As I’ve noted previously, one of the stranger recent developments in American politics has been the swift arrival of a bipartisan consensus over economic inequality. For years and years — decades, even — the left and the right have quarreled over inequality’s very existence. But now, worrying about the maldistribution of income and wealth in the U.S. is utterly mainstream. Noting the widening chasm between the 1 percent and everyone else has become so anodyne, in fact, that even would-be presidents like Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are doing it. It’s enough to make a longtime class-warrior think she’s winning.
That would be a mistake. Because although the political value of inequality is different today than was the case before the Great Recession, it’s mainly been rhetoric — and not policy — that has changed. We may talk more than we once did about the rich are, as Fitzgerald wrote, “not like you and me.” So far, very little’s been done on the national level to explicitly confront the problem. On the contrary, the economic recovery has been so full of McJobs that there’s reason to suspect the issue may only get worse in years to come.
But if the U.S. economy is just as iniquitous as ever, and if the near-total gutting of campaign finance regulation has made the U.S. political economy almost as plutocratic as ever, then how do we explain the rise of inequality as a mainstream topic of conversation? If the 1 and .01 percent still wields such a massively disproportionate degree of influence over our culture as well as our politics, wouldn’t talk of class remain verboten? Shouldn’t the super-rich be telling voters and the public in general to pay no attention to the moneybags behind the curtain?
You might think so; but that would only be true if the wealthy’s control of American politics was more direct (and ham-handed) than it actually is. As Noam Chomsky has argued, the way the wealthy and the powerful operate in a formal democracy is significantly different from how they act in an illiberal society. The discourse has its regulators and gate-keepers, of course. But rather than outright censorship, the powers-that-be in the U.S. tend to head-off opposition by setting the parameters of the debate — and doing so in such a way as to ensure their interests are never really threatened.
Noam Scheiber’s New York Times piece on Monday shows us what that process looks like in the real world. What we see in his report is a donor class that’s acquiesced to inequality being a major 2016 issue, partially because they’ve succeeded so far in rendering any serious responses to the problem out of the question. As Scheiber notes, strong majorities of Americans — including Republicans— are in favor of the government taking action to address the crisis, with redistribution from the 1 percent to the rest being an especially popular response. Yet for all their talk of inequality and opportunity, none of the declared or soon-to-declare presidential candidates of consequence have provided even a general endorsement of such a plan.
Unsurprisingly, their hesitation is shared by one significant group — donors. Citing the invaluable work of Benjamin Page, Jason Seawright and Larry Bartels, Scheiber notes that although a majority of the wealthy Chicago-area persons these researchers interviewed professed concern over inequality, too, they were dramatically less interested in any public policy solutions. “Only 13 percent of wealthy interview subjects” want to see government work to address the problem, Scheiber writes. And only 17 percent are supportive of policies that involve raising taxes on the rich.
And it’s not just tax hikes that the wealthy are keeping off the table. While two-out-of-three Americans think the government should help citizens find a job, provided they’re willing and able, fewer than one-out-of-five of wealthy respondents agree. “Forty percent of the wealthy,” Scheiber writes, want the minimum wage to be high enough to support a family; among the general public, support for that idea nearly doubles, coming out at 78 percent. Perhaps even more telling, though, is the way the overall philosophy of the very rich permeates the public discourse at large.
For example: According to interviews with the wealthy conducted by Fiona Chin, a Northwestern graduate student whom Scheiber describes as a Page “protégé,” the 1 percent is much more likely to believe that inequality is a byproduct of virtue and hard work, rather than any flaws in the U.S.’s economic system. The wealthy, Chin says, think inequality is “a story about individual hard work, effort and character.” Sure, the rich have some built-in advantages, they say. But they’re disadvantaged too; being born with means, after all, can make you less inclined to work.
If you didn’t strike it rich in America, these 1 percenters told Chin, it’s most likely because you “didn’t take advantage of the education system.” That, of course, is a euphemistic way of saying it’s your own damn fault. And while Scheiber’s report doesn’t bring up this angle directly, it’s not hard to see how there might be a connection between the 1 percent’s focus on education and the burgeoning movement to “reform” public schooling. A grand experiment in charter schools is fine. But reducing inequality by giving money to the people who need it? Not okay.
So we may now hear Bush — or Cruz, or Rubio, or Paul — talk about “opportunity” gaps; and we may soon listen as Clinton rails against cutting hedge fund managers' taxes. But given the constraints the 1 percent establishes upfront, you can expect that most of the ideas to come from Bush, Rubio and, eventually, Clinton will differ little from what they would’ve proposed in the years before the Great Recession. And until they stop trying to sell the same-old policies under an inequality-themed banner, the politics of the issue will not be appreciably different. We'll merely have transitioned from denial to a charade.