 25 and 55,” [Nicholas] Eberstadt wrote, “there are three who are neither working nor looking for work.” Some 57 percent of white men who have left the labor force receive a government disability check. About half of U.S. men who stopped looking for a job take pain medication every day. 

President Trump brags that unemployment will hit historic lows in early 2018, but as Trump himself pointed out during his run for president, we must look closely at how the U.S. calculates its jobless rate. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment fell to 5 percent in September 2015 and has moved steadily lower since, but there’s a very good reason why so many Americans are cynical about this number. If you earn less than $10 per hour and work two or three low-wage jobs to pay your bills, you are considered “employed,” even if you still can’t make your rent. If you’re a construction worker who went unpaid last week because bad weather shut down your work site, you are considered fully employed. If you have a temporary or part-time job, you count as employed during the weeks you work. 

Even if you have no benefits or a roof over your head, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ headline unemployment number treats you the same as a person earning $10 million a year. And if you’ve stopped looking for work after years of failed attempts to get a job, you’re not considered at all. No matter your age or how badly you need work, if you’re not actively looking for work, you don’t exist in this measure of the nation’s economic strength. 

One of the reasons for our economic decline is our loss of manufacturing jobs. According to a 2022 USA Today piece

​​The U.S. has lost more than 5 million manufacturing jobs within the past 25 years, hindering the financial mobility of workers without a college degree and taking a particularly heavy toll on workers of color, according to a new report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. At the same time, low-wage service jobs have soared.

Automation is widely seen as a significant factor in these job losses. To quote from a 2017 TechCrunch article titled Technology is killing jobs, and only technology can save them

 A much-cited Ball State University study suggests that automation has already proven a major driver of job loss this millennium. The paper notes that the decade between 2000 to 2010 marked the U.S.’s largest decline in manufacturing jobs in its history. [...] That study only chalks up 13 percent of job loss to trade during that period, with automation constituting a major portion of that remaining job loss. 

And job losses due to automation might soon enter a new phase: artificial intelligence seems capable of doing many jobs we previously thought only humans could do. 

A survey conducted by SSRS Omnibus in 2021 examined how little savings Americans have. A CNBC piece about that survey reported the following:

51% of Americans have less than three months’ worth of emergency savings [...] For 2021, 25% of survey respondents indicate having no emergency savings at all, up from 21% who said they didn’t have any in 2020. 

Among survey respondents, 51% feel comfortable, while 48% express feeling uncomfortable.

Many Americans are pessimistic about our economy. A 2021 Pew Research survey found that, to quote a CNBC article, “More than two-thirds (68%) of U.S. respondents said they think today’s children will be financially worse off as adults than their parents, up from 60% in 2019. Only 32% think children will be better off.”

Many people think healthcare costs are too high. A 2019 survey by HealthPocket found that “51% of those surveyed have avoided medical care due to lack of ability to pay.” It also found that “About four in ten of those surveyed have been unable to pay a medical bill at some point” and “nearly 30% currently have medical debt.”

In Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, he examines how the lack of affordable housing is hurting Americans. To quote from a 2016 review in The Guardian of Desmond’s book: 

The main condition holding them back, Desmond argues, is rent. The standard measure is that your rent should be no more than 30% of your income, but for poor people it can be 70% or more. [...]

Money from government programmes intended to help the poor—welfare, disability benefits, the earned-income tax credit—go straight into the landlord’s pocket and, ironically, fuel rising housing costs. Public housing and housing vouchers are scarce. Three in four who qualify for housing assistance get nothing. 

Even in the Great Depression, evictions used to be rare. Now, each year, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of renters are put out on the street. Even a paid-up tenant can be easily evicted. 

Homelessness has also been on the rise. According to a 2021 PBS article

The number of Americans living without homes, in shelters, or on the streets continues to rise at an alarming rate. [...] Estimates show that as many as half-a-million people are homeless in the U.S. on any given night.

Apart from economic anxiety, we’re more lonely. Surveys consistently show that all around the world, we’re lonelier than ever. And this loneliness exacerbates our money-related fears. The more alone we are, the more we know that financial adversity will hurt us, because we don’t have a strong social safety net. 

Despite our clear financial problems, and how understandable it is to have economic anxiety in this country, people in both political groups are capable of mocking the idea that people on the “other side” have genuine economic anxiety. 

For example, some conservatives have talking points like, “Why do liberals act like Americans are so poor and miserable? We have the highest living standard in history. Even poor families today have air conditioning and a microwave and all sorts of appliances.” 

And it’s true that even the poorest amongst us have high living standards compared to even wealthy people who lived 100 years ago. But this dismissal misses a rather basic point: Having a lot of modern conveniences is great, but that doesn’t do much to ease your worries if you have no savings and you’re afraid you’ll be broke if a couple bad things happen to you.   

Several studies have shown that economic anxiety was a significant predictor of early Trump support (and we’ll examine that a little later). Part of the appeal of the “America First” and “Make America Great Again” slogans is a focus on bolstering American economic power, and improving things for struggling Americans. 

