The growing attention to income inequality as an issue of grave political and social import has the potential to change the US and to completely disrupt the modern Republican Party. The Republican Party, often with quiet, and occasionally not-so-quiet, support from the Democrats, has engaged in a policy of, until now, one-sided class warfare and income redistribution upward for at least a generation. They have now responded to the current discussion of income inequality like a bully who after years is finally being confronted.
Income inequality and redistribution have been defined out of the American political dialog for decades; the result is unprecedented concentrations of wealth and increasingly limited class mobility. The emergence of these issues in recent years is largely a result of the economic crisis of 2008 and the growing realization that seeing a few citizens become extraordinarily wealthy is not really in the best interest of the country.
Income inequality is not just an economic issue but a political and social issue as well. Those with more money, due to weak and loophole-ridden campaign finance laws, have disproportionate influence on the political system and, despite the changes in the media landscape in recent years, still are able to assert substantial input, if not outright control, over much of the media. On a more abstract level, the American system, including the lack of discussion of progressive redistributive policies, has always rested on a belief that economic mobility is not only possible, but more likely to occur in the US than elsewhere. As that changes, and people become aware of their decreased likelihood of economic advance, the impact on the broader society could be very serious, threatening paradigms and myths which are central to economic and political life in the US.
Powerful interests, not surprisingly, have a strong incentive to limit discussion and action on income and wealth inequality, and will pursue several strategies to achieve this goal. These strategies will likely include the normal red-baiting, focusing on social issues and racial politics that have been the handmaidens of one sided class warfare for many years, but will also evolve beyond that.
Conservatives will, and already have begun to, argue that economic inequality is an unavoidable outcome of a free society. According to this view, in a free country, people make choices and live with the consequences. However, inequality of opportunity, differing access to education and accumulation of education-related debt, as well as the more general difficulties of class mobility in a shrinking economy suggest, that the opposite is true. Income inequality is increasingly the result of an unfree society, one where options are, for many, limited at a very young age.
Another argument is that income inequality that results simply from the rich getting even richer is not a problem because it does not really harm anybody. This is also a flawed argument as a primary driver of income inequality is declining wages for the poorest Americans, not just massive wealth accumulation by the richest Americans.
Some have argued that drawing attention to income inequality introduces a tone of resentment into political life that can lead to hostility and anger. This is may be true, but this criticism is absurd coming from those who not only crafted policies of one-sided class warfare, but who spent years portraying low income Americans, particularly non-white ones as, morally suspect, lazy or unwilling to work.
Conservatives often speak of American exceptionalism, and argue that our economic freedom is a key component of that exceptionalism. This implies that income inequality is part of the price we pay for being a special country with a special mission. However, in the 21st century, the main thing about the US that is exceptional is our unwillingness to help the poorest among us or to seriously address issues of inter-generational poverty and economic inequality.
Addressing income inequality will require legislation, but it will also require changes in our society and, indeed, our values. Before we address income inequality, we must recognize that it is a problem and that, for example, this is now a country where most children born into poverty live their whole lives in poverty and where the opportunities enjoyed by the children of the wealthy are dramatically different from those of poor children. Recognizing this is a first step toward solving our economic woes, so it is no surprise that the resistance to even acknowledging this remains intense.