The politician speaking out most vividly against economic inequality isn’t a Democrat at all, at least for now: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.), a potential challenger in 2016. “If we don’t get our hands around this issue [of income inequality],” he said in August in a video address to the Iowa AFL-CIO’s annual meeting, “we are not going to have a middle class in this country.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D‑Mass.), though not up for re-election herself, has been striking a populist note while stumping for Democratic Senate candidates such as incumbent North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (challenging Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell), and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (who is running to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller). Telling voters they have a choice between someone who will “stand up for Wall Street” and someone who will “stand up for families,” Warren is winning enthusiasm in these conservative states.
Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders, most with safe re-election contests, have taken a lead in linking up with social movements pushing for more egalitarian policies. Rep. Keith Ellison (D‑Minn.) has championed the cause of fast-food workers demanding $15 an hour and a union, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D‑Ill.) joined other legislative and civic leaders who lived on the minimum wage for a week in August to demonstrate the need to raise the pay floor from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.
In Arizona’s 7th Congressional District, Democrat Ruben Gallego’s support for expanding social security and capping tuition hikes helped earn him a spot in the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s #WarrenWingRising campaign, which aims to build an “Elizabeth Warren Wing” in Congress by identifying and supporting progressive candidates. In late August, Gallego, the son of Hispanic immigrants, beat his primary opponent by 12 points, all but securing him the seat in this heavily Democratic district.
Alanna Hartzok, running in midstate Pennsylvania’s rural 9th Congressional District, is one of a very few Democratic candidates making inequality a central theme of their campaigns. Hartzok argues for a “new economy” of worker ownership, decentralization and environmentalism. It’s an uphill battle for Hartzok, as she’s challenging Republican Rep. Bill Shuster, whose father also represented the 9th district, which has voted GOP since 1938.
In Hawaii, Sen. Brian Schatz, who was appointed to the senate in 2012 to fill a vacancy, made inequality a central issue in his August primary race, arguing for expanding Social Security benefits. It paid off. He eked out a narrow win over his challenger, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who endorsed the conservative, bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission’s recommendations, which would reduce Social Security benefits.
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.