The Social Roots of Self-Interest: The Desire for Social Status and Economic Conservatism Among Affluent Americans (Revise and Resubmit at American Political Science Review) [Awarded Best Paper on Class and Inequality by the American Political Science Association in 2019]
Affluent Americans have disproportionate influence over policymaking, and often use their power to advance conservative economic policies that increase inequality. I show that this behavior is partially driven by affluent Americans’ desire for social status. First, I use a new survey scale to show that affluent Americans’ desire for social status strongly predicts their level of economic conservatism. Second, I test my theory experimentally in the context of social media. On sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, affluent Americans compete for social status by sharing curated versions of their lives that highlight their upper-class lifestyle. When I randomly assign affluent Americans to experience this status competition, it causes them to become more economically conservative. The results show that the desire for social status leads affluent Americans to use their political power in self-interested ways, and provide the first evidence that social media encourages political behaviors that are conducive to inequality. [You can read this working paper here.]
The Influence of Economic Segregation on Political Elites’ Perception of Social Problems
Politicians frequently disregard the interests of low-income Americans when making policy decisions. I argue that this tendency is partially caused by politicians’ isolation among the rich. I test this theory with experiments embedded in an original survey of 1,224 state legislative candidates from 44 states. In a first experiment, I show that politicians extrapolate from their privileged social networks to form perceptions of broader social conditions, causing them to underestimate how many of those they seek to govern are struggling financially. In a second experiment, I correct politicians’ misperceptions, and find that this causes an increase in their support for social welfare programs that provide struggling families with financial assistance and healthcare. The results are driven by Republicans, who are more likely than Democrats to have privileged social networks, underestimate financial hardship among those they seek to govern, and increase their support for welfare programs when I correct their misperceptions. [You can read this working paper here.]
When Poor Students Attend Rich Schools: Do Affluent Social Environments Increase or Decrease Participation? (with Tali Mendelberg, Tanika Raychaudhuri, and Vittorio Merola)
College is a key pathway to political participation, and lower-income individuals especially stand to benefit from it given their lower political participation. However, rising inequality makes college disproportionately more accessible to higher-income students, creating many predominantly-affluent campuses. Do low-income students gain a participatory boost from attending college? How does the prevalence of affluent students on campus affect this gain? Predominantly-affluent campuses may create participatory norms that elevate low-income students’ participation. Alternatively, they may create affluence-centered social norms that marginalize these students, depressing their participation. Using a large panel survey (201,011 students), controls on many characteristics, and quasi-experimental tests, we find that predominantly-affluent campuses increase political participation to a similar extent for all income groups, thus failing to close the gap. We test psychological, academic, social, political, financial, and institutional mechanisms for the effects. The results carry implications for the self-reinforcing link between inequality and civic institutions. [You can read this working paper here.]
When Do Voters Punish Politicians Who Violate Democratic Norms?
Democracy requires voters to hold politicians accountable for violating democratic norms. Yet we know little about what increases voters’ willingness to punish norm-violating politicians, especially when the politicians are co-partisans. We examine the case of Republican voters’ willingness to sanction Donald Trump. In a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults, we randomly as- sign voters to messages expressing disapproval of Trump’s norm-violating behavior that vary in the message’s source and language. Contrary to the idea that Republicans distrust party elites who criticize their party leaders, we find that Republicans become more willing to sanction Trump electorally when hearing that other Republican elites disapprove of Trump’s behavior. These effects occur when elites invoke appeals to national identity and characterize Trump’s behavior as “un-American.” Our results contribute to understanding the conditions under which voters hold politicians from their own party accountable for violating democratic norms. [You can read this working paper here.]