Democrats Have the Bigger Inequality Problem

Democrats care about income inequality. What if the people whose votes they want don't?
Alaskan voters didn't come to hear about inequality. Photographers: Johnny Wagner/Getty Images

Quick: Which member of Congress represents a district that most embodies a liberal utopia? (Hint: Her name and the phrase "liberal utopia" have never been uttered in the same sentence.) Give up? It's Minnesota's Michele Bachmann, toast of the Tea Party.


According to census data crunched by Atlantic Cities, Bachmann's district has the lowest level of income inequality in the country. Meanwhile, inequality is highest in the New York City district of Representative Jerry Nadler, a liberal Democrat. Those extremes reflect a broader partisan divide: Across the country, inequality is lower in Republican districts than in Democratic ones.


That's not surprising, given that high levels of wealth and poverty -- and thus inequality -- tend to be concentrated in cities, which are dominated by Democrats. But it does call into question the political wisdom of the Democratic Party's effort to make income inequality the centerpiece of its national economic agenda.

This November, control of the U.S. House will not be determined by voters in safely Democratic major cities, but by voters in suburban and rural districts, where inequality tends to be lower. And control of the Senate will be decided largely in states with low levels of inequality relative to the national average.

Take Alaska, where Democratic Senator Mark Begich is in a tossup race. It has the second-lowest level of income inequality in the nation (though still high by international standards). Iowa, Montana and New Hampshire -- all with Senate seats up for grabs -- aren't far behind, ranking eighth, ninth and 10th. Minnesota, Oregon and Colorado, all battleground states, also have income inequality rates that put them in the lower half of states.

There are only two states that have both above-average levels of inequality and competitive Senate races this year: Georgia and Louisiana. In both, Democrats will need to do more than mobilize their base to win; they will need to persuade independents.

Polls show that independents support more action to reduce income inequality, but they respond more favorably to messages centered on fighting poverty and creating opportunity, as do voters generally. A recent poll by the Center for American Progress found that 63 percent of voters consider it a priority to "make sure everyone in the country has a real opportunity to succeed," while only 37 percent think of "reducing the gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of the country" as a priority.

By putting income inequality front and center, Democrats are playing to a vital part of their base: liberals and the urban poor. But they are preaching to the faithful instead of trying to convert the undecided.

Democrats have tried to turn the midterm elections into a referendum on economic policies that benefit important party constituencies -- including low-wage workers (raising the minimum wage), the unemployed (extending unemployment insurance) and women (pay equity). In doing so, they ought to use language that resonates with voters beyond big cities and liberal salons.

In December, President Barack Obama gave a speech that was widely characterized as calling income inequality the "defining challenge of our time." In fact, he used that phrase in reference to the combination of rising income inequality and lack of upward economic mobility. Obama recognized that they are two sides of the same coin, and that improving opportunity and mobility are essential to spreading economic gains more broadly.

Yet liberals have a habit of focusing mostly on income inequality, partly out of sincere conviction and partly out of political convenience. It is, after all, a populist message, and the conflict inherent in it attracts loads of media attention. But it may prove less effective at attracting votes.

The best thing Democrats can do to fight inequality is to promote opportunity. That may make it harder to cast Republicans as villains in a morality play. But it would help Democrats draw a bigger audience in November.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.