Through time, polls ask Americans whether to tax rich to redistribute wealth

In 1939, the year economic historians suggest that the Great Depression ended, the Roper polling organization asked, for the first time:

“People feel differently about how far a government should go. Here is a phrase which some people believe in and some don’t. Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?”

Personally, I’m a little surprised by the result: 35% said yes; 54% said no. It was the late stages of the Depression, after all.

But the Depression was ending and, even though the question did not invoke the word “socialism,” the traditional American aversion to something as socialist-sounding as “redistribution” of wealth seemed to have survived the Depression.

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The question went away for several decades. And US conservatism continues to rely on the powerful traditional US aversion to anything as blunt as that, and to the word “socialism,” in a way that is deeper and stronger than in most of our peer nations.

Gallup started asking the question again in 1998 and has asked it several times in recent years. Again, here’s the language:

“People feel differently about how far a government should go. Here is a phrase which some people believe in and some don’t. Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?”

Compared to 1939, Americans have grown more open to the idea of ​​”redistributing wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.”

Starting in 2007, the “yes” answer has consistently beaten the no (well, seven out of eight times) but by tiny margins, and the percentage of respondents who said “yes” to “redistributing wealth by heavy taxes on the rich” has never scored a majority larger than 52%. In fact, “yes” has scored exactly 52% the last four times in a row that the question was used, in 2013, 2015, 2016 and just last month, when the full sample favored using the tax system to “redistribute” wealth by 52%-47%.

This link will get you a graph showing the full history of the question.

Scroll down a little on that piece and you’ll see the breakdown by party identification. As you would no doubt expect, Democrats (and Dem-leaners) were always more likely to say yes than Republicans. But, again, the most impressive thing, to me at least, is the lack of change across nine polls over 15 years. In all those polls, the percentage of Democrats who said yes remained between 62% and 79%, with a small but noticeable movement towards the higher numbers.

Republicans and Repub-leaners likewise stayed steady over those nine polls between 20% and 34% endorsing redistribution of wealth via the tax system.

In a way, the poll question captures one of the fundamental questions of modern governance.

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I’m quite struck by how consistent the results — and the partisan breakdown — have been over the years.

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