Earlier this month, the Atlantic ran a hit piece by communitarian curmudgeon Amitai Etzioni called "The Left's Unpopular Populism," which, in effect, tries to paint Elizabeth Warren as sure death for Democrats, because Americans allegedly don't support wealth redistribution.
It's a superb representative of one major form of elite counter-attack in defense of the 1 percent, updated for the current moment, as the 2016 election cycle begins to take shape.
As the story's subhead spells the argument out, “Elizabeth Warren and her Democratic allies should not fool themselves into thinking that Americans who are angry at elites and corporations also favor wealth redistribution.” To begin with, Etzioni warns:
The debate between Democrats who want to play up populist themes (let’s call them the Elizabeth Warren camp) and those who favor centrist ones (the Hillary Clinton crowd) ignores a major division among the various themes that carry the populist label. The difference is crucial because, as we will see shortly, the data show that some populist ideas are much less popular than others.
As Etzioni describes it, “Populism usually refers to the idea that power should rest in the hands of the little guy, and not in the government or some elite,” and Etzioni readily sites a variety of public opinion poll findings to demonstrate the popularity of such views:
One of every two Americans believes that most politicians are corrupt (51 percent, according to a 2013 poll of national voters); 76 percent that special interests wield too much power; and 88 percent that big money has too much sway. Very low on people’s “trust” lists are all those perceived as powerful, including not just the government but also banks and corporations and labor unions.
This is a very broad kind of populism, Etzioni notes—though, characteristically, without much thought as to why. (Perhaps because it doesn't actually challenge elite power, but only postures? So elites don't challenge it in turn, encouraging it as a way of letting off steam?) In contrast, he argues, there's a decidedly less popular form of populism “once leftist themes join the mix”:
There is little support for policies that look like wealth transfers, taking from the rich and giving to poor, reducing inequality, or making sacrifices for the common good. Large segments of the right and center view these policies as taking from “us” and giving to “them.” That’s why Social Security is so popular, while welfare is not. It’s the reason Medicare is very popular and Medicaid is much less so.
Of course, Americans' overwhelming support for raising the minimum wage would seem to blow at least one gaping hole in Etzioni's argument, as a clearcut example of reducing inequality that regularly draws supermajority support, but the problems with his thinking go much deeper than that—and not just because Warren's defense of preserving and expanding Social Security is where the real action is (see the GOP's latest move to slash disability benefits), putting her in a much more popular position (79 percent of likely voters and 73 percent of Republicans, according to a poll last August) than anyone else on the national political horizon. In the end, Etzioni's fact-phobic narrative concludes, “Warren’s rhetoric smacks of equality of results rather than opportunity, which many Americans—including many who are anti-elite—consider un-American.” This is a very popular sort of formulation in elite circles, not least because of all the contradictory facts it glosses over. Unfortunately for them, it's not just tactically and strategically disingenuous along the way, it's dead wrong at its very core.
Evidence that it's wrong goes back at least to the 1960s, when public opinion pioneers Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril published their classic survey, "The Political Beliefs of Americans," which found that nearly two-thirds of the American people qualified as "operational" liberals, supporting an expansion of government spending programs when asked about them specifically, even as a bare majority qualified as “ideological” conservatives, based on questions about government involvement in the economy vs. free markets, etc. This disjunction was one of the dominant themes of their book, which concluded with a section titled "The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology," in which they wrote:
There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people's wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.
Instead of that, the exact opposite has happened. The American people's basic attitudes supporting government spending have not changed markedly, except that Medicare has passed from proposal to reality, vastly enlarging the size of programs the public supports. But conservatives have poured billions of dollars into building an ideological infrastructure dedicated to attacking these popular programs, among other things. Liberal perspectives that make detailed sense of these views—morally and sociologically, as well as macro-economically—have largely been limited to specialized publications, either watered down or excluded from mainstream discourse, despite the alleged “liberal bias” of the media. It's a reflection of what George Lakoff described as “hypocognition” when I interviewed him here. “We don’t have all the ideas we need,” he explained, ideas do not simply mirror the world, they have to be discovered, developed, articulated, explained and communicated, and conservatives have devoted far more of their resources to promulgating conservative ideas than liberals have done to promote theirs. Yet, despite that, the underlying liberal value structure of American public opinion has not changed significantly since Free and Cantril wrote.
