Why Aren’t More Americans Fired Up About Inequality?

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With news of record corporate profits and increased bonuses for those at the top of the financial heap — and on-going income stagnation, job loss, and rising poverty for those in the middle and bottom of the ladder—it’s maddening for progressives to hear our political elites continuing to promote austerity as a means for growth.

Just a year and half ago, Occupy Wall Street was all anyone could talk about.  President Obama won a historic second term running on these themes and announced a new era of liberal governance in his recent Inaugural address.  Yet, even with strong evidence out of Europe that austerity is failing, and public opinion polls in the U.S. showing clear opposition to rising inequality, the political class in Washington is collectively trying to convince itself that America can cut its way to prosperity and economic opportunity for the middle class.

What happened?  And why aren’t we seeing more social protests against an economic and political order that sanctions these outcomes?

There are many culprits in this development, chief of which is the intersection of libertarian economic theory with control of one political party that has strong minority voting power in our constitutional system.  The long term decline of the labor movement and the corporate ownership of media provide additional institutional explanations for why there is not more pushback.

But a more painful explanation might be closer to home.

John Jost, a professor of psychology and political science at NYU, and various colleagues over the years have developed a theory called “system justification” that shows how people are “motivated to defend, bolster, and rationalize the social systems that affect them — to see the status quo as good, fair, legitimate, and desirable,” because it serves their own internal needs and desires as humans.   It helps them “manage uncertainty and threat and smooth out social relationships,” and “enables people to cope with and feel better about the societal status quo and their place in it,” as the authors write.

People do not always defend an unjust status quo and system justification varies across groups and situations.  Similarly, system justification may be motivated by different reasons for those who are relatively advantaged or disadvantaged within society.  But for most of us, it appears that there’s a powerful need in our own lives to reduce difficult feelings and anxieties when confronting the limitations of our social and economic order.  As Jost and his co-authors note:

In several studies we find that giving people the opportunity to justify the system does indeed lead them to feel better and more satisfied and to report feeling more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions (e.g., Jost et al., 2008; Wakslak et al., 2007). Furthermore, chronically high system-justifiers, such as political conservatives, are happier (as measured in terms of subjective well-being) than are chronically low system-justifiers, such as liberals, leftists, and others who are more troubled by the degree of social and economic inequality in our society (Napier & Jost, 2008a).

The hedonic benefits of system justification, however, come with a cost in terms of decreased potential for social change and the remediation on of inequality. Wakslak and colleagues (2007) demonstrated that system-justifying ideologies, whether measured or manipulated through a mindset-priming technique, do indeed serve to reduce emotional distress — including negative affect in general and guilt in particular — but they also reduce “moral outrage.” This last consequence is particularly important, because moral outrage motivates people to engage in helping behavior and to support social change (Carlson & Miller, 1987; Montada & Schneider, 1989). Thus, the reduction in moral outrage made people less inclined to help those who are disadvantaged, measured in terms of research participants’ degree of support for and willingness to volunteer for or donate to a soup kitchen, a crisis hotline, and tutoring or job training programs for the underprivileged (see also Jost et al., 2008).

So people are somewhat conditioned to want to reduce their own stresses and anxieties and make sense of their position in life which in turn reduces their desire for social change.

The key for progressives is to figure out how to turn real concerns about inequality into sustained “moral outrage” that can force our economic and political system to do something to create more equitable conditions.   This is where institutions, political education, and social movements come in which we’ll examine in future posts.

But based on this research, the powerful pull of system justification is something we must seriously consider and overcome if we want to successfully deal with inequality.