Entertaining Beliefs in Economic Mobility
Conditionally Accepted, American Journal of Political Science
51 Pages Posted: 7 May 2021 Last revised: 30 Aug 2021
Date Written: 2021
Americans have long believed in upward mobility and the narrative of the American Dream. Even in the face of rising income inequality and substantial empirical evidence that economic mobility has declined in recent decades, many Americans remain convinced of the prospects for upward mobility. What explains this disconnect? I argue that Americans’ media diets play an important role in explaining this puzzle. Specifically, contemporary Americans are watching a record number of entertainment TV programs that emphasize “rags-to-riches” narratives. I demonstrate that such shows have become a ubiquitous part of the media landscape over the last two decades. National surveys as well as online and lab in-the-field experiments show that exposure to these programs increases viewers’ beliefs in the American Dream and promotes internal attributions of wealth. Media exemplars present in what Americans are watching instead of news can powerfully distort economic perceptions and have important implications for public preferences for redistribution.
Keywords: American Dream, entertainment media, reality TV, income inequality, economic mobility, redistribution, lab-in-the-field experiments
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