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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Cross-posted from In These Times.

President Barack Obama said last December that inequality is “the defining challenge of our time.” Americans agree. A Pew survey from June found that 62 percent think the country’s economic system unfairly favors the powerful, and 78 percent believe that too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies.

Campaigning against the ongoing takeover of the country by the super-rich would seem to be a winning strategy for Democrats, then, as they struggle to hold on to the Senate and pick up a few governor’s seats in November. As a campaign issue, growing economic inequality plays to the Democrats’ image as the party of the little guy and to their brightest moments in power, such as the New Deal, when they made the country much more equal.

Yet with a handful of exceptions, Democrats are not talking about inequality. Raising the minimum wage — along with protecting Social Security, a campaign mainstay — may be the closest the Democratic Party has come to a national campaign theme on inequality. Overall, says Sam Pizzigati, editor of the online weekly on inequality Too Much, and author of Greed and Good, “there’s certainly no great move among Democratic candidates” to make inequality their focus.

Why not?

Democratic political strategists argue that while inequality may bother Americans, it doesn’t move them to vote. Polling seems to bear this out. In a recent Hart Research Associates poll, 60 percent of swing voters reacted favorably to a Democrat promising “economic growth,” and only 36 percent to a candidate pledging to “reduce income inequality.” Candidates seeing those numbers may be wary of making inequality a central theme.

But while voters may turn up their noses at pledges put in those terms, that doesn’t mean that any populist message is doomed to failure.

Hart polling has also found that the goal of “an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few,” beat out other popular economic goals, such as “the creation of jobs and America going back to work” and “a strengthened middle class.” Tellingly, however, it was the phrase “not just the wealthy few” that made the difference. Dropping it did not broaden the Democrats’ appeal to independents, as many “centrist” Democrats might argue; it narrowed the appeal. Given a choice between a Republican who promised to “grow the economy” and a Democrat with this more populist message, swing voters picked the Democrat by 22 points. Without “not just the wealthy few,” the Democrat lost to the Republican by 10 points. What’s more, adding “just the wealthy few” boosted support for Democrats among swing voter groups that typically skew conservative, including men, older voters and those leaning Republican.

To Hart Research analyst Guy Molyneux, this signifies that the most effective populist message today is inclusive, but at the same time draws a sharp differentiation between the 99 percent and, well, the rich.

Defining the 99 percent against the 1 percent also has the benefit of counteracting Republican efforts to divide and conquer working Americans. Since at least the “Southern Strategy” of the early 1970s, the right has sought to divide working people by drawing lines between poor and middle-income workers, white workers and workers of color, and the native-born and immigrants. In particular, they paint the poor and people of color as lazy and undeserving. Of course, most of the poor work, and work hard — for too little pay — while many businesses show signs of pathological dependence on tax breaks, government contracts and lax regulations. Putting the spotlight on the 1 percent reminds voters who is really mooching off the hard work of others.

“If it’s the working and middle class against the poor, immigrant, and ‘undeserving,’ we [populist Democrats] lose,” argues longtime political consultant Vic Fingerhut. “If you’re going to tax me to take care of this bum, it gets more difficult. But Democrats discover that a lot of little guys vote for them when they stand up to the big banks. If it’s the working and middle class against the corporations, we win.”

However, the image of the 1 percent standing against the 99 percent understandably makes some rich people nervous. Centrist Democrats, reliant on close relationships with corporate and individual wealthy donors, want to comfort and reassure their check-writing supporters. Consequently, Democratic Party leaders, including Hillary Clinton, assert that “we’re all in this together”— fast-food worker and fast stock trader, hand in hand, presumably. This brings to mind a version of the 1930s rural populist joke about the elephant who shouts, “We’re all in this together,” as he dances through the chicken yard.

To the extent that Democrats rely on funding from rich individuals and corporations, they are more likely to do their bidding. And that tends to increase with time: Labor unions are more willing than business to back first-time candidates; as time passes, business contributions become more dominant. In other words, the rich help to create a political hegemony that defines the boundaries of acceptable debate for Republicans and Democrats alike.

