Hey Democrats! Ignore the Centrists, Americans Want You to Tackle Inequality

Americans want government to tackle inequality, which means Democrats should take a cue from the economic populists.

Last week, Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler of Third Way—a Democratic “centrist” organization—penned a broadside against the economic populism of Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio, and other progressive Democrats. They denounced the populist agenda of high-income tax hikes and greater spending as a “we can have it all fantasy,” dismissed the potential appeal of populism—“For the past 144 years, what has happened in the Big Apple stayed in the Big Apple”—and warned that liberals will doom themselves if they follow Warren and de Blasio “over the populist cliff.”

They’re wrong.

Yes, as far as policies are concerned, there’s plenty to argue about when it comes to the base-centered policies of grassroots activists (Social Security expansion, universal pre-K, a health care public option) and the elite-driven priorities of Democratic elites (deficit reduction, entitlement reform, etc.). Indeed, polls show a public that wants to lower the debt, but has no sense of what it wants to cut.

But as far as the politics go, Third Way is off-base; as a political approach, economic populism holds broad appeal with the public. According to a new poll from the Washington Post, 57 percent of Americans say that the federal government “should pursue” policies that “try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans.”

When asked about a specific policy—in this case, raising the minimum wage—respondents were overwhelmingly supportive: 66 percent said they support an increase in the minimum wage. Of those, 43 percent support an increase that brings the minimum to 9 dollars or higher, putting them in line with proposals from Democrats in Congress and the White House.

The obvious response is that these results reflect partisan intensity. The argument would go like this: Sure, most Americans might be okay with policies to reduce income inequality, but the strongest supporters are left-leaning Democrats, who skew the total. It’s similar to what you see with polling on the Affordable Care Act, where most people are ambivalent, but Republicans are highly opposed, moving the results in a negative direction.

Which is why it’s significant that, according to the Washington Post, reducing inequality is a priority for most ideological groups in the electorate. Seventy-nine percent of liberals, 62 percent of moderates, and 45 percent of conservatives want government to combat inequality.

It’s also a priority for 72 percent of conservative and moderate Democrats, which throws water on the core Third Way claim that economic populism is a loser with the less-liberal elements of the Democratic coalition. Even non-college whites are supportive, with 55 percent who say they want policies to address income inequality and 66 percent who want to raise the minimum wage, a fact that should give pause to Republicans who want to ignore these issues.

Now, we don’t have enough data to say the public would support a broad expansion in Social Security—a hobbyhorse of the left—or any of the other policies favored by Democratic progressives. But what we can say is that a rhetorical emphasis on fighting inequality is popular with the public. And for those who think Democrats have little to lose by adopting a populist message, that is welcome news.