And yet, despite the evidence that economic anxiety played a big role in Trump support, amongst liberals the prevalent narrative is that Trump support was largely about racism and xenophobia. Many pieces have been written that confidently declare that Trump support is mainly about resentment about white people losing status, or similar race-related framings. There are very little thought-pieces aimed at understanding Trump voters’ economic anxieties, or about, for example, the similarities one might find between Trump’s populist, anti-establishment appeal and Bernie Sanders’ populist, anti-establishment appeal. 

People in both political groups can have a tendency to downplay and mock economic anxiety when it’s present on the other side. But one thing we might all agree on is that many of us, no matter our politics, worry a lot about money, and about our future. 

Another factor that might be playing a role here is the digital media age. It’s easier than ever to see how other people are living. We see TV shows about rich people’s houses and ways of life; we see Instagram posts showing how rich, young influencers are living; we see our friends on Facebook and Instagram carefully documenting their life to make it look as nice and pleasant as possible. Meanwhile, many of us are broke and depressed, and scared about the future. 

How could all this revolutionary new visibility into others’ ways of life not affect us? We are social creatures who compare ourselves to others constantly. It makes sense that many of us would compare ourselves to the people around us and find our ways of life lacking. It makes sense that many people would ask, “Why do those people get those things and not me?”

It can help to see that our economic anxieties may be adding fuel to our us-vs-them emotions. We may be taking some of that anxiety and channeling into our frustration at the “other side.” Our bias against the “other side” may make us overly prone to blaming them for problems that are complex and entrenched and hard to know how to solve. 

And some of our us-versus-them anger on seemingly non-money-related issues might be indirect expressions of our economic anxieties and frustrations. 

If we care about healing our divides, we should avoid mocking people’s economic anxieties, or treating their anxieties as not genuine. 

Economic anxiety and Trump’s election

A common liberal-side narrative about Trump’s 2016 election goes something like this: While there was some amount of economic anxiety that helped him, Trump was elected largely due to the xenophobia and racism of Republicans. Many white conservatives felt anxious that white people’s power in society was waning, and felt threatened by an increased racial and ethnic diversity. 

This is the narrative seen in many liberal-leaning articles and books. For example, it’s the main narrative given to explain Trump support in Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized

But that narrative doesn’t reflect the true complexity and nuance, because multiple studies have shown that economic anxiety played a significant role in early support for Trump. And there is much evidence that race-related animosity played a much smaller role in Trump's election than is often portrayed.

In Erica Etelson’s book Beyond Contempt, she goes into detail about how support for Trump was about more than bigotry. Here are some pertinent excerpts from her book: 

In exit polls, most Trump voters [in 2016] named immigration and terrorism as their top issues, but a lot of them fingered the economy. Only 13 percent of Trump voters believe their children will achieve a better standard of living than they have. These were the people who voted for Obama but then came to believe that the Democratic Party was disconnected from the needs of working-class whites. An astonishing 57 percent of voters who blamed Wall Street, rather than Obama or George W. Bush, for the recession, voted for Republicans in 2010 House races. As liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne quipped, “When critics of Wall Street vote overwhelmingly for the Republicans, something is badly awry in the Democrats’ approach.” [...]

Like Younge and Arnade, investigative journalist Alexander Zaitchik suspected that something more complex than straight-up bigotry was fueling Trump’s success during the GOP primaries. His book, The Gilded Rage, portrays the complex and sometimes contradictory beliefs and motivations of Trump voters. “Human beings are complicated, says Zaitchik. “If you try to reduce them to something, in almost every case you’ll be proven wrong.” 

Zaitchik encountered bigotry, “but almost never was that at the top of people’s lists about why they supported Trump. I gave people plenty of time to reveal themselves, and they most wanted to talk about cratering economies, lost industries, elite condescension, and betrayal.” They were, Zaitchik concluded, far more resentful of “condescending elites” than of people of color. 

Many of the Trump supporters Zaitchik interviewed harbored progressive populist leanings and were sorely tempted to vote for Bernie Sanders but for the antisocialist fulminations of their favorite talk-radio red-baiters. Echoing Zaitchik, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich also found enormous support for Sanders among Rust Belt voters who, during the 2015 primaries, praised Trump and Sanders as the only candidates who would give the system a badly needed shakeup. 

Here’s an excerpt from a 2017 piece by Ben Casselman for

…the recent debate has missed an important distinction: Economic anxiety is not the same thing as economic hardship. And the evidence suggests that anxiety did play a key role in Trump’s victory, though it was by no means the only factor.

What’s the difference between hardship and anxiety? Hardship, as I’m using it here, refers to a person’s present-day economic struggles: poverty, joblessness, falling wages, foreclosure, bankruptcy. Anxiety is all about what lies ahead — concerns about saving for retirement or college, worry of a potential layoff, fears that your children’s prospects aren’t as bright as your own were.

