Democrats can’t get traction on inequality

by Megan Mcardle

Bloomberg

New York’s new mayor swept into office on a campaign against inequality. President Barack Obama has made any number of speeches about the rich who don’t pay their fair share. And yet, nationwide, this has not translated into big gains for the Democrats who are pushing it.

Why is a phenomenon that keeps being heralded as the defining issue of our time such weak tea at the ballot box?

As a new article from Bloomberg News explains, Democrats aren’t benefiting from hammering on inequality because almost all the areas with the worst inequality are already controlled by Democrats:

There’s just one problem: the districts where Democrats have the best shot to win Republican-held seats show some of the smallest gaps between rich and poor in the United States, an indication of just how hard it will be for their message to take hold with voters.

Of the 100 congressional districts ranked as having the greatest gap between rich and poor, not one is held by a Republican whose seat is considered up for grabs this November, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The seat with the widest gap between rich and poor belongs to a Democrat, Jerry Nadler, whose district takes in Wall Street and parts of Brooklyn not yet reached by that borough’s redevelopment. In all, 32 of the 35 districts with the greatest income inequality are held by President Barack Obama’s party.

Of those 100 districts, I count just 30 that are represented by Republicans; these are heavily concentrated in Florida and Texas, where immigrants are likely to make up a lot of the bottom.

Because many of those immigrants can’t vote, a challenger will have a hard time making a run on the inequality issue in those districts.

You can make a case that the difference between the Republican and Democratic politics of wealth lie in the difference between who tends to make up “the wealthy” in their districts.

The rich of America’s affluent urban areas tend to be the beneficiaries, one way or another, of a global tournament economy in which markets are often close to “winner take all,” and vast sums can flow to people who are just a little bit better than their competitors.

The wealthy in Republican districts, on the other hand, are more likely to be competing in local or national markets, not glamour industries, where sales are ground out one at a time. Because the sums involved are smaller, the wealth gap is also smaller — and business owners are less likely to be sympathetic to the idea that their success has a huge luck component.

In urban areas at the nexus of those global industries, where the rich are bidding up the prices of real estate (and, by extension, of everything else that is bought or sold on that real estate), inequality qua inequality is an issue with huge political salience.

But in the rest of the country, structural changes in those local and national industries are much more likely to worry people.

When a big local employer closes down because of competition from China or Amazon.com Inc., the gap between rich and poor may collapse dramatically. But that’s not a good campaign platform.

Megan McArdle (mmcardle3@bloomberg.net) is a Bloomberg View columnist.