Vivid proof of that appeared in 2010, when Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University's psychology department published a paper, “Building a Better America—One Wealth Quintile at a Time.” It showed just the opposite of what Etzioni claimed, as I explained at Open Left at the time: the American people—even Republicans—think that wealth should be much more equally distributed than it is today, just as Elizabeth Warren has been “unpopularly” arguing.
As the paper's abstract explained, the views of ordinary Americans are largely absent from the equation in economically related policy debates with roots in a vision of what an economically just America would look like. Attempting to discover what such an America would be, they found startling results:
First, respondents dramatically underestimated the current level of wealth inequality. Second, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution. Most important from a policy perspective, we observed a surprising level of consensus: All demographic groups—even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy—desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.
In particular, comparing three different distributions of wealth by quintile—the U.S., complete equality and Sweden (using incomes, not wealth)--the authors found that people favored Sweden over the U.S. overwhelmingly, 92-8 percent (“Unpopular,” Mr. Etzioni? Really?), and even favored complete equality by an overwhelming supermajority, 77-23 percent. They favored Sweden over complete equality by a just a hair's breadth: 51-49 percent.
Breaking things down into different subgroups, the authors presented a graphic combing actual, estimated and ideal wealth distributions, with categories by gender, income levels and 2004 presidential candidate voted for. Commenting on the data combined in that graphic, the authors wrote:
All groups--even the wealthiest respondents--desired a more equal distribution of wealth than what they estimated the current United States level to be, while all groups also desired some inequality--even the poorest respondents. In addition, all groups agreed that such redistribution should take the form of moving wealth from the top quintile to the bottom three quintiles. In short, while Americans tend to be relatively more favorable toward economic inequality than members of other countries (Osberg & Smeeding, 2006), Americans' consensus about the ideal distribution of wealth within the United States appears to dwarf their disagreements across gender, political orientation, and income.
What Norton and Ariely found clearly clashes head on with the very core of Etzioni's argument, as well as (perhaps less directly) with the polling data he cites. It doesn't disprove the results of such polls—welfare is much less popular than Social Security, for example; no one seriously disputes that. But it does seriously challenge the interpretation of the results—from the level of how individual questions are asked all the way up to how Etzioni and others like him choose to group poll results to shape their arguments. For example, Jeffry Will's book "The Deserving Poor" shows overwhelming support for spending much more on welfare, when the issue is presented in concrete individual human terms, as I touched on last July.
Taking Norton and Ariely's results seriously, we can say that the American people want a much fairer society than they live in, but that the means for articulating this desire—the stories, concepts, policy proposals, etc.—are in scandalously short supply, a de facto example of hypocognition thwarting what people want. Elizabeth Warren is particularly popular precisely because she provides some of the missing means that people are so hungry for—an antidote to the hypocognition that thwarts their desire for a fairer, more just vision of America, which respects both their hard work and their compassionate values. There may be relatively little polling to support this view (though there's considerably more than you'd expect) but that's partly just another example of how elites dominate the landscape of acceptable thought to protect their interests, as underscored by recent research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page. Warren represents a clear alternative to this narrow-minded view. Her popularity derives in large part from her ability to shape narratives that reflect the hidden majority's shared values and articulate them in policy terms, reversing a decades-long trend by which elites of both parties have turned their backs on the welfare of ordinary Americans.
People do not support a higher minimum wage out of the mistaken belief that it will be a silver bullet, or a cure-all for poverty and inequality, for example, as instinctively cynical reporters might posit, but because it will move America more in the direction of the ideal they share in common—and that's precisely the sort of language that Warren uses, because she feels it in her bones, and people listening to her feel it in her bones as well. In telling her own story—at a “Raising Wages summit--Warren cast the lost (and potentially regained) power of the minimum wage as a key part of a larger framework of opportunity, which used to fairly reward hard work, as Joan Walsh reported here:
I remember the day my mother, scared to death and crying the whole time, pulled her best dress out of the closet, put on her high heels and walked to the Sears to get a minimum-wage job. Unlike today, a minimum-wage job back then paid enough to support a family of three. That minimum-wage job saved our home—and saved our family. My daddy ended up as a maintenance man, and my mom kept working at Sears. I made it through a commuter college that cost $50 a semester and I ended up in the United States Senate.