Economic hardship doesn’t explain Trump’s support. In fact, quite the opposite: Clinton easily won most low-income areas. But anxiety is a different story. Trump, as FiveThirtyEight contributor Jed Kolko noted immediately after the election, won most counties—and improved on Romney’s performance—where a large share of jobs are vulnerable to outsourcing or automation. And while there is no standard measure of economic anxiety, a wide range of other plausible proxies shows the same pattern. According to my own analysis of voting data, for example, the slower a county’s job growth has been since 2007, the more it shifted toward Trump. (The same is true looking back to 2000.) And of course Trump performed especially strongly among voters without a college degree — an important indicator of social status but also of economic prospects, given the shrinking share of jobs (and especially well-paying jobs) available to workers without a bachelor’s degree.

The role of economic anxiety becomes even clearer in the data once you control for race. [...] Factoring in the strong opposition to Trump among most racial and ethnic minorities, Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties where residents had lower credit scores and in counties where more men have stopped working.

In Musa al Gharbi’s paper Race and the race for the White House, he wrote:

“Economic issues,” “social issues” and “party identification” remained far more reliable indicators of a vote for Trump than any of the “cultural anxiety” factors. In other words, the best bet for figuring out whether a white voter supported Trump would not be to look at their attitudes towards immigrants, blacks or Muslims, but instead to check their position on economic or social issues – or for that matter, just looking at which political party they identify with.

Some of the enthusiasm for Trump can be seen as similar to the enthusiasm people had for Bernie Sanders, another populist candidate who promised to shake up the system. For many Trump voters, even just disrupting the status quo, no matter what that disruption looked like,  was seen as a good thing, because they disliked the status quo so much. This overlap between Trump’s and Sanders’ appeal can be seen in the fact that about 12% of voters who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 or 2020 Democratic Party primary later voted for Trump.  

Economic anxiety amongst conservatives can help explain why Trump took some economic approaches that have typically been associated with liberals. Here’s an excerpt from a 2019 NPR piece titled Trump has stolen Democrats' playbook on trade:

At times, Trump's rhetoric on trade has sounded pretty much indistinguishable from that of the most liberal Democrats. And since taking office Trump has veered sharply away from traditional Republican policy on trade, through a series of tariffs and trade wars that have upended relations with the most important U.S. trading partners.

"It's like Donald Trump has co-opted Democratic trade policy," says Dan Ikenson, director of the trade policy center at the libertarian Cato Institute.

And economic anxiety is connected to feelings of despair and social isolation. 


Tim Carney is the author of the book Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. Carney makes the case that social isolation and lack of community also played a big role in Trump’s 2016 support. He draws on studies that show that early support for Trump was strongest in places where people felt isolated and hopeless, regardless of their income, while support for Trump was weakest in places that had strong communities, regardless of income. He argues that a key component of support for Donald Trump was a feeling that the American Dream was dead, that things had become worse, not just economically but socially. And a large part of that feeling of despair isn’t simply about money, but about community and social connections. To quote from Carney: 

But maybe the things we think accompany the American Dream are the things that really are the American Dream. What if the T-ball game, the standing-room-only high school Christmas concert, the parish potluck, and decorating the community hall for a wedding—what if those activities are not the dressings around the American Dream, but what if they are the American Dream? 

It’s possible that some amount of our polarization, not just in America, but across the world, may be due to modern life making us all more individualistic, and more isolated from each other. When we become depressed and agitated due to feeling isolated and lacking meaning, perhaps we tend to look for scapegoats for our suffering. And maybe that can help explain not only some conservative-side anger at the “establishment,” but some similar anti-establishment anger on the left. 

Capitalism and socialism

A common source of conflict is the debate over capitalism versus socialism. In this area, there are polarized people on both sides who contribute to our divides by taking a complex topic and promoting simplistic, good-versus-evil narratives. 

People on both sides can use extreme, hysterical language about capitalism and socialism. 

The United States, like most other modern countries, is what is called a mixed economy. We are neither entirely capitalistic (defined as a completely free market with no government interference) nor entirely socialistic (defined as the government or another group collectively controlling all aspects of the economy and production). We have elements of both. 

Some people on the left will say things like “capitalism is evil” and “capitalism exploits everyone,” while people on the right will say things like, “socialism is evil” and will speak as if liberals are actively working towards a fully socialist system. But it’s the rare American who believes in completely unfettered, no-regulation capitalism or in a fully socialist system where the government controls all aspects of the economy. Many Democrats appreciate capitalism; there are many influential Democrats who are business owners and leaders in the business community. Many Republicans support various types of socialism, like social security, public schools, public roads, and some amount of environmental regulations. 

What often is painted as a socialism-versus-capitalism debate is mainly a question of what we want to do with our taxes. It’s largely a disagreement on policy. 

As with any topic we’re polarized over, there are many people who spend their time battling a boogeyman that doesn’t exist, or that at least is not nearly as scary and dangerous as they imagine it to be.

