Thomas DiPrete takes a slightly different view of the poll I quoted the other day from David Gergen and Michael Zuckermann in a CNN article. In Is This a Great Country? Upward Mobility and the Chance for Riches in Comtemporary America, Nov 28, 2005, he thinks this an extreme interpretation of the actual polling question, but nonetheless details the extreme optimism Americans have of becoming rich, an optimism which is not backed up by reality. As he mentions, “Misinformation about the American income distribution and one’s chances for becoming rich can make it similarly difficult for Americans to take sensible positions on tax policy.”
Jonathan Haidt posits five foundations of morality
Applying them to our political culture, he finds that conservatives use all five foundations, but particularly numbers 3, 4, and 5; while liberals rely almost exclusively on numbers 1 and 2. Liberals promote values that protect individuals; conservatives values that strengthen the group. (See this New York Times article by Nicholas Wade).
Nicholas Wade, in Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, discusses how hunter-gatherer societies were (and are) extremely egalitarian; only when humans settled did power and economic hierarchies become a part of our society.
The distinction between commoners and nobility was certainly part of the medieval feudal system, and perhaps culminating in Louis XIV in France in the 17th-18th centuries. The American Revolution and making of the nation was in part a reaction against this division.
Perhaps, though, Americans still retain a belief in nobility, but built, we like to think, on meritocracy. This is a nobility which all can aspire to, in principal, and perhaps the “top 1% of income earners” is a proxy for this nobility.
So, conservatives are more likely to respect the social and economic conventions, even in the presence of income inequality. If conservatives are over-represented in the 39% who are more optimistic about their chances of rising into the nobility (I have no evidence for this; perhaps a closer look at the Time/CNN/Yankelovich poll of 2000 would be revealing), it might explain our acceptance of a tax policy which seems to favor the wealthy.