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 superrich would seem to be a winning strategy for Democrats, then, as they struggle to hold onto 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 (see sidebar), 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.
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% and, well, the rich.
Defining the 99% against the 1% 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% 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 long-time 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% standing against the 99% 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. Liberté, égalité 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 former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. 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 received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.