For one thing, many people who criticize capitalism and praise socialism, and vice versa, are using the language in wrong ways. Here’s an excerpt from a Vox article titled Socialism” vs. “capitalism” is a false dichotomy by Will Wilkinson: 

In National Review, Kevin Williamson [who is politically conservative] offers a rather more measured and illuminating conservative perspective. He argues that the vogue of “socialism,” embodied in the rise of Ocasio-Cortez, and the intemperate right-wing reaction to it, is mostly semantic—a matter of “words about words,” as he puts it, freighted with polarized sentiment and little definite meaning.

“All this talk about socialism isn’t about socialism,” Williamson writes. “It’s about the status quo.” The idea that “capitalism” has failed us and that “socialism” is the answer relies on a cartoonish oversimplification of reality. Current economic arrangements in the US, and throughout the developed world, involve a complex mix of “capitalist” market institutions and “socialist” regulatory and redistributive institutions.

If our mixed system is failing many of us, it’s highly unlikely that the blame can be assigned exclusively to either its “capitalist” or “socialist” components, or to the fact that the system is mixed rather than purely one thing or the other. The real debate, as Williamson goes on to suggest, concerns the structure, balance, and integration of the elements that make up our political economy.

This gets lost when the debate is framed as a binary choice between “capitalism”—which the left blames for all contemporary ills—and “socialism.”

Polarization pressures us to see things in extremes: as feeling like we have to choose between one of two extreme things. And this pressure affects how we talk about things. 

It’s also just more fun and exciting to say things like, “Fuck capitalism,” or “Fuck socialism.” The excitement of using more extreme language can be a factor, especially for younger people. 

In a 2019 talk between Ryan Streeter and Richard Reeves, they discussed the false capitalism/socialism binary and what drives many people’s frustration with capitalism. This is an excerpt of their talk from the site

Why are we having a debate over whether capitalism works?

REEVES: A striking number of young Americans and young Democrats say they are more in favor of socialism than capitalism and that tells us a few things. One, they have no idea what socialism actually is. But two, there is a discontent with capitalism. The reason for that is the engine of the economy isn’t delivering for certain groups of people. At least, not like it used to, or as much as they think it should.

There is a general sense of sluggishness. That feeling is sharpened by the fact that the economy does seem to be delivering for those who are supported by the safety net or those who are rich in human capital and seem to be doing well. 

STREETER: I would agree with much of that and re-emphasize that, among young Americans particularly, we are seeing a collapse in confidence in capitalism more than we are seeing a resurgence in socialism. What people mean by socialism is inexact and probably has less to do with collectivism now than when this was initially surveyed, even after World War II.

This drop in capitalism can’t be disentangled at all from the after-effects of the Great Recession. For some people, their incomes have not grown at a satisfying pace. They don’t feel like they are able to get ahead in the way they understand their parents or grandparents did.

Second, geographic dynamics play a role. In some parts of the country, entire towns and regions have not experienced the kind of growth and prosperity that you’ve seen in more highly urban metro areas. There’s this awareness that people with high levels of income, high levels of education, access to culture-creating institutions, and connectivity to political power tend to be the people who are getting ahead while those of us who are hardworking in the heartland aren’t seeing that kind of gain. 

This second point can largely explain the collapse of confidence in capitalism that you are seeing on the American right. That is a relatively new thing.

Is this debate between capitalism and socialism a false choice? 

REEVES: Yes. People are just trying to find the language to express their unease, disappointment, and dissatisfaction. Socialism provides that, although I don’t take it seriously that people actually mean they want socialism. 

Even Bernie Sanders, the candidate most associated with the term “democratic socialist” and who is saying we should be more like Denmark, was publicly asked by Denmark’s prime minister to stop saying that. It was damaging their brand.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen at the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School in 2015, where he explained that Denmark is not a socialist country. The term “socialism” is meaningful in the sense of what it is trying to express, but it is a horrible framing of the debate. No one in this debate seriously thinks the government should be taking command of the modes of production. Sometimes labels become unhelpful. 

STREETER: I agree. The debate we are really having, but is overshadowed by the media’s attention on socialism versus capitalism, is about the institutions and structures of capitalism itself. That’s precisely why Denmark and the other Nordic countries don’t necessarily want to be called socialist. They view themselves as a hybrid between a highly-capitalist society and an economy that has very generous welfare systems. That’s not the same thing as socialism.

The debate we should be having is about what a free-market capitalist society looks like when it is struggling with certain inequities and injustices and trying to remedy those problems.

To sum this up: a lot of liberals’ professed anger at capitalism likely actually represents anger at our specific implementation of capitalism

If you’re someone who professes to dislike capitalism, consider that America’s current system represents just one of many iterations a mixed capitalist system can have. There are millions of things that can be done inside a mixed system that we’re not currently doing: enact higher taxes for the very wealthy, put more money towards more social services, fund more public works projects. Some European countries, which liberals often praise, have these types of strongly capitalistic systems that also have strong social safety nets.  

