CLASS WARFARE….There’s been a fair

CLASS WARFARE….There’s been a fair amount of comment about David Brooks’ op-ed in the New York Times yesterday in which he says Democrats should give up complaining about tax cuts for the rich. The most popular quote, of course, was this one:

Nineteen percent of Americans say they are in the richest 1 percent and a further 20 percent expect to be someday. So right away you have 39 percent of Americans who thought that when Mr. Gore savaged a plan that favored the top 1 percent, he was taking a direct shot at them.

But I think his summary paragraph is more important:

[Democratic presidential candidates] haven’t learned what Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt and even Bill Clinton knew: that you can run against rich people, but only those who have betrayed the ideal of fair competition.

I don’t have any cosmic argument to make here, but my gut tells me that he’s right. Even in 1920, when there were lots of poor people ? and they were really poor back then ? it only occasionally worked to explicitly run against the rich. And sure, during the Depression it worked, but if it takes 25% unemployment to get people to respond to this message, it’s not going to work any time in the near future.

A common suggestion among liberal bloggers is that we should use actual numbers instead of percentages. Tell those people who make $50,000 a year that they aren’t in the top 1% and aren’t going to get there any time soon: they’ll have to make $400,000 a year before they have that honor. That ought to get their attention!

Maybe, and I imagine it’s better than saying “top 1%,” but I think it still misses the point. Brooks is right: fighting for social and economic policies that level the playing field may be the right thing to do, but we won’t get it by explicitly appealing to resentment of the rich. That resentment just isn’t very intense unless people feel that there’s some fundamental unfairness at work, and shooting the messenger won’t change that.

For example: fighting to raise the minimum wage is good politics, but charts showing how the minimum wage has declined over time won’t do the trick. Unfairness, however might: those CEOs have given themselves whopping pay raises, but they greedily refuse to share the good times with the hardworking folks at the bottom who make their companies run! It’s cheating and unfairness that will get people riled up, not richness by itself.

Maybe that will work, maybe it won’t. But complaining about the “richest 1%” looks more and more like an electoral loser to me.

POSTSCRIPT: Here’s an article by Brooks from The Atlantic last November that expands on his idea.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation