Is America’s political discourse on inequality finally getting real?
In the early going of the 2020 presidential campaign, this has become a question worth asking. White House hopefuls have been condemning the maldistribution of America’s income and wealth with an intensity—and a specificity—that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. And the rich are squirming. They see candidates proposing unprecedented taxes on their assets and even questioning their right to exist. Perhaps most worrying, this time moderates aren’t exactly rushing to their defense.
At the October Democratic primary debate, for instance, Senator Bernie Sanders delivered one of his trademark blasts against the billionaire class.
“Senator Sanders is right!” responded the wealthiest candidate in the Democratic field, Tom Steyer.
That gave Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, a self-styled champion of moderation, an opening for the evening’s biggest laugh line. “No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires,” she pronounced. “Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires!”
A good many billionaires, of course, do expect to be protected, and the unwillingness of the 2020 Democratic field to fawn over their fortunes has the awesomely affluent feeling like a persecuted minority. The nation’s richest may not have felt this aggrieved since President Franklin Roosevelt declaimed, “I welcome their hatred,” back in the 1930s. Calls for a wealth tax—Senator Elizabeth Warren’s signature initiative—have our deepest pockets particularly pained.
“This is the fucking American Dream she is shitting on,” as billionaire Leon Cooperman told Politico.
Has campaign 2020 indeed put America’s superrich at existential risk? Or are our wealthiest merely hyperventilating? The Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies, the publisher of Inequality.org, decided to find out. IPS analysts first prepared a candidate questionnaire designed to divine the depth of each presidential hopeful’s commitment to challenge inequalities of income and wealth. The survey then went to all the major party candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike.
But candidates have a nasty habit of ignoring questionnaires that leave them uncomfortable. So IPS analysts also scoured the printed and online record for the candidates’ inequality-related plans and comments.
What has all this sleuthing found? Those who seek our nation’s highest office—at least on the Democratic side—no longer see safe harbor in the warm embrace of the ultrarich. To be sure, our political class has not yet abandoned the billionaire class. But the political consensus that nurtured our contemporary top-heavy economy has cracked.
To appreciate just how much, we need to start with a little history.
In the early 1900s, after a generation of Gilded Age excess, American progressives of most every stripe arrived at a broad common vision of how best to mold a decent society. The nation needed, reformers and revolutionaries agreed, to narrow the grand divide that separated the nation’s poor many from its most privileged few, and that meant focusing on both the absence of wealth and its concentration. Americans needed to battle, as publisher Joseph Pulitzer put it, “predatory poverty” as well as “predatory plutocracy.”
This commitment to leveling up the downtrodden and leveling down what the philosopher Felix Adler termed “pomp and pride and power” would animate struggles for justice throughout the decades ahead and dominate the New Deal’s political discourse. The same egalitarian ethos would guide us through World War II and into the postwar world.