Writing in The Nation magazine, Eric Alterman recently celebrated the fact that "economic inequality has finally risen to the top of the list of most Americans' concerns." Citing recent polls, he reports that more than 2/3 of respondents think our economic system favors the rich, and more than 80 percent believe that the nation's wealth gap is a problem for the country. (1) Anti-elitist activism, first brought to prominence by Occupy Wall Street and more recently by Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, possesses a wide foundation of support.
Not surprisingly, the polls also find strong support for the government to act to remedy the problem. The Pew Research Center reports that 69 percent of those surveyed thought the government should do "a lot" or "some" in this regard, and Gallup finds that a majority supports increased taxation on the wealthy. The public clearly understands that market forces alone will not reverse the trend to income polarization any time soon. If a brake is to be put on income inequality, the government will have to act.
Though the American people agree that government action is necessary to limit economic inequality, they at the same time overwhelmingly do not trust politicians to do so. When Gallup asked "How much of the time do you think you can trust government in Washington to do what is right," an astonishing 81 percent of respondents answered only "some of the time" or "never." (2) Clearly, the American people are deeply alienated from the government.
It is not hard to understand the source of this alienation. The flood of big money that has dominated politics in recent years makes a mockery of the claim that the American political system is equally responsive to all citizens. The resulting anger directed at politicians is completely justified.
But what results is an immobilizing contradiction. People want the government to intervene, but they do not believe that it will do so effectively. Because of the resulting political cynicism, they fail to demand the tax and spending policies that would increase economic equality. This then ensures that nothing is done.
Ironically, the word socialism, despite long being reviled in the United States, might be the key to finding a way out of that contradiction.
Two kinds of evidence lend plausibility to the view that a new socialism might be a mobilizing vehicle to achieve greater equality. When Pew asked a representative sample of adults their responses to the word "socialism," a surprisingly-high 31 percent reported a positive reaction. Even more dramatic were the reactions of young people and Black people. Of those aged 18-29, 49 percent reacted positively, 43 percent negatively. Among Black respondents, 55 percent responded favorably, 36 percent unfavorably. (3)
The Sanders campaign has demonstrated what this polling data suggests. Bernie Sanders' socialism has not deterred the large crowds drawn to his popular presidential campaign. A large swath of the American electorate is looking for a mechanism to reverse the drift towards oligarchy, and is willing to consider some kind of socialism as a framework by which to achieve that reversal.
Obviously, the socialism that is projected will have to be a new version of the old brand. Gone will be the heavy-handed bureaucracies and the nationalization of industries. Instead will be a commitment to political equality, to be achieved by substituting the public funding of election campaigns for private funding. The basis of a new American socialism will be a shift in the control of politics from the rich. The economy will remain in private hands, and as a result society will benefit from the dynamism emerging from a market economy. But the democratization of the political process will free the tax and spending policies that influence income distribution from the control of wealthy political donors. With the public funding of election campaigns, rich people will lose the power to shape the government policies that determine the level and use of wealth accumulation.
Both Sanders' popularity and the polling data point in the same direction. A substantial base wants to push-back against the domination of wealth. Regardless of what happens in the 2016 election, a new socialism might provide the umbrella under which that base could mobilize and expand. To be sure, there would have to be a break with many of the policies of the old socialism. But what animated socialists in the past would nevertheless be retained: the vision of a dynamic and democratic society in which the rules that govern the economy are established in a political system of true equality.
(1) The polling data reported in this and the next paragraph come from Eric Alterman, "Inequality in Campaign Mode," The Nation, September 29/October 5, 2015, p. 6
(2) Gallup, "Trust in Government," http://www.gallup.com/poll/5392/trust-in-government.aspx
(3) Pew Research Center, "Little Change in Public's Response to 'Capitalism,' 'Socialism." http://www.people-press.org/2011/12/28/little-change-in-publics-response-to-capitalism-socialism/