Republicans Lost and Adrift on Income Inequality

For decades the Republican mantra on income inequality has to been to deny it matters, both practically and morally. From a practical point of view, conservatives have argued, a rising tide lifts all boats–and what does it matter if some boats are rising much more quickly than others if everyone’s boats are rising? That was the central argument during the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s when the strategy of hollowing out the middle class but making up for it with asset bubbles was all the rage.

When that strategy went bust a more vicious kind of Objectivist, just-world-fallacy argument took its place: the rich are gettting richer because they’ve always deserved it, and if you didn’t get rich it was your own fault for being stupid or lazy. Once polling and adverse national election results showed that argument wasn’t going to work, Republicans tried to ignore the question entirely and see if they could demagogue against the Affordable Care Act and the Obama Administration. But with the Administration remaining almost scandal-free, the Affordable Care Act working better than expected and income inequality continuing to hamper economic recovery, Republicans simply can’t dodge it anymore.

One of the more artful tactics they’ve employed is to blame “crony capitalism.” This is the specious argument that trickle-down Austrian economics really would work just fine, if only government weren’t shelling out special favors to certain big corporations and the wealthy. That argument doesn’t get much traction outside of a certain kind of young, wild-eyed libertarian for a couple of obvious reasons: first, it’s so obviously untrue in the case of Wall Street where the most deregulation was followed up by the greatest greed; second, by far the biggest recipients of wealthy business largesse from the government are military contract companies like Boeing and Halliburton, and oil companies like Exxon-Mobil. Republicans hardly want to go too far down that line of questioning.

But Republicans also know they have to say something. So enter Ted Cruz, never known to be embarrassed to state grandiose falsehoods as fact:

“Well, look, if Hillary Clinton wants to run by telling Americans that the economy is doing great and you can credit President Obama and Hillary Clinton for that, I would encourage her to follow that strategy. Because the simple reality is, that’s true for the wealthy,” Cruz responded on ABC’s “This Week.”

“The top 1 percent under President Obama, the millionaires and billionaires that he constantly demagogued, earned a higher share for our income than any year since 1928,” he continued. “Those with power and influence who walk the corridors of power of the Obama administration have gotten fat and happy under big government.”

Cruz said that the middle class has not seen the same boost as the rich.

Mitch McConnell has been spouting off likewise. The problem here, of course, is that no one is going to buy it. Republicans get away with a lot of lies, but they get away with them because they generally fit those lies into framing archetypes that align with conservative doctrine. Conservative doctrine has a very hard time admitting that there’s anything wrong with the rich doing better than the poor, and it has a very hard time even attempting to promoting policies to mitigate it. It would be like Democrats trying to argue that wealthy Americans are overtaxed in Republican states, or that the reason for veteran suicides is that Republicans hate the military. Not only would it not be true, it’s also so contrary to what people generally believe and understand about the philosophical motivations of the two parties that it just sounds weird and falls on deaf ears.

It’s so weird, in fact, that it comes off as a desperate rhetorical play by a party that knows it’s in trouble but doesn’t know what to say or do about it.

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.