Some far left liberals I’ve talked to agree with this summation. In talks I’ve had with some self-described socialists, they’ve basically said, “Okay, yes, you’re right. We’re not simply angry at capitalism; it’s just that the less regulated forms of capitalism tend to lead to bad outcomes, and so we need to do more to work against the worst effects and decrease inequality.” 

If you’re someone who’s concerned about wealth inequality and things like CEOs and athletes and others making absurd amounts of money, perhaps the goal shouldn’t be on preventing those things from happening or directing anger at those people. Perhaps we can see it as a good thing that people are motivated to make a lot of money, if that money can be used to do good things. It’s possible to be very progressive and to see the engine of capitalism as something that can be used to achieve one’s progressive political goals. 

The binary ways some people on both sides use the terms capitalist and socialist can help explain liberals’ apparently increasingly positive views of socialism. The following is taken from a December 2021 Gallup survey summary

This year, 72% of Republicans and 52% of Democrats have a positive image of capitalism.

The two partisan groups' opinions of socialism diverge even more, with 14% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats saying they have a positive image of it. Democrats' opinions of socialism have gotten slightly more positive over the years, moving from 53% in 2010 and 2012 to over 60% in the past two surveys. Republicans have become slightly less positive toward socialism than they were in the initial surveys.

Since 2018, Democrats have rated socialism more positively than they have rated capitalism. Before that, they held similar views of the two economic systems.

Part of being willing to endorse socialism in a survey may simply be expressing some economic anxiety and dissatisfaction with the current state of things in America.

And as Ryan Streeter said in a previous quote, another factor here is likely that, as we move farther away in time from historical events that showed the downsides and dangers of fully socialist regimes, Americans will understandably have fewer negative associations with the word. 

Less obviously, it’s possible our us-versus-them polarization plays a role in this. It’s likely that some pro-socialist sentiments are a response to perceiving that being pro-capitalism is a conservative position. When we are polarized, there’s often a pressure to think, “if the bad guys think x, then I should think the opposite of x.” And the same for conservatives: some “socialism is evil”-type views are likely just based on their animosity towards liberals. 

When conservatives hear that liberals are increasingly enthusiastic about socialism, they won’t see all the nuance here. Some conservatives will think that liberals literally want to implement a fully socialist system, where the government controls almost all aspects of the economy. 

And if you’re liberal, hopefully you can understand why this can be seen as worrisome and scary. It lends itself to the narrative that liberals want to implement oppressive socialist systems like the ones in failed states like the Soviet Union and Venezuela. It brings to mind the brutal communist regimes in Mao-ist China, Stalin-ist Russia, Pol Pot-era Cambodia, and other places, where millions of people have been killed, some of them starved due to inefficient, overbearing governmental control of the economy. The pro-socialism rhetoric feeds into the narrative of liberals being Marxist extremists who want to tear down society and traditions (and we can see how that overlaps with conservative-side fears of the more extreme anti-racism and anti-police rhetoric).

Again, no matter if you think these fears are outlandish and overblown, it’s possible to see how they can be amplified by liberals who speak positively of socialism and negatively of capitalism, and from survey results like the one we examined. It’s possible to see what scares good and rational people about pro-socialist views and rhetoric. 

If our goal is reducing us-versus-them anger, we should see it as important to talk in nuanced ways on these issues. We need more liberals to defend the positive aspects of capitalism, and more liberals pointing out that a society can accomplish a lot of progressive goals within a capitalist system, just as many European countries have done. We need more conservatives pointing out that America is, and should be, a mixed economy: one that’s strongly capitalistic but also has some good and necessary socialistic elements. 

In a less polarized, more rational America, neither of those words would have as much power to scare us and agitate us as they do. 

We can have conflicting feelings about the government and taxes

Liberals often have distorted views about conservatives’ economic views. Conservatives’ desire for a small government, and the desire to reduce taxes, and the desire to minimize welfare programs, are stances often viewed by liberals as indicators of conservatives’s lack of compassion, their heartlessness, even of their racism. But there are many reasonable things to debate about how an economy should run and what a government’s role should be. 

And often, even many liberals share concerns about our government being too large. In Asymmetric Politics, by David Hopkins and Matt Grossman, one of the main ideas they focus on is that many Americans hold two beliefs at the same time: 

  • A belief that the government should provide them the programs and services they want (for example, social security, or public school, or healthcare help), AND

  • A belief that it’s good to keep the government from getting too big, for various reasons (for example, because most people don’t want high taxes, and because large governments can act in oppressive ways; even liberals who make the case for bigger government would presumably have concerns about that government if it was controlled by conservatives). 

In other words: we all have a Democrat and a Republican inside of us, at least when it comes to our ideas of what the government should do with our money. And these two internal beliefs can be in conflict. Depending on how things are going for a person individually or how things are going for the country, people can be more concerned about one or the other concern at any given moment. 

