Thursday, February 5, 2015

Middle-Class Populism Is More Than Redistributionism

In a thoughtful New York Times essay, Thomas B. Edsall argues that a major hurdle for a Democratic middle-class populist agenda is the fact that the Democratic coalition depends increasingly upon the affluent.  This poses problems, Edsall argues, for redistributionist proposals:
Middle-class populism, however, raises a host of problems for the Democratic Party. When the middle-class populist message is turned into actual legislative proposals, the costs, in the form of higher taxes, will be imposed on the affluent. Such a shift in the allocation of government resources threatens the loyalty of a crucial Democratic constituency: well-off socially liberal voters.
However, policies that tax the rich and give to others are not the be-all and end-all of policies that could improve the standing of the middle class.  Market-oriented proposals to reform the health-care system, for instance, could provide the average American with cheaper and more effective health-care.  Putting in place policies that would help drive down the cost of energy could similarly appeal to families in the economic middle.  Curtailing guest-worker programs and reducing the flow of illegal labor could also improve the employment prospects of many Americans.  And those are only some of the ways in which decisions about regulation and the administration of government could advance the cause of middle-class economic uplift (for more, see, of course, Room to Grow). 

Edsall makes some very suggestive points about why tax-and-spend redistributionism might not be politically promising, and I don't mean to discount the real political tensions and trade-offs of some pro-middle-class policies.  But conservatives can take heart that imaginative reforms can improve the conditions of the middle class without pitting it against the wealthy.  Moreover, the rich would also benefit from the economic growth generated by a recharged middle class.  So a pro-middle-class agenda could provide economic benefits for the nation as a whole--from the bottom to the top.

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