Sure, I worked hard, but I grew up in an America that invested in kids like me, an America that built opportunities for kids to compete in a changing world, an America where a janitor’s kid could become a United States senator. I believe in that America.
Hearing Warren talk about an issue like the minimum wage in this holistic, deeply moral manner, people are similarly open to her shedding light on other ways in which the America we know can be moved more in the direction of the America we would like to have. That is the real nature of the “unpopular populism” that Etzioni so earnestly warns us against—which is precisely why it's so necessary to misrepresent it and replace it with a bogeyman instead. That is to say, there's an elite need to perpetuate the condition of hypocognition which prevents the American people from having the language to make policy sense of their basic humanitarian values, and translate them into effective political action.
The minimum wage is only one example of how America could be moved significantly toward the popular ideal. I recently wrote about another such example, restoring overtime protections to 1970s levels, and the “Raising Wages” summit Joan reported on struggled with the challenge of how to bring multiple different forms of this struggle together. Another example of these different forms is the fight against wage theft. The term “wage theft” remains unfamiliar to many, but it's gained a great deal of attention in the last few years. It tends to hit low-income workers hardest, and its sheer size is staggering.
Last September, writing for the Economic Policy Institute, Ross Eisenbrey and Brady Meixell reported that wage theft dwarfs all other forms of theft in terms of what it costs. “Employers steal billions of dollars from their employees each year by working them off the clock, by failing to pay the minimum wage, or by cheating them of overtime pay they have a right to receive. Survey research shows that well over two-thirds of low-wage workers have been the victims of wage theft,” they wrote. More specifically:
In 2012, there were 292,074 robberies of all kinds, including bank robberies, residential robberies, convenience store and gas station robberies, and street robberies. The total value of the property taken in those crimes was $340,850,358. By contrast, the total amount recovered for the victims of wage theft who retained private lawyers or complained to federal or state agencies was at least $933 million in 2012. This is almost three times greater than all the money stolen in robberies that year. Further, the nearly $1 billion successfully reclaimed by workers is only the tip of the wage-theft iceberg, since most victims never sue and never complain to the government.
The fact that American business owners harbor such a massive criminal class in their midst is perhaps America's best-kept secret—but it's not likely to stay secret forever. Attacking wage theft head on could not only substantially benefit millions of low-wage workers, it could also help to start changing business norms, moving them back closer to what they were in the early 1970s and before, when Americans at all income levels shared more or less equally in growing prosperity for almost 30 years. Heck, you might even want to think of the fight against wage theft as a “broken windows” approach to corporate lawlessness from below.
Raising wages is key to a progressive populist agenda, but so, too, is the reshaping of social spending—from infrastructure investments to public education to the rejuvenation of the welfare state, with a particular focus of strengthening and expanding Social Security. While the policy trajectories in these different areas have been out of synch with one another, there's good reason to argue for progressive pressure on all three fronts.
Infrastructure spending has long been extremely popular across the ideological spectrum. People know that government spending on infrastructure creates a strong foundation for all other sorts of new economic activity to build on—in addition to the immediate benefits of the jobs and economic stimulus it creates during the building phase. Yet, so-called “centrist” Democrats effectively prevented significant action before the 2010 midterms, thereby helping to seal their own doom. Our infrastructure deficit has only worsened with continued under-funding, and the logic of green infrastructure investments has only grown stronger. On the education front, Obama's new push for free community college, added to his earlier push for free preschool, at least shows some growing awareness of how popular such programs are—as well as making sense as policy.
