Were it not for Trumpmania, we might be using this endless election season to discuss the fact that economic inequality has finally risen to the top of the list of most Americans’ concerns. In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, 68 percent agreed that we live in a country whose economic system favors the rich rather than the rest of us. (About half of Republicans agreed with this too.) In another poll, fully 83 percent called the nation’s wealth gap a problem, with a majority terming it “a major problem.” Meanwhile, Gallup has seen a steady majority in the number who respond positively to its 30-year inquiry: “Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?” And the Pew Research Center recently found that 69 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that the federal government should do “a lot/some” to reduce the income gap.
While it would be wrong to imply that the mainstream media are ignoring economic inequality, Americans remain sadly uninformed about the severity of the problem. A study recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science asked Americans to guess the ratio between the average S&P 500 CEO’s earnings and their workers’ wages. The average estimate: 30 to 1. The truth: 354 to 1.
When the conversation is not overwhelmed by talk of “anchor babies” and Mexican murderers, Republicans are occasionally asked to address inequality. Some attack the banks, while others fulminate against the Fed or the Export-Import Bank. A few complain about corporate welfare. All of them attack Obama. One suspects that in this case, if not any others, Rand Paul was speaking for the pack when he explained: “Income inequality is due to some people working harder and selling more things…. We all end up working for people who are more successful than us.” He went on to add: “And that’s a good thing.” (Unique among his rivals, Donald Trump has called for higher taxes on the wealthy, especially hedge-fund managers and others who use the “carried interest” loophole to pay a fraction of the rate paid by wage earners.)
Almost never, however, is inequality tied to the myriad problems it causes in public and private life, to say nothing of the mockery it makes of the American Dream. To the GOP hopefuls, addressing the problem is as simple as stimulating growth. As Jeb Bush told National Journal, “If you’re not growing the economy, you’re not going to deal with income inequality.” Almost always, Barack Obama is blamed for standing in the way.
Bernie Sanders is obviously talking a great deal about inequality, though even his signature issue has been overshadowed by the controversy caused by the Black Lives Matter interruptions (and shut-downs) of his speeches, along with less serious distractions. This is deeply unfortunate, because Sanders is seeking to start a conversation that we have never before had in this country. Unlike pretty much every other serious candidate for national office in the past century (at least), Sanders is not “pro-growth” per se. As Jim Tankersley pointed out on The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Sanders believes that “unchecked growth—especially when 99 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent—is absurd.” He has no interest in “growth for the sake of growth.” Instead, he seeks to foster “a society that provides a high quality of life for all of our people.” This will require the assertion of healthcare, childcare, and educational opportunity as fundamental rights, for starters. Sanders is also highlighting the destructive impact of unchecked growth on climate change and other environmental issues. He judges elite arguments about economic efficiency as simple corporate manipulation: “They’re efficient for the people who own the corporations. They’re not particularly efficient for the people who have been thrown out on the street.”
So how do these issues get treated in the mainstream media? The New York Times Magazine published an interview with the candidate in which Ana Marie Cox asked, “Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?” Sanders had to repeat the question to make sure he wasn’t hearing things, then felt it necessary to explain: “Ana, I don’t mean to be rude here. I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, OK? Do you have serious questions?”
Amazing as it may be, this exchange was hardly atypical of the mainstream media’s coverage. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos felt compelled to remind Sanders that he was a socialist before asking for a model of his preferred government. When Sanders named the Scandinavian nations, Stephanopoulos mocked his response: “I can hear the Republican attack ad right now: ‘He wants America to look more like Scandinavia.’” Bernie’s reply: “And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong when you have more income and wealth equality? What’s wrong when they have a stronger middle class in many ways than we do?”
Sanders is surging, but he is not going to win the nomination, much less the presidency. He is succeeding, however, in doing what Ralph Nader refused to try, which is to force the likely Democratic nominee to address the concerns of the majority of voters over those of the tiny percentage of extremely wealthy people who typically fund both parties’ campaigns. Hillary Clinton began her official campaign with a strong focus on inequality in her speech on New York City’s Roosevelt Island. She has since embraced a number of positions that go some of the way down the path that Sanders and his supporters have blazed, especially regarding tougher talk than expected vis-à-vis Wall Street. But talk is famously cheap on the campaign trail (as Donald Trump demonstrates better than anyone). The question facing both Sanders and the mainstream media is: How can the eventual nominees be held to account to ensure that they address the crisis once the crowds have gone home?
Editor’s note: This piece originally stated that a study asked Americans to compare the average Fortune 500 CEO’s earnings to their workers’ wages. The study asked about CEOs of S&P 500 companies. The text has been updated to correct the error.