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Why the Rich Hate Popular Democracy

Genuine democracy not only includes everyone, it’s good for everyone.

By Sheila Suess Kennedy

Paul Krugman has a knack for telling it like it is. His recent column in The New York Times, “Plutocrats Against Democracy,” was no exception.

If ordinary people controlled elections, the rich would be taxed and the poor would be lifted up.

If ordinary people controlled elections, the rich would be taxed and the poor would be lifted up.

In the piece, Krugman uses the recent upheaval in Hong Kong as an example of the rich’s disdain for the working poor. He illustrates their hatred by quoting Leung Chun-ying, the Beijing-backed leader of Hong Kong, who inadvertently blurted out the reason the regime is resisting democracy:

If regular people were allowed to vote, Leung said, You would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month. Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies.”

As Krugman points out, these are policies that would make the rich less rich and provide more aid to those with lower incomes.”

According to this way of thinking, Krugman notes, half the population of Hong Kong would presumably vote for bad policies because they don’t make enough money.” Krugman goes on to point out that Leung’s words are reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s statement about the 47 percent of Americans who Mitt Romney said would vote against him because they don’t pay income taxes” as well as Paul Ryan’s statement about the 60 percent of Americans who pose a danger” because they are “takers.”

Krugman’s major point is that the political right has always been uncomfortable with democracy.” For conservatives, there is always “an undercurrent of fear”  that if the masses vote, they will “tax the rich” and “hand out largess to the poor.”

As Krugman notes, this attitude is anything but new. If there is a staple of human politics, it is the tendency to demonize the “other.” Gays, Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, non-Ayrans—the identity of the marginalized may change, but apparently, the political and psychological need to draw a distinction between those who are righteous and “deserving” versus those who are not remains constant.

The political and psychological need to draw a distinction between those who are deserving versus those who are not remains constant.

These days, at least in the United States, demonizing racial or religious minority groups is publicly frowned upon (although privately indulged). However, blaming the poor for their poverty continues to be seen as analysis rather than bigotry.

Most observers understand that this moral opprobrium prevents us from implementing progressive economic policies; fewer recognize its effects in other policy areas. To take but one example, it also retards current efforts to fix public education.

Recently, the Mind Trust (a non-profit working to reform public schools in Indianapolis) and the United Negro College Fund hosted a luncheon in Indianapolis. The keynote speaker was Roland Fryer. He focused upon the (unfortunately widespread) belief that children from poorer precincts lack the ability to learn.

Moral opprobrium towards the poor retards current efforts to fix public education.

Fryer—the youngest African-American ever tenured at Harvard—is an economist who studies education, and he reported the results of a large-scale experiment he and others recently conducted in Houston and Denver. Fryer made a number of important points, but his basic message was simple and profound: poor children—including poor black children—are every bit as capable of learning as their more affluent peers.

When poor kids are given good teachers, when their schools support those teachers appropriately, and when the teachers expect those children to learn and excel, performance improves dramatically. Attitude isn’t everything, but it’s critical.

Genuine democracy not only includes everyone, it’s good for everyone.

If we want to live in a society where resentments fester and plutocrats retreat ever farther into their gated communities—then we should keep doing what we’ve been doing.

If we want change, however, we need to confront those who engage in “makers and takers” rhetoric—and we need to remind them that genuine democracy not only includes everyone, it’s good for everyone.

 

  • Gavin Barker

    I don’t think anyone on the Right would disagree with the thrust of Fryer’s findings. Far from it; they would argue that it is not inequality but lack of opportunity. It is cultural change that needs to happen- the culture of learning, the culture of the teachers and the attitude of the students themselves that needs to change. To put it bluntly: it is not tax as the redistributive mechanism to make societies more equal, it is equality of opportunity – and you need to look much harder at how education is delivered. I am of course playing devils advocate here since my instincts rebel against the gross inequalities we see in the US and UK – but Fryers findings would probably find much common ground between left and right.

  • Leland Mellott

    All are priceless, unto the least and beginning there.l

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