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Democrats Shouldn't Be Scared to Talk About Inequality

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Last week, the centrist Democratic group Third Way caused quite a dustup with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal warning Democrats against pursuing the populist path forged by Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio. Now into the breach comes another commentator urging caution on the party. In Tuesday’s Washington Post, columnist Chuck Lane (a former editor of this magazine) argues that it would be politically unwise for President Obama and the Democrats to focus on income inequality, which Obama last week called “the defining challenge of our time.” Lane writes:

The facts underlying the president’s claim are clear enough…But it is unclear whether denouncing inequality and promising to do more about it are likely to help Obama and his fellow Democrats win elections.

Economic populism is the hardy perennial recommendation of liberal pollsters and labor-union political directors. It keeps coming back, even though election results have never quite borne it out. Deeply invested in the individualistic “American dream,” and deeply divided by race, ethnicity and religion, Americans have proven less susceptible to class-based economic appeals than voters in other nations.

Lane is certainly right: la France, we are not. But his brusque advisory against talking about inequality merits a closer look. For starters, public opinion on this subject is more mixed than he suggests. As he himself notes, polling is quite strongly in favor of raising the minimum wage, which is, for the moment, the policy proposal that the Democrats’ income inequality rhetoric most often tends to focus on. And it’s not just polling: voters in New Jersey by a wide margin recently approved raising their state’s minimum wage to $8.25 over the opposition of the popular governor they re-elected the same day. Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Mitch McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, no flaming liberal, has made raising the state’s $7.25 minimum wage a central plank of her campaign, surely realizing the resonance this could have among low-income white voters who might otherwise be inclined to vote Republican or not at all. Raising the minimum wage is so popular with voters, in fact, that it’s been plausibly suggested that some Democratic elected officials around the country are opposed to indexing the legal minimum to inflation precisely so that they have the opportunity every few years to vote for increases themselves.

What about attacking income inequality more broadly? Well, here the polling is more mixed, but the public is not nearly as unsusceptible to “class-based economic appeals” as Lane argues. A Bloomberg poll released Tuesday night found that by a ratio of 64 percent to 33 percent, Americans say the U.S. no longer offers everyone an equal chance to get ahead, that 68% of Americans say the income gap is growing, and that there was an even split between respondents on the question of whether "new policies are needed to narrow the income gap" or whether "it would be better to allow the market to operate freely." This aligns with what researchers Ilyana Kuziemko and Stefanie Stantcheva wrote in the New York Times earlier this year:  

In a poll released last year by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans agreed that there were “strong conflicts between the rich and poor” — up substantially from when the question was asked in 2009 — but in a Gallup poll taken at the height of Occupy Wall Street, in the fall of 2011, reducing the income and wealth gap was low on respondents’ list of priorities for government action.

It seems like a paradox: Americans are increasingly worried about the gap between rich and poor, but are hesitant to have the government do anything about it.

Kuziemko and Stantcheva went on to note a wrinkle: informing respondents about the rise of inequality in the U.S. via a 10-minute tutorial did, not surprisingly, increase their concern about the trend, but did not increase their confidence in government’s ability to do much about it. With one exception: respondents who were told how tiny a slice of taxpayers are affected by the estate tax were much more likely to support raising that tax. Meanwhile, polling shows Americans much more strongly in favor of the government doing all it can to promote equal opportunity, if not more equal incomes. And let's not forget that election just a year ago in which Obama and Democrats such as Sherrod Brown prevailed in their races by convincing voters that, in the lingo of pollsters, they were more "on the side of people like you" than Romney and other Republicans were, after a campaign that included quite a lot of talk about class and inequality.

But here’s the real question to raise against Lane’s argument: even if income inequality is not as much of an instant political winner as some liberals would wish it to be, why should Obama and other Democrats therefore play down the issue? Parties need a purpose and identity, and soaring inequality strikes as close to the animating core of the party of the New Deal as any other issue. Obama is talking up inequality not just because he’s grasping for an issue to ride into a midterm election year but because he seems to have genuinely believed for some time now that, as new White House hire John Podesta declared this week and as the Holy Father himself declared two weeks earlier, it is a serious problem with a clear moral dimension. And it is! As Lane himself notes, “the top 10 percent of U.S. earners claimed about half of all before-tax income in 2012, including capital gains.” Another stunning stat that Obama cited in his big speech on inequality last week: “A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top.  A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top.” Meanwhile, many economists now conclude that inequality hinders economic growth and may even raise the likelihood of financial crashes like the 2008 collapse.

Now, one can certainly argue, as some liberals have, that the Obama administration has precious little to offer in the way of new ideas to address inequality. But since when do the wise men of Washington discourage our leaders against speaking out on important subjects just because the polling may not be entirely behind them and it may not "help [them] win elections"? Polling on the budget deficit and national debt, which establishmentarian Beltway types treat as a matter of grave urgency, is also pretty mixed. But Lane and his fellow mandarins show no hesitation in demanding presidential bully-pulpiteering and high-level action on that issue. The passages in the WSJ, the Post, and Mike Allen's daily email that urged Obama to eschew populism all were cast as disinterested advice simply aimed at improving Democratic electoral prospects. But the contrast with the damn-the-torpedoes advice some of these same folks give on austerity makes you think that, just maybe, there's an ideological agenda here, too.