U.S. Democrats have an inequality problem

by Francis Barry

Bloomberg

According to U.S. census data crunched by Atlantic Cities, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, the toast of the tea party, represents the district with the lowest level of income inequality in the country. Inequality is highest in the New York City district of Rep. Jerry Nadler, a liberal Democrat. Those extremes reflect a partisan divide: Across the country, inequality is lower in Republican districts than in Democratic ones.

That’s not surprising, given that high levels of wealth and poverty — and thus inequality — tend to be concentrated in cities dominated by Democrats. But it does call into question the political wisdom of the Democratic Party’s effort to make income inequality the centerpiece of its national economic agenda.

This November, control of the U.S. House will not be determined by voters in safely Democratic major cities, but by voters in suburban and rural districts, where inequality tends to be lower. And control of the Senate will be decided largely in states with low levels of inequality relative to the national average.

Take Alaska, where Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is in a tossup race. It has the second-lowest level of income inequality in the nation (though still high by international standards). Iowa, Montana and New Hampshire — all with Senate seats up for grabs — aren’t far behind, ranking eighth, ninth and 10th. Minnesota, Oregon and Colorado, all battleground states, also have income inequality rates that put them in the lower half of states.

There are only two states that have both above-average levels of inequality and competitive Senate races this year: Georgia and Louisiana. In both, Democrats must persuade independents to win.

Polls show that independents support more action to reduce income inequality but respond more favorably to messages centered on fighting poverty and creating opportunity. A recent poll by the Center for American Progress found that 63 percent of voters consider it a priority to “make sure everyone in the country has a real opportunity to succeed,” while only 37 percent think of “reducing the gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of the country” as a priority.

By putting income inequality front and center, Democrats are playing to a vital part of their base: liberals and the urban poor. They are preaching to the faithful instead of converting the undecided.

Democrats have tried to turn the midterm elections into a referendum on economic policies that benefit important party constituencies — including low-wage workers (raising the minimum wage), the unemployed (extending unemployment insurance) and women (pay equity). In doing so, they ought to use language that resonates with voters beyond big cities and liberal salons.

Liberals have a habit of focusing mostly on income inequality, partly out of sincere conviction and partly out of political convenience. Although it is a populist message, it may prove less effective at attracting votes.

Francis Barry (fbarry5@bloomberg.net.) is a Bloomberg View columnist.