The Right’s Inequality Challenge

In politics, there are lots of ways to win an election. The best thing is to just be lucky. If your opponent screws up enough, you’ll win. But it’s one thing to win an election and another thing to implement a successful governing agenda. To succeed at governance, you need, I think, some policy ideas that both strongly appeal to your political base and also appeal to something like the “center” of the electorate. But for different coalitions at different times, this can simply be too tall an order for objective reasons.

Consider Jimmy Carter presiding over stagflation:


In the late 1970s, it just so happened to be the case that the structure of Great Society programs and of then-widespread union contracts meant that the objective interests of union members with automatic Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) provisions, African-Americans, and public assistance recipients were quite a bit different from the objective interests of other Americans. By contrast, it was relatively easy for Ronald Reagan to assemble a coalition built around lower taxes and inflation that started with the well-off but expanded deep into the middle class. It was actually Carter who began the effort to fight inflation and deregulate certain key sectors of the economy, but that wasn’t a politically sustainable agenda for a Democrat (as witnessed by Ted Kennedy’s very strong primary challenge).

Since then, things have changed. I heard Ross Douthat on NPR this morning talking about how the conservative movement needs to return not to the policies of Ronald Reagan but to the spirit of Reaganism defined, as any successful American politics would have to be, as an effort to serious think about ways of improving middle class living standards. But one of the things that’s changed since the 1980s is a substantial growth in inequality.

Here’s a CAPAF chart showing the ratio of the top 10 percent’s income to the bottom 90 percent returning to the pre-FDR historical peak:


Normally talk about the growth in inequality begins and ends with a discussion of whether or not it’s a problem and should we try to “spread the wealth around” or just not worry. But completely aside from whether or not it’s substantively a problem, it’s a political problem for conservatives. That top ten percent is, in an important way, the base of the conservative coalition — providing loyal votes, campaign and institutional funding, etc. And as the economic circumstances of the top ten percent become more and more different from the economic circumstances of the rest of the country, it becomes harder and harder to articulate a policy agenda that speaks to the concerns of both the top ten and also the broad middle. Or, rather, it becomes harder and harder to articulate an economic policy agenda that does that. You can still put a winning coalition together under the right circumstances because people care about other things (abortion, national security, White House sex scandals, etc.) but it’s difficult to govern in a way that keeps the coalition together. Thus, you get a movement that spends an extraordinary amount of time and energy on trying to dream up problems to which capital gains tax cuts — essentially a parochial concern of the well-to-do — are the solution.

By contrast, these same historical trends combined with things like welfare reform have all combined to make it much easier than it once was for a progressive coalition to come up with ideas that unite the interests of the economically struggling with those of the middle class.