The shifting nature of these basic concerns allows both political parties to adjust their messaging to stay competitive. The parties are able to stay so competitive with each other by adjusting their positions a bit to cater to what matters at any given time to the public. 

For example, when taxes are widely perceived as being too high and government spending is widely perceived as being too wasteful, even Democrat leaders will feel a pressure to adjust their messaging to be more in line with the public’s views. This helps explain why Bill Clinton and Democrats shifted to a smaller government, lower taxes approach. (Clinton’s well known quote from that era was, “The era of big government is over.”) And when that happens, Republicans then have to compete in other areas; for example, by putting more emphasis on cultural issues. 

All this is to say: if our goal is reducing our collective anger, it can help to try to see how we ourselves can have conflicting beliefs about the role of the government and of taxes. And if we’re able to see that, even a little, it can help us better understand the other side. 

Concerns about the “welfare state”

Let’s look at a common conservative viewpoint: the more welfare services you provide to a population, the more people are likely to take advantage of those programs, and the more you’ll have to pay over time. Conservatives think that it’s better to foster a sense of personal responsibility in people. They want the same “invisible hand” that governs a free economic market to govern people’s decisions and behaviors. 

It’s possible to disagree with this view and debate it in various ways, but it’s easy to see why conservatives believe it and why it concerns them. Regardless of the debates possible in this area, it’s possible to see why it is that someone would agree with the sentiment, “The more you give to people, the more they take.” It’s understandable why someone would be worried that a country with too much welfare would create excessive dependence on the government amongst its citizens, and end up severely harming itself. 

It’s hard to understand what exactly is happening with welfare, because the factors involved can be so complex. To name a few factors that make it hard to talk about: 

  • It can be hard to compare trends because the population grows over time. 

  • There are different types of welfare programs, and those programs change over time. 

  • Who exactly should be counted as “being on welfare”? Should that include specific people, or should it include entire families? 

All those caveats being said, it seems clear that welfare recipients have gone up substantially over time. In 2015, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said, “The government programs have thrown money at poverty since the mid-’60s, $19 trillion. And we have 10 times more people on welfare, more people in poverty, more broken homes, more crimes.”

A Washington Post piece fact-checked Carson’s claim. They acknowledged the difficulty of making clear, simple statements about welfare, but concluded that the numbers indicated “at most a four times increase in participation in means-tested programs since they became fully established. But the U.S. population has grown about 50 percent since 1972, so that has to be taken into account.” In other words, this would mean, taking into account population growth, the percentage of people on means-tested welfare programs since 1972 has roughly doubled. Clearly we can argue over what exactly is happening there and what it means, but we can see how such statistics can help explain people’s concerns about welfare costs. 

There’s also a view that the amount of money spent on welfare is massively undercounted. The conservative organization The Heritage Foundation makes this case in a 2021 piece on their site: 

Conventional reports on government spending, economic resources, and poverty are both incomplete and inaccurate. For example, each year, the Census Bureau releases an official poverty report. That report begins by ignoring all taxpayer spending on education and medical care for the poor. It also excludes nearly all government welfare programs such as food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Section 8 housing vouchers, and public housing. In 2018, out of the $378 billion that taxpayers spent on cash, food, housing, and medical benefits for poor and lower-income families, only $34.3 billion (9 percent) appeared in the Census report on official poverty. Even private earnings were substantially underreported.

Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, the U.S. has spent $34 trillion on means-tested welfare, but the Census has counted only $2.6 trillion of this $34 trillion for purposes of measuring poverty and income. From the perspective of the Census, the missing $31.4 trillion is simply “off the books.” As far as government poverty statistics go, the War on Poverty never actually happened. Because the official Census poverty report is the basis of most public discourse about poverty in the United States, it should therefore be no surprise that the extensive taxpayer support system for poor families remains largely invisible and unknown.

Massive underreporting of government support leads to the widespread misperception that the U.S. has a meager welfare state. 

Clearly, all these claims can be debated. Both political groups are capable of telling their stories about the state of America’s welfare system and its effectiveness. But I include these views because they help us better understand conservative frustrations, and I think many liberals don’t have a good sense of those frustrations. 

And it’s not only political conservatives who can have concerns about welfare. In a 2016 article at, the authors wrote: 

By 1989, 64 percent of Americans felt that “welfare benefits make poor people dependent and encourage them to stay poor,” shoring up the political support for reform. When President Bill Clinton declared an end to “welfare as we know it” in 1996, time limits, work requirements, and strict sanctions for noncompliance were presented as acts of repudiation against that system.

Besides being often portrayed as evidence of meanness and lack of compassion, sometimes conservatives’ views on welfare are framed as racist, as if conservative anti-welfare stances are largely based on wanting to keep racial minorities from receiving welfare. But there’s nothing inherently racist about wanting a small government and low amounts of welfare. All it requires is believing that excessive welfare, amongst other costs, will hurt the country. And clearly, there are many white people on welfare (something like 40% of welfare recipients in the U.S. are white). 

It’s also possible to understand the conservative view that high levels of welfare can hurt communities in how they sap people’s motivation to find work and take care of themselves, and may hurt family structures by reducing the natural pressure there can be for a couple to work together to save money and raise a child and such. These types of views help explain why some people are able to see conservative principles as being the best way to help lower-income communities, including lower-income black communities.  

In John McWhorter’s book Woke Racism, he talked about his views that welfare has hurt black communities: 

In the late sixties white leftists [the National Welfare Rights Organization] encouraged poor black women to sign up for welfare payments they hadn’t previously thought they needed, the leftists hoping that this would cause the collapse of the economy and force a restart. In the wake of this, subsequent generations of poor black people came to think of it as a normal choice to not work for a living. Not that this was the choice most people made in poor black communities—but only after this hard-leftist drive to make as many black people sign up for welfare as possible did it become one of many norms in poor black communities to not work nine to five, whether you were a man or a woman. Even poor black people before 1966 would have seen the norm afterward as bizarre.

Whew! Yes, I know that sounds like I am making it up, but it is a simple fact, and I must refer you to sources like my Winning the Race for presentation of the details. 

Again, you don’t have to agree with these views to see why it is that some people can come to see a generous welfare system as a harmful thing.

Part of what drives objections to the “welfare state” is a belief that it leads to increasingly irresponsible citizens. The concern about irresponsible, careless citizens can be seen on the left and the right, in different forms. The movie Idiocracy, written by Mike Judge, is a dark comedy that envisions a future America where everyone is stupid. Things got that way because the dumbest and least responsible people kept having children without thinking much about that decision, while the smarter, more responsible people were having few to no children. 

One interesting thing about the movie, Mike Judge said, was that “conservatives thought we were making fun of liberals, and liberals thought we were making fun of conservatives.” Liberals filtered the movie through a lens where the dumb people in the movie were poor, redneck Trump voters. Conservatives were more likely to see the movie as referencing how generous welfare policies and our too-easy modern lives had made everyone dumber and less responsible. People on both sides can have similar concerns about irresponsible people and how our modern landscape has made it easier for irresponsible people to thrive, but those concerns can be embedded in different narratives. 

Two tweets that show how people can filter the same content for their preferred interpretations. 

Our simplistic us-versus-them framings of these issues can conceal a lot of shared concerns. To take another example: it’s possible to be concerned about the environment and climate change and, for that reason, to be supportive of a low-welfare system. It’s possible to believe that the easier we make life and the more we distance ourselves from the hardships of life, the more our population will grow and the more irresponsible we’ll become, and the more we’ll end up hurting the environment. In such a framing, the hardships of life play a valuable role in forcing us to be more responsible, not just for ourselves but for the world around us. 

It’s possible to examine our debates from many angles, in ways that don’t line up with our usual us-versus-them framings. And doing that can help us see the humanity and rationality of people on “the other side.”

Concerns about the deficit 

Conservatives’ concerns about the deficit are sometimes framed as exaggerated and unreasonable, but it’s not just conservatives who see that as a major problem. In Bob Woodward’s 2012 book The Price of Politics, he wrote about how Barack Obama believed that our deficit was a big problem: 

“You convinced me long ago that we’re on an unsustainable course,” Obama said [to Peter Orszag, Director of the Office of Management and Budget].

The reasons to rein in the deficit were abundant and obvious. The public debt was now approaching $12 trillion, about 85 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the sum of all goods and services in the American economy. Just paying the interest on the debt cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars per year. [...]

“I believe so strongly in what you’re saying,” the president said, “I’d be willing to be a one-term president over this.”

It was a stark private declaration that Orszag had heard from the president before. 

I include this to show that the American deficit is a bipartisan concern: the deficit should worry people across the political spectrum. This points to the need to take such fiscal concerns seriously, and not treat them as unreasonable and misguided. 

One of the major reasons polarization is so harmful is that it prevents us from coming together and fixing serious problems that threaten the future stability of our country, and that includes our deficit.

In recent years, there have been large increases in the national deficit, under both Republican and Democrat presidents. This isn’t that surprising. Under Obama, we had the 2008 recession, and so Obama and Congress were pressured to spend a lot of money. With things being as bad as they were, it seems likely that a Republican president would have done something quite similar to ward off a recession. 

During Trump’s administration, we had Covid, which seemed to require another large influx of money to solve. Again, a president from either party would have likely spent some large amount of money on that. 

As I write this section, in late 2022, during Biden’s administration, we’ve had high inflation and supply chain problems, and high gas prices. But Biden’s presidency started just as the U.S. and the world were exiting covid lockdowns and starting to return to normal. Also, the Russia-Ukraine situation has added chaos and turbulence to the oil market and other markets. 

