According to the poll, which was released Wednesday, 66% of Americans believe that there is a "strong" or "very strong" conflict between the rich and the poor. These numbers are particularly noteworthy when one considers that in July 2009 -- less than three years ago -- only 47% of respondents expressed those opinions. What's more, the number of respondents who stated that there was a "very strong" conflict has more than doubled, and is currently at the highest level since Pew began asking the question in 1987.
America: Melting Pot or Boiling Cauldron?
Pew's findings are also surprising when one considers all the other things that cause social tension. Essentially, during the past three years, more traditional sources of friction -- race, gender, religion, sexual preference, age and national origin -- have become vastly overshadowed by distrust over wealth.
According to Wednesday's poll, the biggest jump in class awareness has occurred among white respondents: While 74% of black and 61% of Hispanic respondents said they believed that there is a serious class conflict in America, the increase in people holding that opinion since 2009 among both those groups was less than 13%. By comparison, the number of white respondents who believe that there is a strong or very strong conflict between the rich and the poor has shot up from 43% to 65% -- an increase of more than 50%.
The Political Equation
According to the survey, Democrats are most likely to perceive class tension in America, but respondents across the political spectrum overwhelmingly agreed that there is conflict between the rich and the poor. In 2009, only 38% of Republicans said they thought there was a strong conflict between classes. Today, 55% do. Among independent voters, the numbers were even more stark: in the last three years, the percent of people who perceive a serious class conflict has jumped from 45% to 68%.
This perception of class conflict has already changed the contours of the 2012 Presidential race. Earlier this month, Rick Santorum attacked Mitt Romney and Barack Obama for using the term "middle class":
While Santorum might be uncomfortable with Gov. Romney's terminology, it would appear that the two are in agreement about the issue of class warfare. In a later interview, the Today show's Matt Lauer asked Romney if there are legitimate questions to be asked about the fairness of wealth distribution in the country. Romney responded by suggesting that any such questions were based in envy and class warfare, and left little question about who he felt was behind these arguments:The governor used a term earlier that I shrink from. It's one that I don't think we should be using as Republicans: "middle class." There are no classes in America. We are a country that don't allow for titles. We don't put people in classes. There may be middle-income people, but the idea that somehow or another we're going to buy into the class-warfare arguments of Barack Obama is something that should not be part of the Republican lexicon. That's their job -- divide, separate, put one group against another.
You know, I think it's about envy. I think it's about class warfare. When you have a President encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99% versus 1% -- and those people who have been most successful will be in the 1% -- you have opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God.
Not Just a Democratic Issue
But Romney may be misreading his audience: There is evidence to suggest that Democrats aren't the only people who are concerned about wealth distribution in America. In addition to the growing number of worried Republicans that the Pew poll identified, an earlier poll by Bloomberg and The Washington Post found that 53% of Republicans believe that taxes should be increased on households making more than $250,000 per year.
While it remains to be seen how much the struggle between the rich and the rest will affect the next election, one thing is clear: For a growing number of voters, one eye will be on the ballot box, and the other will be on the bottom line.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.