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December 05, 2013 10:04 AM The Lost Constituency For Fighting Inequality

By Ed Kilgore

As alluded to in the last post, and as pretty much everyone knows who’s being honest about it, a crucial factor in the success or failure of conservative backlash against efforts to extend the social safety net is whether they can be depicted as morally offensive to people who really have little or nothing in common with the wealthy and powerful Americans being asked to pay the freight. And that’s why racial appeals are so important in mobilizing downscale white folks to view themselves as victims or rivals of those people benefiting from our barebones version of the European welfare state.

So the “white working class” is one occasionally lost constituency for efforts to fight inequality. At MSNBC, Tim Noah, who knows whereof he speaks, discusses another:

A century ago the country’s plutocrats, plagued by violent protest from socialists and anarchists, feared that if economic inequality got too far out of hand the angry masses might overthrow capitalism. That obliged them to at least pay lip service to some vague notion of equality. And 50, 40, even 30 years ago, the country’s elites understood that too much inequality would harm the U.S.’s global competition with Soviet Russia for hearts and minds.
Today, the Cold War is over and there’s no chance that capitalism will be overthrown. With the dangers of income inequality no longer self-evident, many Americans wonder why it’s still an issue. President Obama’s speech took a stab at answering that question. Given income inequality’s continuing rise, it probably won’t be the last time he’s called upon to do so.

There are some conservatives, mostly those of a religious bent, who worry to varying degrees about a society of ever-growing inequality. But for most, the save-your-own-skin rationale Noah is talking about is entirely lacking. This could be an additional and virtually unnoticed reason for the rise of radical conservatism of late: it’s no longer considered dangerously self-destructive for representatives of our economic ruling classes to talk about getting rid of the New Deal and Great Society programs and making America an experiment in unregulated capitalism.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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