Why Democrats Should Run On Inequality In 2014

CREDIT: AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin

There’s been some debate recently about how progressives should talk about inequality: opportunity and mobility or redistribution and fairness? I personally lean toward the opportunity and mobility approach, a position I outline here.

But this disagreement over how to talk about inequality here shouldn’t obscure the fact that, when it comes to the 2014 elections, there’s broad agreement among progressives that Democrats who share their values should talk about it. In fact, the data are unequivocal: if they want to win, they should talk about it a lot.

Traditionally, Democrats are very sensitive to the Republican counter-charge that talking about inequality is “class warfare.” Some more centrist Democrats, for instance, argue that too much talk about inequality will alienate voters in “the center” of the electorate.

But Republicans are starting to flip the script. Congressional leaders like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) are starting to develop a conservative message on inequality, a somewhat confused muddle circling around opportunity and crony capitalism. This tactic suggests Republicans are adapting a political reality where attacking inequality is broadly popular among centrist voters.

Take a recent CNN poll that asked people whether “the government should work to substantially reduce the income gap between the rich and poor.” Unsurprisingly, 90 percent of liberals of liberals agreed. But so did 71 percent of moderates, suggesting candidates who run on inequality have opportunities to make gains in the center.

However, the same data show that Republicans like Ryan and Lee aren’t exactly in a good position to capitalize on this opportunity. 53 percent of conservatives disagreed with the notion of government working to solve the income gap, suggesting Republicans will only have limited room to attack inequality without alienating their base. Indeed, the real political opportunity created by independent disgust with inequality is for Democrats to use it as a wedge issue to pry centrist voters away from Republican candidates.

More data in the CNN poll support this interpretation. 91 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of independents thought the government should work hard to reduce the income gap. 57 percent of Republican identifiers thought the government should not work at all on reducing the income gap.

Now, most independents are not actually independent: the vast majority of independents vote like either Republicans or Democrats. But based on what we know about the typical distribution of pure independents versus closet partisans and their respective views, we can estimate pure independents’ support for government action to reduce inequality from the CNN data. The figure comes, by my calculations, to around 66 percent.

In other words, the electorate’s true centrists — the pure independents whom one might legitimately call swing voters — are overwhelmingly supportive of government action to reduce the gap between rich and poor in today’s America.

So: however progressives choose to talk about inequality, they should, above all, keep talking. Centrist voters will be listening.