The politics of the possible

Some strategists on the left believe that in order to campaign on inequality, Democrats must first demonstrate that ameliorating it is even possible.

“Inequality is an abstract idea,” says AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer. “What is not abstract is that three-fourths of working people can’t make ends meet. They need to hear that candidates are going to do something about that.”

Mobilizing working-class voters is crucial for Democrats, he argues, because they determine elections. As he explained to The Atlantic, AFL-CIO exit polls show that Democrats have won big in elections over recent decades in which working-class voters (defined as those making less than $50,000 a year) come out in force for Democrats. When their margin of victory among working-class voters reaches roughly 20 percent, Democrats win; when that margin slips as low as 10 percent, they lose. And this year, the margins and mobilization for Democrats seem dangerously low among working-class voters.

“They see the rich getting away with murder,” Podhorzer says. “Voters are ready to believe.” But the Democrats too often fail to offer something in which to believe. Podhorzer suggests pushing for “higher living or minimum wages, affordable student loans, progressive taxation, and restrictions on outsourcing.” Many of these pragmatic proposals are indeed on the Democrats’ agenda. The problem with this pragmatic approach, however, is that each of these proposals faces opposition — whether it be practical, self-interested or ideological — from factions within the Democratic Party (especially the Wall Street wing), from independents who might vote Democratic and, of course, from Republicans.

For example, increasing Social Security benefits and making them more progressive would reduce inequality in a concrete way. It could be financed by eliminating the cap on wages and salaries that are subject to Social Security taxes. But such a proposal would have to contend with the propaganda that has convinced many people that Social Security is in financial trouble.

Moreover, as important as they are — and as difficult to win — most current proposals to address inequality are small in relation to the scale of the accumulated income inequity of the past 40 years. Even raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would leave the United States behind pay levels seen in comparable industrial countries, and behind where the minimum should be set given changes in both prices and productivity.

In the long run, progressives cannot avoid confronting inequality, and that showdown is not likely to get easier as wealth grows more concentrated. Without campaign finance reform, weaning Democrats from corporate hegemony on key economic issues will be even harder. Though candidates can mobilize supporters in the short term with easily understood, concrete proposals, a moral and practical critique of inequality will be necessary to a create broader political appeal in the long run. Keywords can become touchstones of political movements, cultivated to carry a particular basket of meanings.

In this 50th anniversary year of “Freedom Summer,” for example, it is worth remembering that the civil rights movement had concrete goals — such as voting rights and access to public accommodations — but it was also a political movement imbued with the broader, uplifting vision of “freedom.” Unfortunately, today the right has appropriated “freedom” to mean, among other things, unlimited rights to guns, unfettered rights of private property and a right to act irresponsibly toward others. The progressive meanings of “freedom” have been smothered.

Along with freedom and democracy, the left still draws on the Enlightenment ideals of the French and American revolutions. Libertéégalité and fraternité serve as touchstones of progressive thought that extend beyond their embodiment in specific institutions. “Democracy” requires free speech and elections, for example, but it also carries a promise that is utopian, in a good way. Likewise, although most Americans associate the ideal of “equality” with movements of groups such as African-Americans, women and gays for civil and political rights, it also serves as an expansive touchstone, a value yet to be realized in other ways — including economic — but one that needs to be recognized as worthy of a movement.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at [email protected]

This piece originally appeared at In These Times.

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

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  • Wrily

    The strategists are wrong. I voted for Obama in the primary because I believed he would address that inequality, but that Clinton would not.

  • Todd Nelson

    Since it has been the policies of Barack Obama and Harry Reid that have caused the increase in inequality, please run on them. Yes, run on the policies that have destroyed the middle class. Run on more regulations and more taxes on business so that nobody will try to start a new business, ever, in America. Run on keeping the highest corporate taxes in the industrialized world. Run on treating American corporations like the East Germans treated their people until they tore down the wall that kept them in. Run on keeping the trial lawyers in power so they can keep making laws that screw small businesses so there are no jobs for the middle class, only working poor and those on welfare. But don’t forget who Harry Reid and Barack Obama have for their friends, Warren Buffet, Jerffrey Immelt, George Soros, Tom Steyer, all billionaires who have benefited from current government policies instituted by Barry and Harry.

