The Democratic Party’s leading lights — from Elizabeth Warren on the party’s left flank, to Joe Biden on its right — are all telling versions of the same story: The American people are working hard, but their economy is hardly working. Wage growth is too damn low, while the cost of health care is too damn high. Inequality is getting out of control and the American dream is growing out of reach. Diversity is our strength, bigotry is our weakness, and progress is our destiny. We must move forward, not backward (upward, not forward, and always, twirling, twirling, twirling toward freedom).
Policy visions vary. Democrats disagree about how their party should go about solving America’s problems. But when it comes to describing those problems, there is only one question that bitterly divides them: Does their story of middle-class decline need a ruling-class villain?
Warren and Bernie Sanders say yes. In their account, the true name of our affliction isn’t inequality but oligarchy. It isn’t an impersonal, abstract force that’s immiserating working people — it’s an extractive economic elite. “How did we get here?” Warren asked rhetorically, in her campaign launch video. “Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie. And they enlisted politicians to cut them a fatter slice … Our government is supposed to work for all of us, but instead it has become a tool for the wealthy and well-connected. The whole scam is propped up by an echo chamber of fear and hate, designed to distract and divide us.”
When moderate Democrats hear this kind of talk, they think of guillotines and George McGovern. Some object on principle, viewing the history of economic populism through Richard Hofstadter’s jaundiced eyes. Pitting “the people” against the “one percent” might not be as bad as pitting whites against “illegals,” these Democrats might allow, but liberalism shouldn’t traffic in demagoguery of either kind. Rather, the aim of liberal governance should be to balance the competing interests of disparate factions, in service of a unifying national interest. Joe Biden has signaled his fealty to this point of view by criticizing Warren for her obsession with “punishing the rich,” and insisting that “the wealthy are as patriotic as the poor” even if “Bernie doesn’t like me saying that.”
Other centrists deride populism on tactical grounds: In a nation of “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” the Democratic Party won’t win elections by sounding like a bunch of Jacobins. As Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo told the New York Times’ Frank Bruni this week:
“So many Democrats just assume we’re going to win,” she said. “They underestimate how hard it’s going to be.” And it might be a serious tactical mistake, she added, to nominate any candidate who seems to be at war with capitalism itself or entertains the idea of a guaranteed minimum income.
“We have become the party that is anti-business,” she told me. “We need to be the party of work.”
She acknowledged that “the system we have today is totally broken.” She cited grotesque income inequality. She noted that too many Americans have no economic security and no prospects for achieving it.
“But I fall in the camp of: Let’s fix it,” she said. “Let’s embrace business to come to the table.”
Most of the party’s 2020 hopefuls have opted for a “third way” between these positions. When discussing specific economic issues, Kamala Harris is happy to throw sharp elbows at evildoers like “the bankers who crashed our economy.” But her campaign’s central message is an appeal to national unity, not class conflict — one that conjures a vision of populism in which the people have no enemy. “Our United States of America is not about us versus them,” Harris told a crowd in Oakland, at her campaign launch this week. “It’s about We the people!”
Whether the rhetoric of “class war” is desirable, on the merits, is a subjective matter. But whether such rhetoric hurts Democrats in elections is not. And the answer to that question runs directly counter to the commentariot’s conventional wisdom. Nonpartisan pundits may treat phrases like “the billionaire class” as markers of ideological extremity (and thus, electoral inviability). But political science research suggests that one of the most pragmatic things any Democratic candidate can do is rattle a pitchfork in Howard Schultz’s general direction.
We’re a nation of temporarily pacified Robespierres.
Why so many political analysts have come to believe that Americans don’t take kindly to rich-bashing — despite the absence of any significant public opinion data supporting that premise — is unclear. The fallacy might be a legacy of the Cold War, when the mere acknowledgment of class conflict was associated with sympathy for America’s enemies. Or it could be rooted in the misguided presumption that our nation’s political institutions are acutely sensitive to the popular will — and thus, that the aberrantly regressive bent of American fiscal policy is a reflection of the American people’s sentiments. Regardless, their intuition is badly mistaken, as Boston University political scientist Spencer Piston ably documents in his 2018 book, Class Attitudes in America.
Piston’s research into that topic began when he perused the “open-ended responses” section of the 2008 American National Election Studies (ANES) survey. The bulk of the ANES, like most other political surveys, consists of multiple-choice questions that gauge public opinion on specific ideological premises and policy proposals. But this approach to discerning mass political thought has one crucial drawback: The lessons it produces are inevitably limited by which questions researchers choose to ask. For example, political scientists have been asking voters questions designed to measure their levels of “racial resentment” for years; but had not, until very recently, attempted to take stock of their class resentments.
The ANES’s “open-ended responses” section however, invites voters to say — in their own words — what they like or dislike about the two major parties and presidential candidates. And in examining these results, Piston discovered an electorate that was far more class conscious, and populist, than the one depicted by popular discourse. When asked to explain what they did and did not like about the political options on offer, voters mentioned “the rich” (or synonyms for the rich) 263 times. Only six of those mentions were favorable. Some 228 expressed variations on the view that one party or candidate cared too much about the rich — in the vast majority of cases, this complaint was directed at the GOP. Meanwhile, voters mentioned “the poor” (or synonyms for the poor) 235 times. Only five of those mentions were unfavorable. A large majority said, in so many words, that they liked the Democratic Party because it cares more about the poor (who get less than they deserve from their government).
Notably, while hundreds of respondents expressed the view that the rich had too much, and the poor too little, only 20 cited “inequality” as a major concern. Few voters had anything to say on the abstract question of how evenly economic resources should be distributed in society. But many had a lot to say about how the government needs to stop spoiling the wealthy.