You can find liberals and conservatives fighting over how fiscally responsible or irresponsible all these presidents and their administrations have been. But clearly all of them have faced tremendously serious and complex challenges. Clearly, there’s only so much a president, or anyone with power, can do. A mostly free capitalistic market has a life of its own. It can’t be placed under exact control: it will have ebbs and flows that no one can predict. It’s influenced by the outside world. Our desire to assign blame or credit to political leaders for these tremendously complex systems is part of our polarization problem. 

These matters are so hugely complex that I would have to study them for years before I felt like I knew enough to have an opinion on them. Did Obama help the U.S. or hurt it with the large bailouts he approved of the banking industry and other industries? I have no idea. It’s possible even he doesn’t have a firm opinion. Is Biden making mistakes with regards to his approaches to solving our economic problems? I have no idea. And it’s likely even he and his advisors don’t have a strong opinion. And yet so many of us have confident team-based opinions where we blame the other team when things seem to be going badly and give credit to our team when things seem to be going well. 

I think many of us are aware that many people are too team-based in their thinking. So if our goal is reducing anger, we need more people to push back on bad and simplistic thinking on their own side. For example, this would mean, if you’re a Trump voter, and you see a conservative blaming Biden for all things economy-related, maybe point out that the economy is complex and hard to predict or control, and ask them if Trump was president, would they be interpreting the same facts through a different filter? Or, with regards to people blaming Democrats for our deficit, it would mean pointing out that both Trump and George W. Bush added a lot to our debt, so this problem isn’t only a Democratic one. 

Or if you’re a Biden voter, and the economy hits a big upturn, it might mean correcting fellow Democrats who seek to credit Biden and Democrats for that, and point to how complex these things are. It would mean, for example, pointing out how, because we can see it’s illogical when conservatives credit Trump for a strong economy, it’s helpful to foster the view that our mostly free and international economy is largely outside the direct control of our leaders. 

Liberal perceptions of conservatives voting against their self interest

Some liberals will say that poor conservatives are “voting against their own interests” in wanting fewer programs for the poor. 

But from a different angle, it’s possible to see this as less wealthy conservatives sticking to their principles, even if it means less government aid for them. It’s possible to view that as a noble and disciplined stance. Liberals would be likely to praise a millionaire Democrat who supports higher taxes for wealthy people because they’d see that millionaire as doing something for the greater good, even if it might hurt them on a personal level. It’s possible to view this through a similar lens. 

These kinds of criticisms of conservatives can be seen as an example of interpreting the other side’s motivations in the most pessimistic way possible. Also, from a purely practical perspective, speaking as if the poorer members of the other political group are self-harming idiots likely won’t prove politically persuasive.

Conservative fears of socialism

For conservatives who want to reduce toxic polarization, they’ll need to push back more when fellow conservatives promote exaggerated fears of socialism. They’ll need to point out that many conservatives support all sorts of socialism—like social security, public school, public roads, unemployment insurance, subsidized medical prescriptions, and farm subsidies of various sorts. 

We need more conservatives to see that capitalism isn’t going away, and that it’s here to stay, despite what surveys seem to show about liberals’ appreciation for the word “socialism.” 

Our fight is not about pure capitalism versus pure socialism, but is largely a debate about making relatively small shifts in where our money goes and what programs it goes to. For example, a Democrat proposal to add funding to a program, which may represent a minuscule increase to taxes, might be called by a Republican a step towards socialism. The words we use matter.

For conservatives concerned about excessive taxes, it can be helpful to remember that there’s a natural push-and-pull that tends to keep our taxes in check. Almost no one wants high taxes. Even amongst liberals, most who want higher taxes mainly want taxes raised for the most wealthy people and corporations. 

To quote from a 2011 article on “Periods of very low tax rates have been followed by periods with very high tax rates, and vice versa.” That natural push-and-pull is what led to Bill Clinton and the Democrats taking a smaller-government, lower-tax approach in the 1990s. 

It’s important to avoid exaggerating how burdensome our taxes are, and to see them as relatively low, considering what they’ve been in the past, and when compared to many other countries. To quote from that same Business Insider piece: 

Today's income tax rates are strikingly low relative to the rates of the past century, especially for rich people. For most of the century, including some boom times, top-bracket income tax rates were much higher than they are today.

Our overlapping and shifting beliefs

Because most of us dislike high taxes, and because most of us at the same time want the government programs that we like to continue, we’re all capable of having a mix of conflicting and shifting beliefs when it comes to what we think the government should do with our money. 

I know a conservative who said she would’ve voted for Trump in 2020 except she’d recently given birth to a child with serious medical problems. Her perspectives on the importance of government healthcare programs shifted, and she ended up voting for Biden. 

A lifelong socialist might start their own business and, due to paying a lot in taxes, and dealing with arcane, confusing business rules, and dealing with the struggles that come with having employees, might become more sympathetic to conservative-side economic views. 

The more we can see the rational and nuanced perspectives it’s possible for our fellow citizens to have on these things, the more we’ll lower our anger, and the more likely we’ll be to reach more practical solutions to our problems. 

This has been an excerpt from Defusing American Anger.

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