    • Another thinking American posting truth on this ultra liberal clearinghouse of propaganda. Keep posting, and often. There are still some thinking people at least reading the comments. My hope is that they will awaken to see what this regime has been doing to our country. The regular posters are mostly just rabid jackals that will attack with little to no provocation. Welcome.

      • howa4x

        Too bad you don’t understand macro economic theory and because of that you will rabidly vote against your children’s interests. Keep watching FOX ,it is really showing how truly ignorant you really are

        • Too bad you will not open your eyes and see your rights and freedoms withering away. That is what our children need to worry about. Liberals want a communist utopia. Not in this country while there are still patriots left.

          • howa4x

            Really!!! too bad you have no idea what the word communism really means. It is state controlled capital. Now do we have that or private corporations? Are we like China where the government controls all industry? No we have an oligarchy(look it up) made up of 0.1% of the population that controls 45% of the wealth. So tell me are you ok with the fact that the Walton’s that control Wal-mart are worth 115 billion, and don’t pay their workers a living wage and tells those same workers to apply for public food stamps and housing support so all you dumb patriots can pay for it, and subsidize some of the richest people in the world? Or maybe you don’t want any regulations like the Koch bros want you to support. You would allow them to pollute the underground water supply and give kids cancer to increase their wealth from 31 billion to 34 billion each, Better yet lets remove all those regulations that you call communism from the food industry and allow them to put anything they want in your food so they can make a bigger profit. wow you really know how to protect your family and children. Maybe that gun you are holding won’t help you if your food can make you sick, or your water can give you cancer. This is why people think you all are a bunch of idiots that don’t even understand how it all works, and you have leaders like Plain that gave a speech about getting that guy out of 1400 Pennsylvania ave, because she doesn’t even know where the president lives. You believe all that nonsense that you hear on Fox, and you are fighting the very agencies that are there to protect you and your family. Wow The more I read your posts the more I think you have a limited understanding of how our economy and government work..

          • BillP

            ken you know you are fos on the issue of your rights and freedoms withering away. You keep trying to push that bs as factual but could offer nothing more than dress code issues in schools. You and your partner schmoe keep trying to link liberalism with communism but never offer anything of factual value.

    • howa4x

      Nice fairy tale

    • charleo1

      Wow, wow wow. Pray, tell us what policies Obama adopted that have caused the increase in wealth inequality, so the GOP can back them! Who believes Wall Street was able to almost destroy the World economy, and essentially gamble with 40x more capital than they had to cover their bets, and the government knew absolutely nothing about it, because there was just too darn much regulation? Or that too much regulation was the reason the Deep Horizon oil rig blew up up the Gulf? That inspectors were advised to allow the BP supervisors to fill out their reports, is just too much regulation? When was the last time you took your family out for dinner, and thought, I’ll bet these prices could be $10.00 lower, if we could just cut inspections, and regulations? Then there’s that brilliant engineer, would love to start his own company, but his child has an uninsurable condition, that the insurance companies won’t cover in the individual market? Who thinks ball and chaining him to GE, helps small businesses? Who believes trickle down, supply side economics, grows the Middle Class? That Right to work Laws haven’t been the real job killers? That low wages, and not high taxes for millionaires, and corporations, lead to a decline in demand, and that small businesses are the first to go? Who doesn’t know that?

  • howa4x

    The real issue is that the democrats are more like the republicans on economic issues than populists and progressives. Both parties have moneyed donors and Chuck Schumer could be the senator from Wall st Vs. NYS .Democrats could have changed the paradigm when they had a chance to redesign TARP but instead left the large banks in place and in control. This meant that the largest share of the recovery was tilted toward the 1%. Now there is more money concentrated at the top and less in the middle where the majority of job creation occurs, and the TOP is creating more jobs overseas to lower labor costs and forcing those costs down in he workforce here. The middle class needs to wake up to this fact and realize that raising the minimum wage will create more jobs because it will raise demand for goods and services. Allowing companies to pay below $10/hr forces lower wage workers to seek government assistance like SNAP and housing aid. Those benefits are being paid by a shrinking middle class. We don’t have to raise taxes just close loop holes that allow for some groups to not pay any taxes on interest earned, and we definitely need to capture offshored money being hidden. The problem is the democrats lack the political will to correct these issues, and aside from some social issues what separates them, from the GOP?

  • ExRadioGuy15

    From my Facebook note, “In case there’s some idiot or greedy Fascist psychopath tells you that there’s no wealth inequality in this world”…..


    The link above goes to the article from 25 March of this year where anti-poverty organization Oxfam International released some staggering statistics about wealth inequality.

    At first, Oxfam said that the 85 wealthiest individuals held as much wealth as the lowest 50% of the world’s population, or 3.5 BILLION! Then, those attending and covering the summit were told that those were last year’s numbers. That’s when the 85 was reduced to 67. Near the end of the summit, everyone was notified that the number had dropped to 66.

    Some other “highlights” from the summit and the Oxfam report:

    Of the 66, 28, or nearly 45%, are Americans, far and away the most of any country. Germany and Russia have six each.

    The world’s richest man is, once again, Bill Gates. He’s worth $76 billion. That equals the wealth of the 156 MILLION poorest people in the world…

    From the 2013 list of billionaires (the 85 wealthiest), the top people and the bottom 3.5 BILLION each have a combined wealth of $1.7 TRILLION. That’s an average of $20 BILLION for each of the top 85 and a mere pittance of $486 each for the 3.5 BILLION at the bottom.

    As of 2013, it took “only” $23 billion to get into the top 20. This year, that shot up to $31 billion.

    While Russia has only a half-percent of the world’s wealth, they have a little less than 10% of the top 66.

    Did you know, btw, that there are 1,645 billionaires in this world?!? It’s true…guess how many of them are Americans? Four hundred, ninety-two (492). Apparently, the 492 American billionaires’ combined worth is $2.7 trillion. The combined wealth of all Americans is about $81 trillion. The combined worth of all of the billionaires in the world is about double of the Americans on the billionaire’s list, $5.4 trillion. The world’s combined wealth is $241 trillion.

    Think about that last paragraph for a minute. Less than 1,700 people on this earth have 2% of the world’s wealth…meanwhile, more than 7 BILLION people are, combined, worth about $236 trillion. In America, 492 people have 4% of the wealth while the rest is shared among more than 315 MILLION. It is the height of ignorance and cognitive dissonance to say that there’s no wealth ineguality in this world, let alone in this country.

    These stats are bumming me out. I better stop here.”

  • ExRadioGuy15

    Wow…I see that the Republicans and Libertarians that love to spout the Fascist propaganda of their parties, especially False Equivalency, have flocked here to regale us with their “knowledge”…pathetic, guys….

  • Louis Allen

    Yep! Let’s realize, once and for all, that having so many complete idiots who actually vote and actually believe what this “columnist” is saying is NOT the worst problem we face. Let’s realize that INCOME INEQUALITY is our main problem!
    To fix that, I propose that our government (better hurry, November/2016 is just around the corner) take from the “rich” and the lazy and greedy entrepreneurs and give to the poor. That way, we will ALL be “equally” RICH. Oh, and I predict that the greedy entrepreneurs, after having a large part of their job-creating wealth taken from them (hey, for a worthy cause!) will, you guessed it, …. continue to work even harder than before in order to be able to afford MORE wealth distribution.
    This model has ALWAYS worked, but only in nations that were smart enough to realize that the main problem confronting society is, and always has been, …. you guessed it, wealth and income inequality !!
    Obama is sooo correct! Income and wealth inequality is abhorrent ….
    Oh brother.