On April 15, tens of thousands of people attended “tea parties” to denounce Obama’s economic policies – dressed up, some of the protesters were, like refugees from a disaster at a Colonial theme park. “No taxation without representation!” they demanded, having evidently hibernated through the recent election cycle. The right-wing publicity machine dutifully ground out its message that a mass movement was being born.
Suppose we grant the claim (however generous, however imaginative) that the tea parties drew 250,000 supporters. Compare that with the turnout, not quite three years ago, for the “Day Without an Immigrant” rallies, which involved somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million workers – many of them undocumented, which meant that their decision to attend involved some risk of losing a job or being deported. By contrast, last week’s anti-Obama protest made no real demands on its participants, and came after weeks of free and constant publicity by a major television network. Teabaggery also enjoyed the support of prominent figures in the conservative establishment. Yet with all this backing, the entire nationwide turnout for the tea parties involved fewer people than attended the immigrant rallies in a single large city.
The events of April 15 may not have marked the death agonies of the Republican Party. But they certainly amounted to a case of profound rhetorical failure: a moment when old modes of persuasion lost their power. The claim to speak for the concerns of “ordinary Americans” choked on its own pseudo-populist bile. The tea bags were less memorable than the cracked pots. It was hard to watch the footage without thinking that the next Timothy McVeigh must be a face in the crowd – and wondering if his victims ought to bring a class-action suit against Fox News.
Only just so much of the failure of the teabagging movement can be attributed to its instigators’ unfamiliarity with contemporary slang. A new book from the University of Chicago Press helps to clarify why alarmist denunciations of higher taxation and (shudder!) “redistribution of the wealth” just won’t cut it.
The publication for Class War? What Americans Really Think About Economic Inequality by Benjamin I. Page and Lawrence R. Jacobs could not be better timed. Page is a professor of political science at Northwestern University, while Jacobs directs the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. The authors conducted a national public-opinion survey during the summer of 2007 – just before the global economic spasms started – and they also draw on several decades’ worth of polling data in framing their analysis.
The question mark in the title is no accident. Page and Jacobs are not radicals. They insist that there is no class war in the United States. (This, in spite of quoting Warren Buffett’s remark that there actually is one, and that his class has been winning.) They provide evidence that “even Democrats and lower-income workers harbor rather conservative views about free enterprise, the value of material incentives to motivate work, individual self-reliance, and a generalized suspicion of government waste and unresponsiveness.” Their survey found that 58 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of low-income earners agreed that “large differences in pay are probably necessary to get people to work hard.”
But at the same time, they report a widespread concern that the gap between extremes of wealth and poverty is growing and poses a danger. “Although Americans accept the idea that unequal pay motivates hard work,” they find, “a solid majority (59 percent) disagree with the proposition that large differences in income are ‘necessary for America’s prosperity.’”
Not quite three quarters of those polled agreed that “differences in income in America are too large,” and more than thirds reject the idea that “the current distribution of money and wealth is ‘fair.’ ” The proposition that “the money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people” was supported by a large majority of respondents.
While inequality may sound like a Democratic talking point (at least during campaign seasons), the authors note that “solid majorities of Republicans (56 percent) and of high income earners (60 percent) agree that income differences are ‘too large’ in the United States. ... Majorities of Republicans (52 percent) and of the affluent (51 percent) favor more evenly distributing money and wealth.” A footnote indicates that the category of “high income” or “affluent” applied to “the 25.2 percent of our respondents who reported family incomes of $80,000 or more per year.”
While informed sources tell me that sales of small left-wing newspapers are up lately, Page and Jacobs are doubtless correct to describe the default setting of American public opinion as a kind of “conservative egalitarianism.” Citizens “want opportunities for economic success,” they write, “and want individuals to take care of themselves when possible. But they also want genuine opportunity for themselves and others, and a measure of economic security to pursue opportunity and to insure themselves and their neighbors against disasters beyond their control.”
And to make this possible, they are reconciled to taxation. “There is not in fact a groundswell of sentiment for cutting taxes. When asked about tax levels in general, only a small minority favored lowering them; most wanted to keep them about the same. Asked to chose among a range of estate-tax rates on very large ($100 million) estates, only a very small minority of Americans – just 13 percent of them – picked a rate of zero. The average American favors an estate-tax range of about 25 percent. ... Most American say the government should rely a lot on taxes they see as progressive, like corporate income taxes, rather than on regressive measures like payroll taxes. To our surprise, a majority of Americans even say that our government should ‘redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich,’ a sentiment that has grown markedly over the past seventy years.”
And all of this data was gathered, mind you, well before jobs, housing, and retirement savings began to vaporize.
Nothing in Class War? quite answers the question of what political consequences logically follow from the polling data. Perhaps none do, in particular. What people want (or say that they want) is notoriously distinct from what they will actually bestir themselves to do. But it’s worth noting that Page and Jacobs found broad support for increasing the pay of low-income jobs, and drastically reducing the income of those who earn a lot.
“Sales clerks and factory workers should earn $5,000 more a year (about 23 percent more), according to the median responses of those we interviewed,” they write. At the same people, people “want to cut the income of corporate titans by more than half – from the perceived $500,000 to a desired $200,000. Imagine the reaction of ordinary working Americans if they learned that the CEOs of major national corporations actually pulled in $14 million a year.” Yes, imagine. Then something other than tea might start brewing.