Elections in America: It is also about rising equality

By Nora Lustig[1]

In a recent Washington Post article, President Obama was quoted saying «When we see people, global elites, wealthy corporations seemingly living by a different set of rules, avoiding taxes, manipulating loopholes … this feeds a profound sense of injustice.»[2]

So, why did so many of the victims of such injustice vote for one of the members of this global elite who lives by different rules such as Trump?  Could it be that what aggravates the majority of Trump voters is not that the top 1 percent in the US has been able to reap most of the economic gains in the past decades but, paradoxically, a rise in equality?[3] More equality in three dimensions may be feeding a greater sense of unfairness, indignation, and impotence than the increase in income and wealth inequality: the rise of an African-American elite, the empowerment of women, and the legitimation of the gay community’s right to be treated as equals by the law. This is my hypothesis.[4]

First, some facts:

  • In the years from 2005-2013, “the income bracket with the largest increase for Black households occurred in the number of households earning over $200,000, with an increase of 138 percent, compared to an increase of 74 percent for the total population.”[5] Of course, inequality among blacks is extreme. A Pew Research Study shows that 35 percent of black households have negative or no net worth.  However, at the same time, the number of estimated black millionaires went from 25 in the 1960s to 35,000 today. The African-American elite not only has many more millionaires, it also produced a two-term president.[6]
  • Women now make up almost half of American workers (49.9% in October). They run some of the world’s best companies, such as PepsiCo, Archer Daniels Midland and W.L. Gore. They earn almost 60% of university degrees in America. Women make up the majority of professional workers.[7]

These three phenomena reflect a decline in what social scientists call horizontal inequality: systematic disadvantages across gender, racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation lines. The dawn of the XXIst century showed that blacks can be increasingly elite, women increasingly powerful, and the gay community increasingly socially acceptable and accepted.

There are signs that rising horizontal equality is feeding unhappiness and despair in those left behind by economic transformation, and in those who see their identity and core values unbearably threatened by uncontrollable shifts in mores and norms.[9]  Here are two startling examples. The discovery that the rise in mortality of high school and below educated white middle-aged men and women between 1999 and 2013 was driven by drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, chronic liver diseases, and cirrhosis.[10] The finding that poor black and latinos optimism is juxtaposed against poor white desperation.  Poor blacks were found to be three times more likely of being in a higher level of optimism than poor whites.[11]

There is also evidence that people who felt threatened by rising horizontal equality were more likely to vote Republican and, especially, for Trump.

  • Supporters of Trump were found more likely to describe African Americans as «criminal,» «unintelligent,» «lazy» and «violent» than voters who backed some Republican rivals in the primaries or who supported Democratic contender Hillary Clinton.[12]
  • The more hostile voters were toward women, the more likely they were to support Trump.[13]
  • Two thirds of Republicans are said to oppose same-sex marriage. But also one-third of Democrats do. [14] Trump is a consistent opponent of marriage equality.[15]

Just a thought.  If proven true, those of us who think that rising horizontal equality is desirable must find ways to make further progress, if not embraced, at least tolerated by those who feel and think that this kind of progress must be stopped, or—worse—reversed.  If I had to choose one policy, it would be this: make college affordable to all.  In poll after poll, in study after study, the more educated people are, the more they embrace horizontal equality in the US.



[1]Samuel Z. Stone Professor of Latin American Economics and Director of the Commitment to Equity Institute, Tulane University.

[2] Washington Post, November 16, 2016.

[3] The disproportional reaping by the top 1% in the United States has been eloquently described by University of California, Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez in “Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States,” June 30, 2016. Saez finds that, for example, “Bottom 99% incomes grew by 3.9% from 2014 to 2015, the best annual growth rate since 1999. Top 1% incomes grew even faster by 7.7% from 2014 to 2015.”

[4]Tyler Cowen, the author of the blog “Marginal Revolution,” expressed a similar conjecture in reference to attitudes towards women. http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2016/05/what-in-the-hell-is-going-on.html

[5] “Increasingly Affluent, Educated and Diverse,” Nielsen, 2015.

[6] http://www.ethnifacts.com/african-american-consumer-untold-story-sept-2015.pdf

[7] http://www.economist.com/node/15174418

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Same-sex_marriage_in_the_United_States

[9] One-third of Americans feel that there is a lot of conflict between their religious beliefs and homosexuality. In this group, opposition to same-sex marriage outweighs support by more than two-to-one. http://www.people-press.org/2015/06/08/support-for-same-sex-marriage-at-record-high-but-key-segments-remain-opposed/

[10] Case, Anne and Angus Deaton (2015). “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 112 (49); 15078-83.

[11] Graham, Carol. Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream (Princeton University Press, forthcoming). https://www.brookings.edu/research/unhappiness-in-america-desperation-in-white-towns-resilience-and-diversity-in-the-cities/

[12] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-race-idUSKCN0ZE2SW

[13] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/23/how-sexism-drives-support-for-donald-trump/

[14] http://www.people-press.org/2015/06/08/support-for-same-sex-marriage-at-record-high-but-key-segments-remain-opposed/

[15] http://www.hrc.org/2016RepublicanFacts/donald-trump-opposes-nationwide-marriage-equality