The right 2016 message on inequality

Can Democrats articulate a compelling economic message around inequality?

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Left, right or center, no one disputes that inequality in America is worsening.

According to new data from the Pew Research Center, the median net wealth enjoyed by the nation’s wealthiest families in 2013 was nearly seven times the median wealth of middle-income families ($634,900 versus $96,500) and almost 70 times the wealth of lower-income households – the largest gaps in 30 years. And while the net worth of middle and lower income households has declined in recent years, affluent families have seen their wealth grow.

No wonder then, that Democrats are intent on making inequality a core campaign issue in 2016, and rising populist stars such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren have made the wealth and income gap central to their message.

But as urgent as the challenge has become – and as obvious as the problem seems to be – undiluted messages based solely on “inequality” and “fairness” still fare poorly among rank-and-file voters. While the mere fact of rising inequality is enough on its own to mobilize the progressive base, it’s a different matter to craft a message and agenda that can appeal more broadly to the electorate. According to research by Global Strategy Group, these messages do especially poorly among moderates and independents.

How to craft a compelling, yet broad-based message, around inequality will be a key concern for Democrats – particularly for potential presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who must meet the demands of an increasingly vocal populist left while maintaining, if not broadening, her appeal to the broad middle class.

Among the problems with “inequality” as a political message is that it’s too abstract in itself to be compelling. Moreover, it hints at “big-government” solutions that don’t enjoy wide public support.

As much as Americans dislike the notion of our nation as plutocracy, they’re just as uncomfortable with policy solutions that fuel class resentments or that favor redistribution over growth. Global Strategy Group found, for example, that voters preferred “more economic growth” to “less income equality” by a whopping 64-points.

According to another Pew survey, 88 percent of Americans say they admired “people who get rich by working hard” – even as 57 percent of people in the same survey said that the widening wealth gap was bad for society. Moreover, a majority of Americans still believe that hard work is what leads to success – just 35 percent of respondents in the Pew survey agreed that “hard work offers little guarantee of success.”

But perhaps the bigger – and mose tangible – hurdle to the success of inequality as a political message can be found right in Americans’ living rooms.

As economist Stephen Rose points out in a new analysis for ITIF, middle-class Americans have shared in some of the fruits of growth over the last 30 years – though certainly not to the extent of the wealthy. But more significantly, those dividends for the middle class have taken the form of more and better consumer goods and services – i.e., tangible improvements in the standard of living for the middle class.

As Rose points out, nearly half of the typical Americans’ spending on food goes toward meals eaten out or prepared away from home, and many of us think little of a daily trip to Starbucks for a $4 latte. Over the last 30 years, our homes have gotten bigger, smartphones are nearly universal accessories, and many families have at least one car. HDTV and cable are as vital to American homes as running water.

And while these new “necessities” of middle-class life are often financed at the expense of high levels of consumer debt and the virtual non-existence of savings for retirement or emergencies, access to these baubles is not an issue for the middle class.

What Rose’s research implies is that the relentless “up-marketing” of the middle class complicates the political message around inequality. Setting aside the plight of lower-income Americans – many of whom are genuinely deprived – the vast majority of middle-class Americans aren’t “just getting by” when it comes to the basics of food, clothing and shelter. Rather, they are drowning in the abundance of modern consumerist society.

“Most people think that growth is something very consequential that accomplishes a great deal,” Rose says, but in reality, “economic growth today takes the form of better products, many consumer gadgets, and more recreation.”

Rose’s research points to some critical threshold questions for anyone who wants to craft a compelling – and broad-based message – around inequality:  If middle-class Americans aren’t lacking in the absolute necessities of survival – food, clothing and shelter – what should the champions of reducing inequality be offering to the middle class? If the outcome of “more equality” shouldn’t be defined in terms of greater access to consumer services and goods, what does it mean instead?

In the past, when robber barons lived in mansions while ordinary Americans were literally starving in the streets, the disparities between rich and poor were both tangible and stark. Today, the tangible consequences of increasing inequality are harder to articulate because they are far less obvious to average Americans.

But defining those consequences in concrete terms will be absolutely critical for the champions of an inequality message. Equally important will be to articulate a clear vision of what a “more equal” economy will look like for ordinary people – as well as how public policy can get us there.  Defining those elements may in fact be key to crafting an economic message around inequality that is both broad-based and compelling. And what it likely means is that rather than treating reducing inequality as an end it itself, it becomes a means to expanding individual opportunity and promoting economic growth.

No doubt some populists may be tempted to dismiss Rose’s research as an effort to undermine their message by downplaying the dire circumstances of the middle class. But they would do so at their peril.

Anne Kim is editor of Republic 3.0.