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Everyone Economics

New data supports economic populism as a Democratic strategy

For years, a false assumption about economic growth has tilted the rhetorical playing field sharply to the right. The assumption that inequality is the necessary price we pay for growth provides conservatives with justification for opposing efforts to expand equality. If inequality makes everyone better off (in absolute terms), pursuing an egalitarian agenda becomes perverse, hurting those at the bottom just to satisfy resentment or jealousy directed at those at the top. Smart progressives have always rejected this as a false choice, arguing—with considerable historical evidence—that good policy can often provide economic growth without increasing inequality. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the idea of a growth-equity tradeoff has had considerable influence.

Now, a new school of economic thought is making a bold claim: that inequality actually undermines rather than fuels growth. This “equitable growth” school points to a growing body of evidence that equality is not merely compatible with growth, but can be a significant contributor to both the quantity and quality of growth. It contends that the economy grows from the “middle-out,” and that the true heroes in our economic drama are not corporations and the wealthy but rather a robust and growing middle class.

A new national survey we have conducted for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, supported by other public opinion data, suggests that what we’re calling “Everyone Economics”—a framework for advocating and explaining progressive economic policies—has tremendous appeal to voters in the center of electorate. It also unites the interests of the “coalition of the ascendant”—minorities, unmarried and working women, Millennial and more secular voters, and educated whites living in more urbanized states—with the white working-class voters who once formed the core of the Democratic coalition. And it deprives conservatives of one of their most powerful rhetorical weapons, while potentially dividing their political coalition.

The core of Everyone Economics is the idea that the economy should work for everyone, not just the wealthy few. Americans today identify this as the single most important goal for the nation’s economic future. This is more than a call for a larger economic pie; it speaks to Americans’ growing conviction that our economic system now benefits only the wealthy and corporations, while the deck is stacked against everyone else. Three quarters (75 percent) agree that “the rules in America have changed—hard work and sacrifice are not rewarded anymore.” Fully 63 percent say a very high priority is providing more opportunity to those who work hard and struggle to provide for their families.

Everyone Economics posits that a relentless focus on the economic health of the middle class, together with expanding opportunities for the poor and working class to move into the middle class, is the best way to grow the economy. This in turn points to a policy agenda heavy on investment in the middle class and in the conditions that allow the middle class to succeed: quality education, affordable health care, modern infrastructure, cutting-edge scientific research, and dynamic new industries that can provide middle-class jobs. And it leads away from a policy agenda focused on deficit reduction, which has been a loser with voters and undercuts efforts to invest in the middle class.

There is a long-standing, and somewhat tired, debate within the Democratic Party over the political efficacy of economic populism. But the polling data demonstrate clearly that it would be political malpractice for Democrats not to address working people’s perception that today’s economy benefits only the wealthy few. At the same time, populism’s critics are right to caution against a political program that simply attacks the rich. Everyone Economics expresses an inclusive populism; rather than taking one side over another in a presumed class war, it advocates an economy that serves all Americans by giving everyone a real chance to succeed. It poses a choice between an economic system that serves the many versus the few. 

An inclusive vision does not mean, however, that the 1 percent get a pass. Where voters are quickest to perceive a “stacked deck” against the middle class is in our nation’s tax system. When voters are asked to choose their top priorities among eight different progressive policy planks, one priority towers above others: ask the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. For decades, the tax issue was owned by conservatives, but Democratic campaigns should reclaim the issue, and call for making the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share of taxes.

The fuel behind Everyone Economics is the reality of large and growing economic inequality in America. But our survey results suggest that the language of “equality” (or “inequality”) is not how actual voters talk about this problem. Instead, they want to see expanded opportunity. By a solid 26-point margin, voters say their priority is to “make sure everyone in the country has a real opportunity to succeed” (63 percent) more than “reducing the gap between the richest 1% and the rest of the country” (37 percent). While 38 percent cite “economic opportunity” as an important quality for today’s economy, just 21 percent say the same for “economic equality.” What worries Americans is less the size of statistical gaps in income or wealth, and more their sense that the system prevents average people from moving up the ladder while those at the top get a free ride.

The progressive vision for the economy is therefore primarily about providing opportunity to those who lack it. Americans are skeptical of a focus on redistribution, and worry about too many people becoming dependent on government. Eight in ten voters agree that “government programs should reward skill, hard work, and risk-taking, rather than just take money from some and give it to others,” and 54 percent are concerned a great deal that “too many people are becoming dependent on government programs.” But our survey respondents also strongly endorsed this statement: “No one is guaranteed success in America, but everyone deserves a fair shot to succeed, and today that just isn’t happening for too many Americans.”

Heeding these findings would provide a means for a new progressive majority to remain fully mobilized over time. These findings track among key progressive constituencies like minorities and Millennials, and in most cases their views are held even more strongly. These constituencies need an open route to an expanding middle class, not limited access to a shrinking one. Meet these aspirations and progressives are assured of a continued and high level of loyalty from these constituencies; fail to meet these aspirations and progressives will likely see spotty loyalty and long-term diminution of support, no matter how unattractive their opponents are.

But what of the white working class, progressives’ most difficult target? The survey data suggest that they also respond to this economic message and agenda. For example, two-thirds of the white working class characterizes “an economy that works for everyone, not just the richest 1 percent” as exactly what America needs today. And 82 percent of these voters agree that “the middle class is being squeezed and we are increasingly becoming a nation divided between the rich and everyone else.” In addition, by a 2:1 margin (67-33), white working-class voters agree that “Government is too concerned with what big corporations and the wealthy want, instead of helping the middle class” than that “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” Provide these voters with room in an expanding and dynamic middle class and progressives will be able to capture more of their votes. Conversely, leaving these voters in their current frustrated condition (Obama approval rating: 29 percent) is guaranteed to produce periodic meltdowns that will play havoc with progressives’ ability to win elections and govern effectively. 

Finally, Everyone Economics offers a powerful rejoinder to conservatives’ strongest rhetorical weapon: the attack on “big government.” Today, Americans believe the problem with government is not that it is too big, but rather that it is too concerned with what big corporations and the wealthy want instead of helping the middle class. By a remarkable 26-point margin, voters tell us this is a bigger problem than government “doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” Progressives can and should speak to voters’ fear that government too often prioritizes the needs of the wealthy over the rest of us. Everyone Economics can move us beyond conservatives’ preferred debate—how big should government be?—by asking who government should work for: corporations and the wealthy or all Americans?

Anyone who doubts that economic populism is transforming the political battlefield should simply listen to Republican elected officials. Suddenly, they are talking incessantly about the importance of economic mobility and scrambling to assemble their own “middle class” agenda. For conservative politicians, this is very much a war of necessity, not choice—they only address equity concerns, even implicitly, because they believe electoral survival requires it. Still more telling is their failure to mount a defense of inequality, even as a necessary evil. For decades, conservatives defended inequality openly as both the just rewards of a free market and a contributor to growth that benefits everyone. Increasingly, these are arguments one cannot make in polite company.

The idea of equitable growth is extremely promising as an economic doctrine. These new survey data indicate that it can also reshape the nation’s political landscape, consolidating the current progressive coalition and even expanding it. That is welcome news for progressives, both in contesting the 2014 and 2016 elections, and in waging the struggle to finally get America’s economy back on track and working for all Americans.

Guy Molyneux is a partner with Peter D. Hart Research Associates, where he directs the firm’s trade union research. Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority.