The Problem with Believing that Capitalism is a Magic Unicorn

Greg Sargent has a good recap detailing a variety of public opinion work showing that while President Obama’s State of the Union proposals are quite popular, much of the public isn’t necessarily sold on how we should do it:

However, as Gallup also notes: “far fewer Americans expressed the relevant combination of views to be completely in sync with Obama’s redistributive goals.” This is in keeping with the dial session I watched, which showed that swing voters react more enthusiastically to concrete proposals to address their economic challenges than to general statements embodying redistributive principles and priorities. Gallup also showed relatively weak support for strengthening unions, which was also reflected in that dial session.

Ultimately, that is the biggest negative consequence of the Left’s abandonment of economic populism over the last several decades. People still want a fairer country with a view to social justice in which there is more equality, better access to healthcare and education, and much greater opportunity for everyone. But despite inch-deep, mile-wide polling showing general support for taxing the wealthy, many Americans are deeply uncomfortable with redistributive economics.

I’ve talked with many younger voters who are largely progressive in their views, but have been conned into believing the emerging Republican talking point that the reason for economic injustice isn’t just mechanization, outsourcing and the malfeasance of corporate and financial elites, but that government regulations and government reduces economic dynamism and stifles competition. In this view, capitalism would solve these problems on its own with some small investments by government if it were truly allowed to run free.

A lot of Americans have this bizarre belief that capitalism is a magic pony that creates mass prosperity without government assistance. But it’s not so weird when you consider that both political parties spent decades promoting that belief for their own ends.

The Left’s great challenge is to accomplish what seems so effortless for Elizabeth Warren: informing Americans about where the weaknesses and blind spots of capitalism are, why and where we need government to provide the necessary services the market will not at a fair price for the labor involved, why labor unions are necessary to keep capital power in check, and ultimately why a significant level of back-end redistribution is usually necessary–particularly if we’re going to avoid stifling regulations on capital at the front-end. Capitalism is great in many ways, but it’s not a magic unicorn.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.