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Inequality, the Flavor of the Month

ice cream

Last December, President Obama delivered a speech in which he boldly declared that economic inequality is a “defining issue of our time.” It was a watershed moment — an ambitious speech on a topic presidents rarely address, let alone at such at length. Commenters called the speech “historic.”

So much for history. Last week, the Washington Post’s Zachary A. Goldfarb reported that in recent months, Obama and Democrats have turned their backs on economic populism and “largely abandoned” talk about economic inequality.

Few people seem more smugly pleased about this turn of events than Senator Chuck Schumer, who never met a hedge fund he didn’t like. Quoth Schumer, “There are some who believe it’s better to talk about the negative parts of wealth that people have accumulated, but our polling data show people care less about that and more about how we’re going to help them.” His sigh of relief was practically audible.

Schumer didn’t share his poll results, but I don’t doubt that some numbers back up his claims. Americans nurtured on the mother’s milk myth of individualism are bound to have some wacky ideas about economics (witness the Tea Party). But a closer look at opinion research suggests that there is an abundance of fertile soil for savvy populists to till.

Let’s take one of the Democratic Party’s pet obsessions, the “middle class.” “[T]he focus had to be on how to get middle-class incomes up, rather than drive other people’s incomes down,” said Schumer. You’d think that identifying as middle class is our national religion or something, but polls strongly suggest otherwise. Data from the General Social Survey (GSS) show that over the past forty years, about 45 percent of Americans have consistently identified as working class—about the same percentage that identifies as middle class.

Moreover, a Pew poll from earlier this year revealed that 65 percent of Americans agree that the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased. GSS data show that majorities of Americans believe that income differences in America are “too large” and that such differences are “not necessary for prosperity”; 65 percent say that inequality continues because “it benefits the rich and powerful.” Americans also believe that the government should do something about inequality. In that Pew poll, 69 percent said that the government should do “something or a lot” to reduce the gap between rich and poor, and a majority favored taxing corporations and the wealthy to expand programs for the poor.

By educating the public and reframing certain issues, Democrats could build support for anti-inequality policies. One study last year found that when participants were informed that only one in a thousand households were wealthy enough to have to pay the estate tax, support for the tax increased sharply. Another study suggested that characterizing welfare recipients as unlucky substantially increased study participants’ support for social welfare policies.

Yet another paper showed that people grossly underestimated the degree of inequality in the United States (PDF). They believed the richest 20 percent of Americans owns 59 percent of the wealth (actually, they own a whopping 84 percent of it). Even more fascinatingly, given a choice, 92 percent of those surveyed would prefer to live in a society with a wealth distribution that resembled Sweden’s, as opposed to that of the United States.

A party that was truly committed to a pro-worker, anti-inequality politics would be paying attention to data like that. But if you’re a leading Democrat, all it takes, apparently, are a few mildly pessimistic data points to weaken your resolve. Yes, surveys show that Americans—cynical bastards that we are—are skeptical about the ability of government to actually do anything about inequality; but that reflects our attitude towards government more than our attitude towards inequality.

Truth be told, it was never clear how serious Obama ever was about fighting inequality. Though his big inequality speech marked a step forward, as many of us noted at the time, it also contained serious omissions. The economist Max Sawicky observed that much of that speech didn’t actually concern inequality. Rather, it was about social mobility, which is something entirely different.

Writer Anat Shenker-Osorio pointed out that perhaps the most glaring omission of all in Obama’s inequality speech was a simple one: a villain. To hear Obama and the Democrats tell it, inequality is something that just happened. An awful lot of sentences in Obama’s speech used passive voice constructions—phrases like “the deck is stacked,” “taxes were slashed,” and so on. His speech failed to craft any compelling narrative about exactly who did what to whom. Inequality remained an abstract concept.

The timidity of Obama’s rhetoric—a faintness of heart that extends to many other Dems—stands in sharp contrast to the talking points of many Republicans. Right-wing populists consistently point the finger at a rogues’ gallery of liberal elitists, government bureaucrats, and the like. In the past, not only did economically progressive presidents vilify the plutocratic enemies of the American people, but they went about it with a certain gusto. Theodore Roosevelt issued thundering denunciations against “malefactors of great wealth.” In his “I welcome their hatred” speech, FDR attacked as “tyrants” the “employers and politicians and publishers” who opposed the pro-labor policies of the New Deal.

But today’s Democratic Party is a different animal. By default, Democrats are the party of working Americans, and sometimes they do pass legislation that helps the majority. But they are also deeply corrupted by their own corporate ties. The Democrats’ anti-equality agenda is a case in point. The party supports some admirable policies targeted at helping low-income Americans—like raising the minimum wage, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, and universal pre-K. But party leaders are far more ambivalent about policies that challenge the one percent and the power of capital—stricter financial regulations, cracking down on CEO pay, a return to confiscatory income tax rates, fair trade, and intellectual property reform. Unless we rein in the wealth and power of the one percent, inequality will continue to spiral out of control.

This week, the New York Times reported that Wall Street “hopes for a warm embrace” from Hillary Clinton and noted that “few political families are closer to Wall Street than the Clintons.” I’m sure that if Clinton is elected president, she’ll bring Larry Summers and the rest of the neoliberal gang along with her. By the next inauguration, the Wall Street masters of the universe are likely to have everything their covetous little hearts desire.

Only by organizing against the moneyed interests can the rest of us hope to defeat them. President Obama’s big campaign against the “defining issue of our time” lasted approximately six months, if that. At least inequality was a flavor of the month. The next president may not even offer it on the menu.