William Galston’s latest Wall St. Journal column “A Better Campaign Theme Than Inequality: Income disparity doesn’t much worry America. Advocating for growth holds more promise” encapsulates a viewpoint gaining support among centrist Democrats.
Galston notes polling data which indicate that, despite all of the media buzz about economic inequality as a growing concern, it really doesn’t rank all that high as a public priority:
Hillary Clinton was reportedly struck that no one had asked her about inequality. She shouldn’t have been surprised… Recent opinion surveys show inequality well down the list of public concerns. In a February CBS News poll, for example, only 4% of Americans named income disparities as the most important problem facing the country. In March only 2% told Gallup that the income gap was at the top of their list.
To some extent such responses depend on how the question is framed. Regardless, if a candidate’s tone is too class warfare-like, some upwardly-mobile small business people, for example, may think rightly or wrongly, that they are being targeted by “soak the rich” rhetoric. Even if they represent only 1 or 2 percent of voters (and it could well be more), their decision to vote Republican could have disastrous consequences for Democrats. Why alienate them unnecessarily, the centrist Democratic argument goes. Better to advocate for growth that screws no one who is working hard to get ahead. As Galston explains:
What matters most is growth that includes everyone. To get that kind of growth, we will have to act on a broad front to expand opportunity for those who now lack it — and ensure that workers earn enough to provide opportunity for their children. These measures will reduce inequality, all the more so if they are financed by linking real wages to productivity gains and terminating tax preferences that don’t promote growth while benefiting mainly the wealthiest Americans.
That last sentence could broaden debate, even among centrist Democrats, about tax policies that facilitate exporting better-paying jobs and the wide range of trade concerns in the Trans Pacific Partnership. Where Democrats should come down on the free trade vs protectionist continuum will be an ongoing debate into the foreseeable future. But if Democrats can make growth their ‘brand,’ rather than ‘end inequality,’ it’s hard to see how that could fail to broaden support. When a majority of likely voters perceive the Democratic Party as the party of growth, we will at long last be on the path to securing a real working majority, the argument goes.
It’s an appealing vision, and with a measure of message discipline, it could be a doable image make-over. It doesn’t preclude tax reform that makes the wealthy more likely to pay their fair share — Galston supports “terminating tax preferences that don’t promote growth while benefiting mainly the wealthiest Americans.” But perhaps its chief virtue is that it checks drift into “bash the rich” rhetoric that upwardly-mobile middle class voters could perceive as an assault on their aspirations. Given our highly polarized electorate and fragile, see-sawing majorities, such a message/policy strategy merits consideration.