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Putting ‘Equality of Opportunity’ into Action

November 9, 2011, 2:10 pm | Posted by Nick Sementelli

One of the most telling questions in the Public Religion Research Institute’s American Values Survey released yesterday asked whether respondents believed that “one of the big problems in this country is that we do not give everyone an equal chance in life” or if they think “it is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance than others.”

As the graph below shows, splits for this question fell along a predictably partisan lines with strong majorities of Democrats agreeing with the first statement and Republicans and Tea Partiers agreeing with the second:

AVS Survey Equal Opportunity.JPG

But what’s so interesting about this divide is that it contradicts conservative rhetoric about fairness and equality. As Paul Ryan made clear in his speech last week , the conservative response to income inequality is to profess their commitment to “equality of opportunity” (as opposed to “equality of outcome,” which they baselessly accuse progressives of trying to enforce).

As Professor Thomas Banchoff of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University–the moderator of yesterday’s panel on the survey results–noted, the question’s wording invoked “equal chance” language rather than “equal opportunity.” Had it used the more familiar ‘opportunity’ phrasing, he surmised, Republicans’ and Tea Partiers’ support for equality would have been higher.

I agree with Professor Banchoff’s observation, but I think it makes this question actually more, not less, useful. Knowing that Tea Partiers agree with a vague, conservative talking point is not so interesting. By sidestepping the familiar ‘opportunity’ language, I think the data gives us a better view of respondents’ substantive beliefs about the issue.

In this light, lower support for equal opportunity/chance among conservatives is not actually that surprising. I’m sure some disagreed with the premise of the question that many people currently don’t have an equal chance in life, while others probably reacted negatively to the suggestion that this is a problem “we” collectively can or should do something about.

The best example of this philosophy is again, Paul Ryan. As Matt Yglesias notes, despite his rhetorical fidelity to “equality of opportunity,” Rep. Ryan remains firmly opposed to any of the kinds of policies that would actually help level the playing field for disadvantaged Americans.

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