By Alyssa Battistoni
Over the past few years, it’s become an article of faith among progressives that we’re living through a second Gilded Age -- you know, an era in which great fortunes accrue to powerful business leaders and institutions and the nation’s wealth is concentrated at the very top. In the past few months, as Republicans have proposed budgets that would cut taxes still further on the backs of the middle and working class, progressives have hammered away at the statistics -- like that the top 1 percent of Americans hold 34.6 percent of the nation’s wealth; the bottom 90 percent, just 26.9 percent.
But the growth in inequality and decline of the middle and working class, though exacerbated by Bush administration economic policies, isn’t a recent phenomenon -- it’s been in progress for decades. Which begs the question: why on earth did it take so long for the Left to take notice? How did we end up with inequality reaching levels not seen since before the Depression without waging anything approximating a real fight against it? Surely the trends of decreasing social mobility and increasing social stratification in the supposed “land of opportunity” call for serious resistance -- where has it been? As thoroughly reprehensible as the Right’s slavishness to wealth and power is, the fact that it took a financial meltdown for economic justice to even begin to replace welfare reform on the political agenda suggests progressives need to do a bit of navel-gazing.
By now it should come as no surprise that most Democratic politicians are more responsive to the interests of more affluent voters than to the working class, even if they’re nominally better than Republicans with regard to middle-class interests. But the fact of the matter is that it’s not just Democratic politicians who are operating from a position of privilege, but the broader progressive leadership. Perhaps this isn’t surprising either, but for a party purporting to defend the economic interests of the working and middle class -- to say nothing of the poor (as per usual) -- it’s a fatal weakness. By and large, the people who work at progressive think tanks, media outlets and policy centers are well-compensated -- some extravagantly so -- and staggeringly well-educated; they have solid health-care benefits and 401(k)s. As genuinely as they may care about social justice, their caring is largely based on principle rather than self-interest.
Indeed, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels has shown that voting based on social values has increased among middle-class and affluent white voters -- making “What’s the matter with Manhattan?” a more appropriate question than “What’s the matter with Kansas?” The answer is, of course, nothing. There’s no reason people should vote based on economics rather than social issues, or vice versa. And yet the distinction does matter when it comes to questions of economic justice -- it’s harder to let wage stagnation slide when it’s a fact of life rather than a line on a graph.
While the makeup of the progressive leadership is a symptom of the
decline of the working class rather than its root cause, it’s a symptom
that perpetuates the disease. Built around often-competing values of technocratic policymaking and social equality,
progressives have typically sought the latter via redistribution in
the form of taxes and “smart” policy measures rather than trying to
make the economic model itself more equitable. We're starting to see
the limitations of a technocratic approach to building an essentially
charitable welfare state, but by now we've already ceded so much ground
that any attempt to bring the conversation back to the structure of
the economy itself is labeled as crazy socialist nonsense.