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  • Writer's pictureOren Levin-Waldman

The Blue State/Red State Divide on the Meaning of Equality

Although inequality is viewed as a national problem for which many advocate redistribution as a response, it is not much of a problem in all parts of the country. We have already noted that there is less wage inequality in red states than in blue states, and that red state economies differ from blue state economies. Because there are still opportunities for those with no more than a high school diploma to live middle class lives, there is less of a gap between the top and the bottom.

These economic differences are ultimately what drive much of the polarization in current political discourse. Because there is less inequality in red states, many of the solutions coming from blue state politicians don’t have quite the same resonance in red states. As much as this conclusion can be inferred from U.S. census data that illustrate economic transformations, we also have hard data that bears this out.

Data from the American National Election Survey (ANES) for 2020 shows that there are clearly differences between blue states and red states on inequality. The ANES goes back to 1948 and is compiled by the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan. This survey has both a pre-election survey and a post-election survey.

In the 2020 post-election survey, when asked whether they favored or opposed government trying to reduce inequality, of those who were in favor 72.7 percent were in blue states compared to 27.3 percent in red states. Of those who opposed, 76.9 percent were in red states compared to 23.1 percent in blue states. When asked how strongly they either favored or opposed, of those who favored a great deal, 66.7 percent were in blue states compared to 33.3 percent in red states. And of those who opposed a great deal, 66.7 percent were in red states compared to 33.3 percent in blue states.

Inequality may have some bearing in the question of whether society has a responsibility to ensure equality of opportunity, depending on what one believes the solution ought to be. When asked whether society should ensure that everyone has equal opportunity, of those who strongly agreed with this statement, there was an equal split between blue and red states. Of those who agreed somewhat, 70 percent were in red states and 30 percent were in blue states. Of those who neither agreed nor disagreed, 69.2 percent were in blue states and 30.8 percent were in red states. Of those who disagreed somewhat, 91.7 percent were in blue states and 8.3 percent were in red states. But of those who disagreed strongly, 60 percent were in red states compared to 40 percent in blue states.

Conservatives have traditionally believed that more emphasis should be placed on equality of opportunity, with steps being taken to remove obstacles to achieving equality of opportunity. Liberals, however, especially in recent years have believed more emphasis should be placed on equality of outcome. Progressives these days often dismiss equality of opportunity as a rationalization of the existing status quo. Some even go so far as to view it as racist on the grounds that those who oppose equality of outcomes use the language of opportunity in a society where none exists, especially for minorities.

Is being opposed to government reducing inequality contrary to society having a responsibility to ensure equal opportunity? For those in red states if steps to reduce inequality involves redistribution, they may see them as steps that actually hinder equality of opportunity. Blue states, however, may simply believe that reducing inequality, especially if it involves more taxation on the wealthy and redistribution is more important than achieving equal opportunity. On the contrary, redistribution for reducing inequality is more consistent with equality of outcomes.

Interestingly enough, when asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “We’d be better off if worried less about inequality, red states and blue states were even among those who strongly agreed. Of those who agreed somewhat, 57.1 percent were in blue states compared to 42.9 percent in red states. Of those who neither agreed nor disagreed, 64.3 percent were in blue states and 35.7 percent were in red states. Of those who disagreed somewhat and who disagreed strongly, 61.5 percent were in blue states and 38.5 percent were in red states.

What, then, does all of this tell us? For one thing, perhaps there is a greater commitment to equality of opportunity in red states because there may be more opportunity and given that red state residents cannot see any reason for policies that might undermine it. If the only opportunities that exist in blue states are for those who are highly educated and skilled, there may be a sense of resignation that policies that promote equity are more suited for them.

Although it has become convenient to divide the country into two along these blue state/red state lines, it would be nice if politicians at the national level thought of the country as one body politic. What, then, would that mean? Well, promoting policies that create opportunities for everybody to get ahead. Prior to the progressives, liberal policy used to be predicated on leveling the playing field in an effort to promote equality of opportunity. This meant investing in human capital so that through education and training programs workers would be able to have the necessary skills to command higher wages. But it also meant promoting higher wages by supporting labor market institutions designed to prop up wages.

In our current politics of polarization, neither Democrats nor Republicans really support higher wages. Republicans merely seek to cut any programs that might have the effect of driving up wages. Democrats, however, push for open borders which will exert downward pressure on wages at the bottom, while pushing for student loan forgiveness which will primarily benefit those at the top. Once student loans are forgiven, they will be forgiven repeatedly many times in the future. Now the same colleges will raise their costs, and lower their standards to get more students who will continue to borrow more. And yet, this could result in lower wages at the top.

From the Democrats’ perspective, it isn’t a problem if more inequality results because the easy solution is to raise more taxes on the wealthy and redistribute to those at the bottom. In other words, blue states are out of touch with red states because the economies each inhabit are so different that neither can see the others’ perspective as being valid.

At the same time, it might behoove blue state politicians to reaffirm a commitment to equality of opportunity. It is a core American value, and is at the heart of what equality means to most people. Arguably, commitment to this principle might be at the root of what it means to talk about American patriotism. We often mistake patriotism for support of our armed forces and military spending. But when red states talk about patriotism, they are talking about fidelity to core American principles. Again, another divide rooted in a tale of two different economies.

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