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Sanders elevates debate over income inequality

Sen. Bernie Sanders has elevated the caliber of election debate on income inequality, a crucial issue affecting most Americans, Susan Sward writes.
Sen. Bernie Sanders has elevated the caliber of election debate on income inequality, a crucial issue affecting most Americans, Susan Sward writes. The Associated Press

Bernie Sanders wants Americans to know what the real issue is – that the rich are getting incredibly richer, the middle class is disappearing and the poor are getting poorer. By pounding this political drum, Sanders has undeniably affected the 2016 presidential race.

Whatever happens, Sanders, – an independent running as a Democrat – has elevated the caliber of election debate on a crucial issue affecting most Americans. His remarkable feat occurs in a realm where candidates and the media too often serve up thin gruel.

At campaign stops, the 74-year-old Sanders – who looks more like a professor than a candidate – regularly challenges people with the question he poses on his website about the choice Americans face: “Do we continue the 40-year decline of our middle class and the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else, or do we fight for a progressive economic agenda that creates jobs, raises wages, protects the environment and provides health care for all?”

Though other candidates now elbow their way onto the stage to offer their critiques of the income gap and how to aid the declining middle class, there’s not much question about which candidate has led the parade.

Robert Reich, chancellor’s professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, told me, “Bernie Sanders has been talking about this issue for several years, longer and more visibly than has Hillary Clinton,” Sanders’ Democratic opponent. In this race, Reich said, “the candidates’ populist talk is partly a reaction to Bernie Sanders’ success at putting the issue before the public.”

But Reich added in an email that the populist talk “is also partly a reaction to the continued stagnation of wages and the brute fact that most Americans haven’t seen their incomes rise in three decades, when adjusted for inflation.”

“If the Democrats win the White House and the leadership of at least one chamber of Congress, the issue of inequality and stagnant wages will be a top legislative priority,” Reich said. “If not, I doubt it.”

One poll reflects people’s belief that income inequality in America is a phenomenon that should be addressed: In April, the Gallup organization found that almost two-thirds of those polled believe that money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of people.

Marybeth Jordan Mattingly, a researcher at Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, observes that such public sentiment creates audiences receptive to Sanders’ message. She said: “There’s been talk about income inequality for a long time. But Sanders has certainly talked about it more liberally and repeatedly than other candidates.”

“It’s now on the radar screen nationwide,” Mattingly told me. “Even the Republicans are talking about it. I think all that happened – the (2007-09) Great Recession, the corporate bailouts, the CEOs getting huge compensation packages – illuminated the income inequality issue for people who hadn’t fully appreciated it before.”

In her campaign, Clinton waves a populist banner as well. “When you see you’ve got CEOs making 300 times what the average worker is making, you know the deck is stacked in favor of those at the top,” she tweeted in August.

Clearly, this approach is in part Clinton’s bid to woo liberals who find Sanders and his unvarnished assault on income inequality to be incredibly refreshing in an era when candidates often seem so prepackaged and so disinclined to tackle weighty matters.

The Republicans don’t embrace the income inequality issue in the same way the Democrats do, but from time to time they do make mention of the hard times faced by many Americans – most often without using the phrase “income inequality.”

At the GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee last week, protesters outside chanted a demand for a $15 minimum wage. Inside on the stage, some candidates said they opposed raising the minimum wage but spoke sympathetically about the economic hardships faced by many Americans. They devoted the bulk of their discussion to other economic issues and attacks on the Democrats who they said had crushed middle- and lower-income families with a landslide of regulations.

In campaign appearances, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump – hardly defenders of the downtrodden – often adopt populist tones, and other GOP contenders have found themselves fielding income inequality questions from the media.

On her website, Fiorina asserts, “We are leaving too many in poverty, trapped in a web of dependency that they can’t get out of.”

Trump notes, “Too few Americans are working, too many jobs have been shipped overseas and too many middle-class families cannot make ends meet.”

Bush has observed: “It’s very hard for people to go from the bottom rungs of the economy to the top or even the middle. This should alarm you. It has alarmed me.”

Ben Carson asks how can a ladder be created to allow people in lower income brackets to move up, and he says excessive regulations “are the kinds of things that are driving the income gap.”

At a forum sponsored in January by the Freedom Partners, a nonprofit group linked to the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul all made comments sympathetic to ordinary people’s economic woes.

Whether anything tangible comes out of Congress after all this populist rhetoric will depend on who wins the presidency next year and which party gains control of the House and Senate, both now in GOP hands

“I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks the Democrats are going to win back the House, and if that’s the case, I think income inequality is dead on arrival,” said Paul Maslin, a veteran pollster with Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates who has advised dozens of political candidates nationwide.

Maslin and others monitoring the race give Sanders credit for heightening public awareness about income inequality, but they also say other factors made this a propitious time to emphasize the issue.

As Maslin told me, “Income inequality has been bubbling up in a lot of ways, and any Democrat has to have been conscious of the growing potential of the issue – so I wouldn’t give Sanders” all the credit for bringing the issue to the fore.

As the November 2016 election attracts more attention among voters, it will be revealing to see whether the candidates’ focus on income inequality – with Sanders beating his drum – will increase the number of Americans believing that money and wealth should be more evenly spread and that viable initiatives should be pursued to decrease the growing income gap.

It would be nice to believe all this campaign sound and fury could result in a finale from a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” sort of movie where the politicians advocating for the little guys triumph and income inequality is reduced considerably. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling permitting corporations to spend unlimited sums on political campaigns, however, it is certain that any initiative in Congress to curb income inequality would be the target of a heavily financed attack by the country’s wealthiest interests.

Then that Mr. Smith-style happy ending might well be just a dream.

Susan Sward is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.