December 10, 2013

The consequences of income disparity have been a frequent topic of discussion in this space, specifically how much political opportunity the issue provides and which candidates and parties are best positioned to own it. I have joined others in arguing that forces as disparate as Elizabeth Warren and tea party advocates are attuned to renewed populist rumblings from the left and right. Indeed, both strains seem to meet in the middle over their complaint that large corporate interests exert a pernicious influence over our government and skew its policies toward their own, narrow and monied self-interest. (For an interesting take on why corporate interests have become so central to policy-making, see Francis Fukuyama’s argument that the symbiotic relationship between lobbyists and corporations is simply what “biologists label kin selection and reciprocal altruism (the favoring of family and friends with whom one has exchanged favors)” and is where social groups regress when government fails.)

What remains to be seen is whether all this heat around the unprecedented and growing gap between the narrowest slice of those at the top and the rest of Americans will actually combust or, as has been the case in past elections, smolder and die.

If income disparity is to become the “defining” issue of our time, as President Obama argued last week, we are going to need what our politics seems incapable of producing these days: first, a real discussion of the causes and consequences of allowing the vast majority of Americans to tread water or fall behind economically; then, a reasoned debate about remedies. To enable that discussion and debate, we are going to need a new vocabulary, one that moves beyond the tired lexicon of “class warfare.” Far-fetched, I know, but that is the real opportunity.