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Inequality Shapes Democratic Debate

Blogging Our Great Divide
October 15, 2015

by Josh Hoxie

In the first Democratic debate of the presidential primary season, the five candidates on stage vied to distinguish themselves from the pack on the wide range of issues covered by CNN moderator, Anderson Cooper.

Not surprisingly, the issue of wealth and income inequality was a consistent topic throughout the debate, an issue Bernie Sanders in a post-debate interview said he wished was discussed more and has often claimed is the defining moral, economic, and political issue of our time.

So how much was inequality discussed during the debate?

A quick scan of the Washington Post transcript shows the word “inequality” was mentioned 10 times during the debate. “Billionaires” were invoked 15 times while the “wealthy” got 7 references. While Bernie used these terms the most, each candidate (except for Jim Webb) referenced these terms as did two of the four moderators.

This is in sharp comparison to the first Republican presidential debate in which candidates invoked the words inequality, billionaires, and wealthy exactly zero times. That’s in spite of the fact that an actual loud and proud billionaire, Donald Trump, was standing on stage! The second Republican debate did mention billionaires three times and the wealthy once although half these were in reference to Trump. And inequality made no appearance at all.

Okay, so inequality is a partisan issue you say. Let’s look back at the first Democratic Primary debate of the 2008 election cycle, held on April 26, 2007 and featuring eight presidential hopefuls. The words inequality, billionaires, and wealthy are not mentioned a single time. Maybe that was a fluke? Scanning ahead to the fifth debate of the 2008 Democratic primary cycle, again hosted by Anderson Cooper, in July 2007 and the word inequality is mentioned twice in relation to opportunity, not wealth or income, and the words wealthy and billionaire are not mentioned at all. Fast forward to the final debate of the primary and inequality as well as billionaires each get one mention while the wealthy are mentioned a mere three times.

Admittedly, word frequency is a pretty crude metric for the importance of an issue. But it’s undeniable that wealth and income inequality have risen in stature as a political issue as demonstrated by the recent Democratic debate to heights not seen in a long time. This rise is due in no small part to Bernie Sanders who has held a singular focus on this issue for decades.

As the widening gap between the ultra wealthy and the rest of society continues to grow to nearly unprecedented levels, focus on this issue is important and should reverberate throughout the electoral process.

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