December 11, 2013

 

Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren

You’ve probably noticed that there’s a big argument raging (joined most prominently by Elizabeth Warren and the “centrist” group Third Way) over how aggressively, and in what manner, Democrats should campaign against inequality.

Here’s a point that keeps getting lost, however: Inequality is already a disproportionally huge issue among Democratic base voters, and they believe overwhelmingly that government can — and should — do something about it. So it’s probably inevitable that inequality and the need for a serious policy response to it will figure prominently in Democratic Party politics going forward.

A new poll captures this nicely. The Bloomberg survey found that huge majorities of Americans say the U.S. no longer offers everyone an equal shot, and that the gap between the rich and the rest is getting bigger.

But the poll also finds only 45 percent say government should implement policies to shrink that gap, while 46 percent say government should let the market operate freely.

Strikingly, however, Democratic voters overwhelmingly see a government role in combatting inequality. According to Bloomberg’s partisan breakdown:

When asked if all Americans have an equal shot at getting ahead, 75 percent of Democrats said they don’t, compared with 51 percent of Republicans and 63 percent among independents…To narrow the income gap, 71 percent of Democrats said new government policies are needed, while 68 percent of Republicans said it would be better to let the marker operate freely. Among independents, 50 percent favored a free-market approach, while 40 percent support government changes.

Incidentally, the only group that thinks everyone has an equal shot are Tea Partyers, but put that aside. Nearly three in four Democrats say the economy no longer offers everyone an equal shot and say government policies should address it.

Those who oppose a more populist course for the Democratic Party will note that only 40 percent of independents support government policies to deal with inequality. And it’s true that other polling has shown that while the public is concerned about inequality, it is reluctant to support government doing anything about it.

But generic “government” always polls badly. Ask moderates and independents whether they favor higher taxes on the rich; more infrastructure spending to create jobs; tougher Wall Street regulations; a higher minimum wage; and strengthening the safety net, and you’ll probably get very different answers. This doesn’t mean the argument over government activism in the economy is easy for Dems to win. Rather, it means that if Dems can keep the focus on actual policies in response to GOP screams of “class warfare” (a war cry that seems to make centrist Dems quake in fear), inequality could prove more favorable political turf for them.

Indeed, as Alec MacGillis notes in a must read, Democrats should not shy away from talking about inequality because, you know, it’s kind of important:

Even if income inequality is not as much of an instant political winner as some liberals would wish it to be, why should Obama and other Democrats therefore play down the issue? Parties need a purpose and identity, and soaring inequality strikes as close to the animating core of the party of the New Deal as any other issue. Obama is talking up inequality not just because he’s grasping for an issue to ride into a midterm election year but because he seems to have genuinely believed for some time now that, as new White House hire John Podesta declared this week and as the Holy Father himself declared two weeks earlier, it is a serious problem with a clear moral dimension. And it is!

Either way, it’s unclear whether Dem lawmakers and candidates will have any choice here. Even if Elizabeth Warren isn’t running for president, her popularity among the Democratic grassroots suggests Dems with national aspirations will probably need to address their thirst for an agenda in line with hers, which turns on the idea that the economy is rigged against middle class Americans in favor of wealthy elites, enabling them to vacuum up an increasingly large share of the country’s wealth while middle- and working-class wages stagnate, and that we need government policies to reverse these trends.

As today’s Bloomberg poll shows, a huge majority of Dem voters appear to agree. That probably won’t change anytime soon, especially if the recovery remains sluggish and its gains are not widely shared.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.