Michael Tomasky on Why Americans Think the Rich Rule Both Parties

The evidence keeps flooding in: Americans think both parties favor the rich. That’s an accurate reading of the GOP—but a devastating one for Democrats, says Michael Tomasky.

Are the American people a bunch of crazy socialists? By comparison to their representatives in Washington, the answer is a resounding yes. When I say “representatives in Washington” I mean Democrats, too (although the Republicans are obviously the far bigger problem). We get a lot of hot air blown on us about how horrible it is that “the extremes” control our politics and we need a new party of the center. But if anything, what we actually need is a party willing to take more aggressively redistributionist economic positions that Republicans despise and Democrats are terrified of espousing, if indeed they still believe them at all.

I was looking through The New York Times poll in Wednesday’s paper, the one the Times trumpeted as showing that Americans’ faith in government is at an all-time low. Certainly, that was a painful number to see. Only 10 percent said they trusted government to do the right thing always or most of the time. Responses to that question going back to the 1970s typically put those two combined categories (“always” and “most of the time”) around 25 percent, up to 40 or 45 percent during better times. So the Times wasn’t wrong to lead with that.

But I found responses to three other questions far more fascinating. First, people were asked if they felt “the distribution of money and wealth in this country is fair” or if it “should be more evenly distributed.” That’s a pretty straight-up question, and 66 percent of respondents replied that wealth should be more evenly distributed. Just 26 percent think the current distribution is fair.

In the next two questions of interest, people were asked whether they thought the Republicans in Congress and the Obama administration pursued policies that favored the rich, the middle class, the poor, or treated all three groups equally. People have the GOP pegged for what it is. Fully 69 percent said the GOP favors the rich, while just 9 percent said it backs the middle class. But the most fascinating part is that 28 percent—a plurality—said that Obama’s policies favor the rich. This compares to 23 percent who said Obama favors the middle class, 21 percent who said he treats all three groups equally, and 17 percent who think he favors the poor. Four months after Obama took office, just 12 percent thought he favored the rich.

Since this doesn’t have anything to do with raising hysteria about the deficit or advance the narrative that “excessive” entitlements (average yearly Social Security distribution: $13,000) are destroying America, the high punditocracy is not going to get up in arms about this finding. But I am. It’s shameful that this is the perception of Obama, and it’s disgraceful that he has been weak enough vis-à-vis the GOP to allow this perception to build. But wait; perception? Could it be that this is more than a perception? Alas, there’s more truth to it than many Democrats would care to acknowledge.

It took the administration nearly three years to come up with a mortgage plan, announced this week, to help underwater homeowners. But even this plan will benefit only a fraction of affected families. The administration felt it could not go bigger for all the usual reasons—fear of seeming too profligate and so on. While the administration has tried to do many good things—including this week’s student-loan-relief plan, which seems bolder than the mortgage proposal—it’s played small ball with most of them. Meanwhile, the president extended the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy last December, something 65 to 70 percent of Americans oppose. People notice these things.

This is the state of our representative democracy today: the Republicans represent the top 2 percent and increasingly don’t even pretend otherwise, and the Democrats represent roughly about the next 13 percent, or maybe 18 percent on good days. In other words, the Democrats do a reasonable job of representing the point of view and priorities of households with low six-figure incomes (if your household income is $100,000 you are in the 81st percentile; check out this neato calculator).

Every so often, Democrats still do something for the remaining 80 percent, but those somethings keep getting smaller and smaller, or they come with some weight attached to them, like the health-care bill, which gives poor people subsidies to buy health insurance but still makes them spend up to about 9 percent of their income on coverage, which will be difficult for some people. But for the most part, median-wage families (around $50,000) don’t get much from either party, and while they may not have advanced degrees, they know why.

You may have already read about the new Congressional Budget Office study. From 1979 to 2007, after-tax incomes of the top 1 percent grew by 275 percent. For the middle quintile, growth was just under 40 percent. It’s a moral affront, not to politicized, left-wing people, but to regular people. This is not how America is supposed to work. But this is how both parties are letting it work, which is why twice as many regular Americans support the goals of Operation Wall Street than those of the tea party.

I don’t seriously want a third party of left. It would inevitably be led by insufferable and self-righteous gasbags who probably wouldn’t even make class economics their central idea but would instead zoom off into Free Mumia land or something. What I want is the Democratic Party to be the Democratic Party. I want “middle class” to be every fourth word (every fourth and fifth words?) out of Obama’s mouth. I want what a clear and large majority of Americans wants, something that inside the Beltway is regarded as extreme and unserious: I want a party that isn’t afraid to redistribute a little wealth, and at the very least, a president who is ashamed by the result of that poll question about favoring the rich and resolves to do something dramatic about it.