Piketty, Oligarchy, and Conservative Evasion

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Every so often, a right-winger billionaire will go on an epic public rant against class warfare, populism, and the depredations of the Democratic soak-the-rich tax agenda. But such rants are noteworthy not only for their hilarious lack of self-awareness and uncomfortable tendency to invoke Adolph Hitler, but for their sheer discordance with the rest of the Republican message. The GOP obviously does not want its public face to be filthy rich men wallowing in self-pity. And what’s more, not many conservative elites even appear comfortable straightforwardly defending the interests of the rich. They greatly prefer to evade the issue, or to attempt a jujitsu maneuver, turning the plutocracy accusation back against liberals, allowing them to cast the Republican Party as the true force for populism. The sudden popularity of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has again thrust conservatives into the pseudo-populist defensive stance.

That impulse can be seen in David Brooks’s column today, and also in a wilder essay/rant by Washington Free Beacon editor Matthew Continetti. Brooks (not for the first time) suggests that the liberal concern over inequality is driven by liberal elites, who are prestigious and wealthy, but less wealthy than the hedge-fund titans with whom they regularly interact, and against whose riches they bristle with resentment. Progressives “focused their attention on conspiracy and oligarchy at the top, not Grapes of Wrath or How the Other Half Lives stories at the bottom,” writes Brooks, “the inequality [they] experience most acutely is not inequality down, toward the poor; it’s inequality up, toward the rich.

Continetti, meanwhile, brings up Piketty only to argue that the true oligarchs in America are the liberals. (“Affluent, self-righteous, self-seeking, self-possessed, triumphalist, out of touch, hostile to dissent,” he writes, summarizing his disparate complaints against the liberal elite; “this is what oligarchy looks like in the twenty-first century.”) He attempts to establish the premise in a discursive parade of factoids, to the effect that lots of Democratic elites are rich, lots of rich areas vote Democratic, and liberals have a fair amount of cultural power. It is true that none of the Democrats’ biggest donors are poor. It is also true that many rich areas vote Democratic. It is not true that rich people on the whole vote Democratic — in 2012, President Obama carried the electorate by winning some 60 percent of the votes of those earning under $50,000, while losing among all income categories over $50,000 a year.

HEMPSTEAD, NY - OCTOBER 16: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R) shake hands after a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York. During the second of three presidential debates, the candidates will field questions from audience members on a wide variety of issues. (Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images) Photo: Pool/2012 Getty Images

Continetti writes, characteristically, in a far angrier and hyperbolic fashion than Brooks. What both have in common is a myopic focus on the sociological identity of Democratic elites. This would be a good way to analyze the inequality debate if politics were a kind of high-school student-government contest where the main issue at stake was who gets the prestige of controlling the government.

In fact, American politics revolves around a policy dispute that carries massive repercussions for inequality. Under Obama, Democrats enacted policies, against unremitting Republican opposition, to raise taxes at the top, cut them at the bottom, and expand income support for people with low incomes. Republicans have proposed, and continue to propose, not only to roll back those changes, but to move extremely far in the opposite direction, cutting tax rates for the rich to historically low levels while imposing staggeringly large cuts to programs for people with low incomes, which would engineer the largest redistribution of income from bottom to top in modern U.S. history.

Neither Brooks nor Continetti mentions any of these things. For all the demented paranoia of Tom Perkins, Ken Langone, Charles Koch, and the like, at least they are willing to acknowledge the basic class contours of the struggle in which they’re engaged.