Looking back through ANES surveys from other presidential cycles, Piston found that 2008 was no aberration. The same basic pattern of responses repeated, year after year.
These findings suggested that resentment of the rich (and sympathy for the poor) were widespread among voters, and that the Democratic Party would likely benefit from appealing to those sentiments. But the 2008 ANES data, alone, hardly proved as much; perhaps, there was a silent majority of pro-rich voters who simply did not like to talk about their fondness for the wealthy.
To test these competing hypotheses, Piston devised his own battery of questions for gauging the electorate’s levels of class resentment, and got it included in three top-shelf national surveys in 2013. And in each one, a majority of Americans said that the rich “have more money than they deserve” and expressed sympathy for the poor, while significant pluralities were comfortable saying, explicitly, that they felt “resentment” for the wealthy.
The credibility of these results is buttressed by the extraordinary popularity of tax hikes on the rich. These days, there are very few policy ideas that unite a supermajority of the American public, but soaking the wealthy is one. In October 2017, after the Republican Party had spent months propagandizing on behalf of an across-the-board tax cut, 76 percent of Americans said in a Reuters/Ipsos survey that the wealthy should pay higher tax rates. That is broadly consistent with the findings of other pollsters.
And earlier this month, we learned just how much heavier the American people would like the one percent’s tax burden to be: After congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested that incomes over $10 million should be taxed at a 70 percent rate, 59 percent of voters told a Hill–HarrisX survey that they agreed. The idea was “popular in all regions of the country.” Southerners backed it by a 57-to-43 percent margin, while 56 percent of voters in rural zip codes thought that the socialist congresswoman was onto something. Even 45 percent of self-identified Republicans approved.
Class resentments don’t stoke themselves.
Barack Obama’s decision to appeal to the public’s class resentment in 2012 — by casting Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat — seems to have played a significant role in his reelection. Using data from the ANES 2013 “recontact survey,” Piston shows that resentment of the rich strongly correlated with support for Obama, even when controlling for partisanship, ideology, attitudes toward income inequality, and demographic characteristics. Which is to say: A white “moderate” swing voter who had no strong feelings about “inequality” — but evinced strong resentment of the rich — was significantly more likely to vote for Obama than one who lacked such class hatred. All told, resentment of the rich was “associated with an increase in the probability of voting for Obama of 11 percentage points.”
But in 2016, that association disappeared. Voters who resented the rich were hardly more likely to approve of the Democratic nominee than they were to back the Republican one. Which makes sense: As Biden and Raimondo would have wished, Hillary Clinton didn’t define Trump as the puppet of an oppressive “billionaire class,” but rather, as Putin’s marionette. She centered her campaign on a message of national unity — “Stronger Together” — not one of class conflict. Obama’s ads cast Romney as the embodiment of Wall Street’s contempt for working people. Clinton’s cast Trump as a bad role model for small children.
The dearth of populist themes in Clinton’s paid messaging wasn’t an accident. It was indicative of her campaign’s broader ethos. At a rally for Clinton, late in her primary race against Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer offered this summary of what separated “Hillary” from her rival(s):
The other side is peddling a divisive, nasty strategy. Real Americans are being hurt by other Americans. The others. People from other shores. Other religions. Other colors. Other creeds. Other income levels. They think that by dividing America, pitting one against the other, their party will conquer. But Hillary knows that America is only America when we celebrate our diversity. [my emphasis added]
Celebrating America’s “income level diversity” might be festive. But it probably isn’t the most pragmatic way of exploiting the GOP’s vulnerability with the majority of voters who believe that the rich have it too easy.
To his credit, Schumer ostensibly learned this lesson in the weeks following Trump’s victory. From the very beginning of the 2018 midterm cycle, the Democratic leadership worked to define the campaign in populist terms: Republicans wanted to take health care from the poor, and give tax cuts to the rich; Democrats wanted to give the American worker a “Better Deal.”
After the “blue wave” drowned Paul Ryan’s majority, the progressive think tank Data for Progress partnered with Piston to examine what role (if any) class attitudes had played in the midterm’s outcome. They found that, unlike in 2016, voters who resented the rich were significantly more likely to back the Democrats last year.
Democrats should do the pragmatic thing in 2020, and wage a vicious class war.
Piston’s research affirms a broader insight of contemporary political science: Most human beings view politics through the lens of group identity, not ideology. Ordinary voters do not develop an intellectual attachment to some abstract philosophy of government, and then join the party whose platform best represents their theory of the state. Rather, the average voter is born into a variety of social groups (a religion, a “race,” a class, etc.), and then joins whichever party appears to best represent her people.
This theoretical framework helps explain why voters in the ANES surveys were less likely to complain about the GOP’s indifference to “inequality,” than about the party’s undue deference to the rich: Inequality is an ideological abstraction, “the rich” is a widely resented social group. The “all politics is identity politics” framework also indicates that the typical swing voter isn’t an ideological moderate, but rather, an American whose various social group attachments pull him or her in conflicting directions — for example, a white male union member who sees his racial and gender identities affirmed by the GOP, but his workplace identity celebrated by the Democrats.
There’s little to no evidence that railing against “the billionaire class” hurts Democrats electorally by making them sound too “far left” (in fact, Piston’s book shows that progressive fiscal policies become more popular — which is to say “mainstream” — when pollsters emphasize that said policies would hurt the rich). Meanwhile, there is significant evidence that the deployment of populist, “us versus them” rhetoric increases the salience of class resentments in U.S. elections — and thus, increases the Democratic Party’s share of the vote.
Moderate Democrats have every right to insist on praising the “patriotism” of America’s plutocrats, and deriding the “nasty divisiveness” of their party populists. But when they do so, they are prioritizing their ideological purity over defeating Donald Trump.
*A version of this article appears in the February 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!