First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

We write for you

It’s a public service and we refuse to erect a paywall and force you to pay for truth. Instead, we ask (nicely and often) that those of you who can afford to, become a Maverick Insider and help with whatever you can. In order for truth not to become a thing of the past, we need to keep going.

Currently, 18,000 (or less than 0.3%) of our brave and generous readers are members; which says a lot about their characters and commitment to our country. These people are paying for a free service in order to keep it free for everyone.

They are the true South AfriCANs.(Sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves.)

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

US 2016: Inequality is the new black



US 2016: Inequality is the new black

Looking ahead to the US 2016 election, J. BROOKS SPECTOR weighs some recent survey research that speaks to the issues that concern future voters and finds “inequality” has cinched pride of place so far.

While South Africa has become almost totally consumed by the increasingly surrealist, even grotesque soap opera being played out over that $10 million diaspora donation that wasn’t, over in the United States, a population is slowly coming to grips with the issues it believes should be crucial for their upcoming election next year. These issues may be especially important within the Democratic Party as a clutch of new candidates for the nomination all seem to be attempting to take hold of them to use as the lever to move Hillary Clinton onto much less certain ground as an inevitable nominee.

Just to bring things up to date, in the past several days, besides Hillary Clinton and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders who are already in the field, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and now, most recently, former Rhode Island senator and former governor, Lincoln Chafee, have also announced their intention to seek the Democratic Party nomination. (Chafee was a Republican before he switched affiliations and became an increasingly left-leaning Democrat.) Effectively, Sanders, Chafee and O’Malley are all trying to position themselves in the political space to the left of Clinton. Additionally, both O’Malley and Chafee are trying to seize a kind of generational impetus – arguing they speak for “the future”, rather than looking back at the past, in comparison to Clinton.

Chafee, of course, is only half a decade younger than the former secretary of state while O’Malley is a decade younger than that, but they both want to portray Clinton as a representative of a harshly divisive past (or present, presumably, given the near gridlock on Capitol Hill). Moreover, Chafee is offering as his initial selling point the fact that he chose to oppose the original Iraq War resolution in the Senate back in 2003 (while Clinton supported it). And O’Malley is hoping to point to his effectiveness in achieving economic growth while governor of Maryland.

Even as these political movements are occurring, a new New York Times/CBS survey of American views about economic issues relevant to the campaign underscores the relevance of attitudes candidates will need to acknowledge as they develop their campaigns, attack their opponents and frame their own policy positions. This survey’s results show that Americans are greatly concerned about inequality in wealth and income, in spite of the gradual recovery of the economy since the financial crisis of 2008-9. Moreover, this data shows a significant majority of those surveyed say wealth must be more evenly divvied up and that this must be addressed on an urgent basis. Almost 60% surveyed argued the government should do more to shrink the gap between the rich and the poor. Crucially, opinion was deeply divided along partisan lines – only a third of Republicans agreed with that view while 80% of Democrats supported such policies.

The New York Times concluded such findings offers the context for the growing populist appeals of politicians in this electoral cycle as “politicians of both parties, but particularly Democrats, who are seeking to capitalise on the sense among Americans that the economic recovery is benefiting only a handful at the very top. Far from a strictly partisan issue, inequality looms large in the minds of almost half of Republicans and two-thirds of independents, suggesting that it will outlive the presidential primary contests and become a central theme in next year’s general election campaign”.

This also broadly coincides with the sudden outburst of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the popularity of French economist Thomas Piketty’s book last year on economic inequality, as well as an even newer volume on this topic by American academic Joseph Stiglitz. Historically, such feelings during and after an economic crisis have provided support for the growth of third parties such as the Populists and Free Silver parties, or the pursuit of the ameliorative and redistributionist policies by Roosevelt and the Democrats in the wake of the Great Depression. (It might be interesting to measure just how much the spread of these views owes to the interconnectedness of the population via social media, cable news channels and other sources of information, beyond more traditional means of communication.)

In the survey’s results, the share of Americans who agreed that everyone has a fair shot of getting ahead in today’s economic circumstances has – astonishingly – dropped some 17%, just since 2014. Nearly two-thirds of Americans now agree that only a few people – those at the top – have real chances to advance economically in life.

On specific issues, some 80% agreed that employers should offer paid parental leave, and an even higher number supported paid sick leave as a right; 70% also supported increasing the national minimum wage line from its current $7.25 per hour to $10.10 (although 60% opposed going as far as the $15 per hour rate). In partisan terms, Republicans were roughly evenly divided on raising the rate to $10.10.

When asked about how to change the treatment of the rich, two-thirds of those asked agreed with raising taxes on those who receive salaries of more than $1 million a year, and 50% agreed with (as opposed to 40% who opposed the idea) capping remuneration of top corporate execs. Interestingly, even more than a third of those categorising themselves as Republican agreed with this proposal as well.

Possibly more complicated for a number of candidates, as well as many incumbent members of Congress who will have to consider President Barack Obama’s free trade agenda, Americans seem to have become significantly more sceptical of the virtues and value of free trade. Some two-thirds of the population now favour trade restriction measures – with more than half of those surveyed saying they disagreed with giving the Obama administration fast track trade negotiation authority. Fast track authority would allow the president to negotiate trade treaties such as the Trans-Pacific Trade Pact without fear of a raft of congressional amendments, with the Senate only allowed to carry out a yes-no vote on the completed draft treaty.

