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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Abramowitz: Why Economic Inequality Is a Winning Issue For Democrats

This post is by TDS Contributor and Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, Alan Abramowitz. Alan can be followed on Twitter: @AlanIAbramowitz.
Class warfare! That’s what Republicans call it when Democrats talk about the need to address the problem of growing economic inequality in the United States. They claim that it’s wrong to focus attention on the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority of corporate executives and captains of finance. And some centrist Democrats, like those associated with the organization Third Way, seem to feel the same way. They’ve been warning that advocating policies aimed at reducing disparities in wealth and income could backfire and cost Democrats support among moderate, swing voters in November.
Notwithstanding such claims, an examination of recent polling data indicates that advocating policies to reduce economic inequality is a winning issue for Democrats in 2014. Americans overwhelmingly believe that wealth and income are too heavily concentrated at the top and that this situation has gotten worse in recent years. Moreover, a majority of Americans want to see the government take steps to reduce the gap in wealth and income such as increasing the minimum wage and raising taxes on upper income households. Finally, and most importantly, this is an issue on which Democrats are more united than Republicans and independent voters tend to side with Democrats. As a result, economic inequality could provide Democratic candidates with a powerful wedge issue in the 2014 midterm election–one that they can use to energize the Democratic base and appeal to swing voters.
Despite attempts by some conservative pundits to minimize its importance, ordinary Americans clearly see growing economic inequality as a major problem. For example, a Gallup Poll conducted in early January of this year found that 67% of Americans were dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed in the U.S. including 39% who were very dissatisfied. Fully 75% of Democrats were dissatisfied but so were 70% of independents and 54% of Republicans.
Americans are not only dissatisfied with the way wealth and income and distributed; they want the government to do something about the situation. Thus, in an April, 2013 Gallup Poll, 59% of respondents indicated that they considered the current distribution of wealth to be unfair and wanted money and wealth to be more evenly distributed in the U. S. A whopping 83% of Democrats along with 60% of independents favored a more even distribution of wealth. Even among Republicans, 28% supported a more even distribution of wealth. Moreover, in the same survey, 52% of Americans favored redistributing wealth by “heavy taxes on the rich.” This was the largest percentage of respondents endorsing redistribution through heavy taxes on the wealthy since Gallup began asking this question in 1998. Fully 75% of Democrats, 50% of independents and 26% of Republicans favored such a policy. There is little doubt that those percentages would have been considerably greater if the question used less loaded language and asked about “higher taxes” on the rich.
Recent polls have shown that Americans overwhelmingly favor policies designed to help those at the bottom of the income ladder such as raising the minimum wage and extending long-term unemployment insurance. Large majorities of Democrats and independents support these policies along with a substantial share of Republicans. Congressional Republicans are clearly on the wrong side of these issues and Democratic candidates, even in red states, have little to lose and much to gain by endorsing such policies. Moreover, the evidence presented here indicates that Democrats would also benefit from directly linking these policies to the broader goal of reducing economic inequality. And if Republicans respond with accusations of class warfare, Democrats should take it as an opportunity to reinforce the public’s perception of the GOP as the party of wealth and privilege. In 2014, a little bit of class warfare may be just what Democrats need.

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