Entertaining Beliefs in Economic Mobility by Eunji Kim

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Discussion and Conclusion

What sustains belief in the prospect of upward economic mobility in an era with an “apocalyptic” level of

economic inequality? Social science literature points to an extensive list of historical factors unique to the

United States—such as the existence of the frontier or the Protestant work ethic—and concludes that the

belief in the American Dream is “just deeply embedded in American mythology...and myths last because

they are dreams fulfilled in our imaginations” (Hanson and White 2011, p.7; see also Hochschild 1996;

Huntington 1981; McCloskey and Zaller 1984; Kluegel and Smith 1986).

I argue that perceptions of economic mobility must be understood alongside the media discourse and

environment, just like any other studies of sociotropic economic perceptions. Unlike much of political

science scholarship, which assumes that the news media is the primary source of politically relevant infor-

mation, I highlight that the media content that Americans watch the most—entertainment media—offers

powerful exemplars of upward mobility and serves as an important source of information that affects peo-

ple’s beliefs in the American Dream. Using an array of different media data sources, this article confirms

the popularity and availability of TV programs that offer a vivid exemplars of ordinary, hard-working

Americans who are rewarded financially, and it uses both observational and experimental data to find

that exposure to rags-to-riches entertainment media increases people’s belief in the American Dream and

promotes internal attributions of wealth. These effects are mainly driven by Republicans and those who

are less interested in politics. Additional lab-in-the-field experiments shed light on the psychological

mechanism linking merit-focused narratives and redistributive policy preferences.

The duration of entertainment media effects—the possibility that these media effects fade away in after

a short time, and the duration of entertainment media effects—should be explored in future studies. In

the meantime, the methodological advantages of focusing on shared rags-to-riches narratives are clear,

because these messages remain the same across different episodes and programs. If anything, the sheer

availability and popularity of these programs alleviate concerns for external validity. Even if the public’s

taste for shows that feature ordinary Americans dissipates, the challenges of producing high-cost scripted

shows in a fragmented media market have resulted in a trend in which the vast majority of cable TV shows

are expected to continue featuring ordinary Americans (Ralph Bunche Center 2015; VanDerWerff 2016).

For the same financial reasons, streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and HBO now produce their

own reality programs that have a similar rags-to-riches narrative (e.g., Making the Cut (Amazon), Next in

Fashion (Netflix)).

My results underscore the overdue need to expand the scope of political communication and public

opinion research beyond news. The mass media has long been known to influence citizens’ sociotropic

perceptions, but mainstream social science research usually equates mass media with news media. Despite

dramatic changes in the media environment, the scholarly focus on news has remained intact. The most

prominent works of political communication in recent years confirm a focus on traditionally defined “po-

litical” aspects. Scholars have richly documented the political consequences of dwindling news audiences

(Prior 2007), declining confidence in the press (Ladd 2011), partisan media consumption (Arceneaux and

Johnson 2013; Levendusky 2013), the nationalization of local news media (Hopkins 2018), social media

platform (Settle 2018), and fake news (Guess, Nyhan and Reifler 2020) among other considerations. The

realm of soft news seems to be the farthest afield that quantitative academics have looked (Baum 2011;

Young 2019).

Though behavioral evidence suggests that most Americans tune out the news (Bakshy, Messing and

Adamic 2015; Flaxman, Goel and Rao 2016; see also Guess 2020), very little attention has been paid to

what political content is present in what they are watching instead. Entertainment media is still viewed as

“at best a distraction from politics and at worst a cause of active disengagement” (p. 852) and is deemed

worthy of studying only when it affects ostensibly political variables (Delli Carpini 2014). As long as

economic perceptions are central to the study of politics, however, this entire category of non-political

programs that affect such perceptions can no longer be dismissed. Furthermore, studying entertainment

media consumption may provide answers to many questions about distortions and biases in public opin-

ion. Widespread American misperceptions about the criminal justice system or policing power, for in-

stance, could be better understood if we account for the fact that America’s widely popular network TV

shows have consistently been crime series such as NCIS and Criminal Minds (Byers and Johnson 2009;

Cole and Dioso-Villa 2006).

My findings also inform broader discussions of public attitudes toward redistributive democracy. Un-

dergirding long-standing economic theories of redistribution is an assumption that citizens will favor

more generous levels of redistribution if they recognize an unfair economic system. This has been repeat-

edly proven to hold in experimental settings in which people are forced to consume pessimistic, news-like

economic information on rising income inequality or declining mobility (Alesina, Stantcheva and Teso

2018). Yet across different observational data, scholars have been puzzled to find that citizens are generally

moving away from more egalitarian policy preferences as the income gap widens (Ashok, Kuziemko and

Washington 2016; Kenworthy and McCall 2008; Kelly and Enns 2010; But see also Franko 2016; Newman

2020). This seeming paradox can be resolved if we take into account the fact that Americans are reportedly

watching four hours of television every day (Koblin 2016) and are receiving distorted information about

upward mobility. Belief in economic mobility can powerfully legitimize wealth disparity (Corak 2013;

Kluegel and Smith 1986; Shariff, Wiwad and Aknin 2016), and scholars of class and inequality should

recognize that non-political mass media cultivate foundational aspects of American politics, such as the

beliefs in economic freedom and individualism. If American exceptionalism includes the persistent ad-

herence to egalitarianism, self-determination, and laissez-faire economics, it is important to remember

that the United States consumes more TV than any other developed economy (OECD 2013).

In the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, Americans read Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches dime novels.

Today, their counterparts in the new Gilded Age are browsing through hundreds of channels saturated

with rags-to-riches entertainment programs, and have elected the former host of The Apprentice as the

head of state. In this era of choice, entertainment media content is what appeals to citizens, as lowbrow as

it may seem; the political consequences, however, are anything but trivial.

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