Especially leaping out from the survey data was the fact that over half of higher income Americans also said income and wealth should be more equitably distributed. Nearly three-quarters of all of those asked agreed that big corporations wield too much influence, around double those who say the same is true of unions. Commenting on the results, The New York Times reported, “The phenomenon of public frustration about inequality rising several years into a recovery is not unprecedented. According to data that Leslie McCall, a professor at Northwestern University, has culled from the General Social Survey, a biennial survey by the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago, some measures of concern about inequality rose steadily after the 1990-91 recession and did not peak until 1996, after which they fell for several years”.

Meanwhile, the results of another survey, this one carried out for Bloomberg/The Des Moines Register from among those in Iowa likely to attend their respective party’s caucus in early 2016, offered further insights into the issues held to be important by those identifying themselves as either Democrats or Republicans. This survey provided a roster of possible issues, asking respondents the question: “For each of the following issues, please tell me whether this is something you want candidates to spend a lot of time talking about or not.”

From among the 20 possible choices, seven each received a yes from at least four out of five Republicans and Democrats. But, crucially, only two showed up on both lists – immigration and job creation. The Republican issues were: the budget deficit, national defence, taxes, terrorism, job creation, immigration and trade. Democratic Party supporter responses were: energy, income inequality, infrastructure, job creation, immigration, college costs, and climate change.

William Galston, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, a major Washington, DC think tank, observed about these results, “Recent history suggests that these issues will be subject to the classic dynamic of polarisation when the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees square off in 2016, with the candidates advocating radically different approaches. Each candidate is likely to use his or her party’s other five top issues more as vehicles for mobilising core supporters than as focal points of debate with the other candidate.”

Galston added, “Two issues—climate change and income inequality—stand out from the rest in that the gap of interest and concern between the parties is especially wide. 90% of Democrats want their nominee to focus on income inequality, compared to only 36% of Republicans. In the same vein, 81% of Democrats want their nominee to focus on climate change; only 18% of Republicans agree [italics added].”

The Brookings Institution has also called attention to a new CNN/ORC national survey that largely tracked the narrower Iowa findings. Brookings noted, “Although the poll question — name the single most important issue — and the list — eight items rather than 20 — differs significantly from Bloomberg/DMR. Compared to Republicans, Democrats are significantly more likely to name education, energy/environment, and health care as top concerns and significantly less likely to select terrorism, the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, immigration, and the budget deficit”.

Even at this very early date, this data has significant repercussions for the general election campaign – regardless of who ends up becoming the two nominees. This, of course, is the classic challenge for partisan politicians: how to appeal to one’s partisan supporters, even as a candidate reaches across the partisan divide – or at least as far as to those who have not yet made up their minds. In the shorter period, it seems increasingly likely these issues – especially how to address inequality and income growth – may well be the fodder of primary battles between Hillary Clinton and the trio of Sanders, O’Malley and Chafee as they try to find the angles that might give them better purchase on the electoral landscape.

All of this is taking place as preliminary – very preliminary, remember – polling shows that the seemingly insurmountable lead that Hillary Clinton held among Democrats – before she actually declared her candidacy – is eroding. The Washington Post drew upon various recent polls to note, “Clinton’s popularity is foundering with her re-emergence as a political candidate, effectively erasing the bipartisan approval she enjoyed as secretary of state. More Americans said they held an unfavourable opinion of Clinton than a favourable one, 49% to 45%, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll this week. Among independent voters, the figure is worse: 55% unfavourable to 39% favourable.

Still, Clinton is trouncing the rest of the Democratic field by every measure, including in money raised and in the depth of her organisation. Her campaign has opened nine field offices in Iowa, which hosts the first presidential caucuses. This week’s Post-ABC poll showed Clinton leading the Democratic pack at 62%. Vice President Biden, who has not formally ruled out a candidacy, was second with 14%, followed by Sanders at 10%.”

It is, of course, early, early days and a prudent bettor would almost certainly want to take the wager that, come the end of the Democratic Party nominating convention next year, Hillary Clinton will be in the winner’s spot. With longer odds, that same bettor might take the position that she will win the whole thing in November 2016. Nevertheless, the national unease about economic circumstances – and most especially that magic word – inequality – will almost certainly frame much of the intra-party debate, as well as the general election campaign that follows later. DM

Photo: Democratic 2016 US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to the South Carolina House Democratic Women’s Caucus and the South Carolina Democratic Women’s Council in Columbia, South Carolina, USA, 27 May 2015. South Carolina has an early primary election date. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER

For more, read:

  • Inequality Troubles Americans Across Party Lines, Times/CBS Poll Finds at the New York Times;

  • Republicans and Democrats divided on important issues for a presidential nominee at the Brookings Institution website;

  • Americans’ Views on Income Inequality and Workers’ Rights at the New York Times;

  • Clinton rivals pounce as her ratings fall at the Washington Post;

  • The campaign to put Julian Castro on Hillary Clinton’s VP shortlist at;

  • Free Trade Agreements Seen as Good for U.S., But Concerns Persist at the Pew Research Centre website.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted