This post is part of a larger series.
In this post, I want to discuss American political culture—something a bit more subjective than most of what I’ve been exploring so far. I argue that our political culture is a major cause of poverty and inequality, since we place little to no value on public programs to remediate the effects of poverty and inequality.
An individual culture is vague and difficult to pin down, because it is defined by a set of shared beliefs and values among many people. This is a moving target that can never define 100% of the population. Still, I think we can make some broad statements with the help of surveys from the Pew Research Center and some other public data to supplement this.
American political culture has many traits, but I want to focus on the following:
- Racism and bigotry that has ranged from subtle preference to explicitly racist ideology;
- A heavy emphasis on free market ideology as opposed to government action;
- A high priority on individualism, separation, and responsibility only for oneself; and
- A high degree of militarism.
Obviously this is not exhaustive, and I don’t think it can ever be. I am not trying to list everything. However, I feel that this captures the core aspects that I need to discuss for the purposes of poverty and inequality.
Let’s start with survey results from Pew. A report on Americans’ political values from October of 2018 provides some excellent insight. Take a look at this chart showing people’s responses to key questions:
In particular, I want to highlight the following survey statements from this report:
- If a person is rich, it is more because he or she had more advantages in life than most other people.
- If a person is poor, it is more due to circumstances beyond his or her control.
- We need to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.
According to this survey, most Americans believe that a person’s economic situation is primarily a result of work ethic, rather than advantages or disadvantages. What’s more, only about four in ten Americans think that we need to do more to achieve equal rights between black and white people. These divides are also deeply partisan. While many Americans in general believe that work ethic is more important than advantages, and that racism and discrimination are no longer issues, it is overwhelmingly Republicans who hold these views. Still, a sizable minority of Democrats would agree.
Another Pew survey from 2017 gives us even deeper insight. This is from Pew’s “political typology” report, which divides Americans into eight like-minded groups across the Democrat and Republican political spectrum. I encourage you to take a look at the profiles for each typology group and the surveying data behind the definitions. Here is a breakdown of each group:
Through these surveys, we can gain much deeper insight into the political attitudes of Americans. First let’s take a look at attitudes about government in general:
About half of all Americans believe that government is wasteful, inefficient, and too large. With a closer look, we can see that this view is held mostly by Republicans and to a large degree by moderates.
Similarly, almost half of Americans believe the government can’t do much more for needy Americans. This view is overwhelmingly held by Republicans, and to a large degree by moderates. Take a look at this chart:
Now let’s take a look at economic ideology in general:
Surprisingly, most Americans agree that economic inequality is an issue. Even within the “core conservatives” category, 46% agree it is a moderately big problem. Still, many more Democrats than Republicans clearly believe it is an issue.
Next is the topic of work ethic and economic success. Take a look at this chart:
In line with the 2018 survey, most Americans believe that hard work is the key to success, even within different Democrat typologies. Of course, this is truer of Republicans, but even 25% of the “solid liberals” believe that hard work leads to success.
Next, let’s look at views on taxes:
This issue follows party lines almost exactly. The more conservative the typology, the more likely somebody is to believe that taxes should be kept the same or lowered, and vice-versa. Overall, about half of all Americans believe these types of taxes should be lowered or kept the same.
Finally, I want to look at Pew’s data on beliefs about racial equality, since this factors so heavily into my analysis of Philadelphia’s poverty and inequality. Take a look at the following two charts:
There appears to be an incredibly deep partisan divide over views on race. Overwhelmingly, Democrats believe that blacks and whites are still not equal, and Republicans believe that enough has been done to achieve equality.
Thanks to Pew’s incredibly thorough and consistent surveys, we have a very good idea of the typical American’s political ideology and how this is different across party lines. In general, my point is that Americans still believe that our economic system is largely fair, regardless of your family’s background. This is true even of people’s views on race and opportunity, despite overwhelming evidence that black Americans continue to face extreme obstacles and have inherited the legally enforced inequalities of the last generation (see my post on segregation, for instance). This refusal to acknowledge the inherent advantages and disadvantages in our economic system, especially between black and white Americans, is a large reason why our society continues to be so unequal. If people do not think there is a problem, then they will not try to change things.
I wanted to gain a better understanding of not just American political culture, but political culture in the Greater Philadelphia Area. There is no survey data on a local level, unfortunately. However, I was able to find data on party registration and on past elections. We can use this as a proxy for what people believe, based on the partisan survey data from Pew.
First, I made a map of voter registration by county in the Philadelphia Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is what we can think of as the Greater Philadelphia Area:
This map shows the 11 counties in this region, with a pie chart in each county showing the breakdown of voter registration. The size of the pie chart shows how many voters are in that county. From this, we can see that about three-fourths of registered voters in Philadelphia are Democrats, and most of the surrounding counties are about half Democrat. By far the largest amount of voters are in Philadelphia, but there are also many in New Castle, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Camden, and Burlington Counties.
However, I soon realized there is an issue with this data. A considerable proportion of registered voters have no affiliation, especially in New Jersey. Therefore, I also pulled data on actual election results to see how it compares. The 2016 presidential election is a good example of a recent election where everybody was given the same choice between a Republican and Democrat, so I used this:
This is much better. From this, we can see that almost everybody who votes chooses a Democrat or Republican. This means that the unaffiliated voters from before are either choosing a party, or are staying home on election day. The general ratio has stayed about the same. More than three-fourths of Philadelphians voted Democrat, while it was more evenly split to varying degrees in the surrounding counties. One notable exception is Cecil County, but its small size and large distance to Philadelphia mean that it represents a relatively small portion of the region’s political culture.
