The widening gulf between the rich and everyone else is a growing source of tension in America.
A new survey from the Pew Research Center finds the income gap is now seen as a bigger source of conflict in the U.S. than race, age or national origin. That’s why some believe the issue could matter in the presidential campaign, and others worry it could warp the national debate.
Two out of three Americans now perceive strong social conflicts over the income gap — up sharply from two years ago. Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center has an idea what’s behind the increase.
“The Occupy Wall Street movement kind of crystallized the issue: 1 versus 99. [It’s] arguably the most successful slogan since ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’ going back to the Vietnam era,” he says. “[It] certainly triggered a lot of coverage about economic inequality.”
Over the last three decades, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans more than doubled their share of national income, while the bottom 80 percent saw their share shrink. Taylor says majorities of Democrats, independents and even Republicans now see the income gap as a cause of friction.
“There’s no question that there is rising inequality in this country, and I think those perceptions are part of the national agenda in a way that they weren’t,” he says. “And certainly they are in times like this, where we’ve had this very, very difficult economy and a lot of people are struggling.”
The ‘Politics Of Envy’
The rise of the issue has not been welcomed by Mitt Romney, the front-running Republican presidential candidate. Romney, who made millions as a private equity investor, has accused President Obama and others of engaging in what he calls “the bitter politics of envy.”
“I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like, but the president has made this part of his campaign rally,” Romney says. “We hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It’s a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach. And I think it will fail.”
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty ImagesRepublican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney addresses a primary night victory rally in New Hampshire on Tuesday. Romney has accused President Obama of engaging in the “politics of envy” by focusing on income inequality.
Romney was challenged by Today Show host Matt Lauer, who asked if envy is the only reason someone might question the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth. Lauer asked if it was instead about fairness.
“I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare,” Romney responded. “I think when you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the idea of 99 percent versus 1 percent, and those people who’ve been most successful will be in the 1 percent, you’ve opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of ‘one nation under God.'”
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