But the most consequential battle by far is the newly energized effort to expand Social Security, shifting gears from defense to offense, in line with overwhelming public opinion, referenced above. When Warren announced her support for expanding Social Security in November, she amped up a significant shift in momentum that had already begun, and the pundit class reaction was predictable. Taking to the pages of the Wall Street Journal, the leaders of the elite-centrist “Third Way” announced that “Economic Populism Is a Dead End for Democrats,” warning in its subhead that “The de Blasio-Warren agenda won't travel. Colorado is the real political harbinger.” If they sound remarkably similar to Etzioni, well, they are. And their argument itself could not have been clearer: “Social Security is exhibit A of this populist political and economic fantasy,” underscoring once again how badly Etzioni misunderstands the populist politics of Social Security, be they “popular” as he imagines them or “unpopular” as the Wall Street Journal supposes.
In her Senate speech, Think Progress noted, Warren came out against “chained CPI,” the skinflint inflation measure that President Obama had previously endorsed as a benefit-cutting measure in fruitless pursuit of a “grand bargain” with Republicans, and instead declared support for “CPI E,” an inflation measure that more accurately reflects the inflation costs of goods and services on which retirees depend—a move that's both more generous and more realistic. She did so after going into the history of how we got here, and she made it very clear it was time for a change. “The suggestion that we have become a country where those living in poverty fight each other for a handful of crumbs tossed off the tables of the very wealthy is fundamentally wrong,” she said. Is that “popular” populism or “unpopular” populism? I'm beginning to have trouble keeping track.
There are actually a number of different plans out there for strengthening and expanding Social Security, but their proliferation reflects a fairly basic reality: First, that Social Security is both popular and successful, notwithstanding the multibillion-dollar campagin against it. Second, that we can easily afford to pay more: Social Security's costs are modest compared to similar programs in other countries, and virtually flat over the next 75 years—unlike health care costs, for example. Third, that the real crisis is one of needs, not financing: Seniors' needs will only be increasing in the years to come, thanks to decimated private pension plans, loss of housing equity, and increasingly early exit from long-term full-time employment. Fourth, that there are needs beyond the current scope of Social Security—such as paid parental leave—that other countries have long provided, and that have proven track records as worthwhile forms of social expenditure.
A new book, "Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All," not only presents a comprehensive, paid-for expansion plan from Social Security Works, but includes information on more than a dozen proposals from members of Congress and citizen organizations. I have interviewed the authors, Nancy J. Altman and Eric R. Kingson, the co-founders of Social Security Works, and that interview will appear here soon. Two things their book makes crystal clear are (1) that Etzioni is absolutely right when he says that Social Security is so popular and (2) that Etzioni is absolutely wrong when he says that Americans don't support “left-wing” “redistributionist” policies.
Redistribution from rich to poor is certainly not the primary purpose of Social Security, Altman and Kingson make clear, but it is a significant consequence of how the system works—just as it was intended to be. Old age was once virtually synonymous with grinding poverty, they point out, but that's no longer the case, first because of Social Security, and then because of Medicare. What's more, Social Security keeps more than a million children out of poverty as well. But the major form of redistribution involved is from the fortunate majority when times are relatively good to the unfortunate minority when times are tougher.
This isn't a question of “makers” versus “takers,” as right-wing talk radio and Republican politicians would have us believe. People who've contributed to Social Security all their working lives become “takers” on retirement, for example. And because Social Security helps them be independent, it allows them to continue giving back in other ways as well. By not being a burden to their children, for example, they make it easier for their adult children to save and invest in their children's education. Once you set aside the short-sighted, mean-spirited way of looking at the world promoted by Social Security's enemies, you begin to appreciate how much more complicated things are, how many different forms of giving and receiving there are and how we as citizens can enrich each other's lives by taking up shared burdens long before they have a chance to become impossible to bear.
“Unpopular” populism, is it? I'm sure Mitt Romney would agree. So would the rest of his Wall Street buddies, who only see the costs and benefits to their bottom lines—and the rest of us be damned. But they've been wrong before, now, haven't they? And all the rest of us paid the price—and are paying it still.
So pardon us all if we want to change the rules to make things fairer for the vast majority of Americans again. You can call it progressive—and claim it's “unpopular”—because progressives are leading the charge. Or you can call it conservative—and admit that it's popular—because it would turn back the clock to the way things were when Elizabeth Warren's mother took a minimum-wage job and earned enough to save their home and family. Either way, what actually matters is a restoration of fairness, whatever other labels you want to apply.