Of course, there are more layers of complication, like the fact that votes in the 2016 presidential election don’t necessarily map out to traditional party affiliations, or that there are new subsets within the parties that are being glossed over in this data. Regardless, this map still shows us the general political divides in ideology within the region. In total, 62% voted Democrat, 34% voted Republican, and 4% voted for other parties. Outside of Philadelphia, the split is closer to 50-50.
What does this tell us? It tells us that the surrounding areas of Philadelphia are more conservative than Philadelphia itself. Therefore, a larger proportion of residents in the surrounding areas have ideologies more closely aligning with the conservative typologies outlined earlier, while more Philadelphians have ideologies aligning more closely with the liberal typologies.
In short, most in the region hold to the typical American ideology of “pick yourself up by your bootstraps.” Under this view, it is your fault if you are poor, and it is a result of your hard work and ingenuity if you are rich. Further, because of this, the government should not intervene in social inequalities, since they are a result of people’s own shortcomings, and government services would really amount to giving free handouts to society’s free-loaders.
That is the crudest interpretation I can make of people’s views. I know this will probably offend many who read this, but I think it’s time we stop beating around the bush on this.
Next, I wanted to take a look at how American political culture plays out in our spending. I think looking at the federal government’s budget provides a strong indicator of what we as a society value. What we prioritize spending money on is what we collectively find important. What we do not fund we must not find very critical. Here are the federal government’s expenditures in 2017, shown in two different ways. Both are the same data, but I thought the two formats provide different insights. Note that this is in millions of dollars, so Social Security spending was almost $1 trillion, national defense was about $600 billion, and so on.
We spend money overwhelmingly on three things: Social Security, healthcare, and the military. A sizable portion of the budget is also spent on our debt, but that doesn’t really reflect our priorities. Very little money is spent on other forms of social support. Food and nutrition assistance, which is mostly food stamps, accounts for just 2%. Education, just 3%. Housing assistance, which is mostly Housing and Urban Development’s rental assistance vouchers, was a meager $50 billion, less than 1%. Community and regional development, which Philadelphia and similar cities desperately need, is also less than 1%, at $31 billion. All of these categories, which we can think of as America’s social safety net, barely register at all on the national budget. They are a blip, an afterthought. They are so small they could be accounting errors. We basically have no existing infrastructure of programs to help needy Americans outside of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful thing that we clearly prioritize old-age pensions and medical care for those who could otherwise not afford it. While we certainly have problems with our healthcare system, we do clearly also have a strong tradition of public healthcare.
However, we also have a strong tradition of increasing our military budget, while continuing to cut funding for already meagerly funded social safety net programs. We continue to hear that we just don’t have enough money for public housing programs, for instance, yet we always find an extra couple of billion dollars to invest in our military.
I was curious about the breakdown of spending over time, so I found the data and visualized it in a couple of ways. On one hand, I set the chart to the timeframe of all of the data that is available, or 1962 through the most recent projections up to 2023. I also set a smaller timeframe of 2000 through 2023 for a more relatable comparison, since the numbers are not scaled to inflation. Finally, I made one version that shows the absolute values stacked up, and another that shows them stacked as a ratio to the total. This way, we have several ways to understand how our budget priorities have shifted over time.
The biggest takeaway is that the trend I described before of focusing on the military, Social Security, and public healthcare spending has typically been true throughout recent US history. It does appear that a far larger portion of spending used to be occupied by the military, but the absolute values show us that this doesn’t reflect a decrease in military expenditures, but rather an increase in Social Security and healthcare expenditures. Most other aspects have remained fairly constant. That brings me to the second large trend: expenditures have consistently been increasing, especially in the past 20 years. This seems to be largely driven by increases in expenditures for Social Security, the military, healthcare, and debt. So, in sum, we as a society have always placed the highest priority on these items (since 1962, at least), and healthcare has continually gotten more expensive.
My main point from all of this is that American political culture has, for decades, remained focused on personal responsibility and free markets, to the extent that Americans do not acknowledge systematic disadvantages or even the impacts of racial discrimination. The result is a culture of “pick yourself up by your bootstraps.” If you can’t succeed in America, it must be due to deficiencies in your own character, so the ideology goes. This political culture also has a strong presence in the Philadelphia region.
The result is a society that spends almost nothing on its social safety net, outside of Social Security and Medicare—which Congress is required by law to spend money on. There is almost nothing for “discretionary” spending (the term for money we can choose how to spend) on social programs, such as housing, community development, public transportation, or public education. Instead, we choose to spend our dollars on the military. Social programs are left to local governments, which I have already shown do not have nearly enough funds to meet the level of need.
In his final book before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. summed up this sentiment well:
“We must begin to ask: Why are there forty million poor people in a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence? Why has our nation placed itself in the position of being God’s military agent on earth, and intervened recklessly in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic? Why have we substituted the arrogant undertaking of policing the whole world for the high task of putting our own house in order?
All these questions remind us that there is a need for a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society. For its very survival’s sake, America must reexamine old presuppositions and release itself from many things that for centuries have been held sacred. For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property- and profit-centered. our government must depend more on its moral power than on its military power.”
Page 141, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, by Martin Luther King Jr., published in 1967.
I agree with Dr. King. And, it seems that the basic assumptions he was referring to have not changed much. We still prioritize military spending over basic needs, and we still have failed to implement programs to alleviate widespread poverty, despite immense levels of national wealth. It is time to reassess these political values.