Identity Politics or Economic Populism?

Since the election, I’ve read a whole bunch of pieces focusing on identity politics, but here’s an argument that I haven’t seen made yet:

For the last quarter century, mainstream Democrats have been playing a clever political game with social issues. Let’s call it “movement surfing”. You wait for a loud minority of activists to start a wave of social change, and just as the wave is about to crest, you get on top of it and paddle as hard as you can. In the short term, you piss off the bigots and the religious right (who wouldn’t have voted for you anyhow), and you lose some of the middle. Eventually, as the wave comes in, you end up on the right side of history when the majority of people eventually come around to your perspective.

Here are some examples:

  • If you let gay people get married, there’s gnashing of teeth over the redefinition of traditional marriage and the promotion of the “gay lifestyle,” at least at first. Eventually, most people realize that gay marriage doesn’t affect them much — they don’t have to get gay married if they don’t want to, and knowing that gay people exist isn’t actually going to screw up their children — and it only remains a big issue to a small proportion of the population who think that the big man upstairs will judge our civilization harshly for condoning such a thing. (The same thing happened with interracial marriage after Loving vs. Virginia…)
  • If you let women serve in combat positions, or if you let openly gay people serve, you may piss off a few people at first, but after the initial hullabaloo, most people realize that it didn’t matter as much as they thought it did, and that you just end up with more qualified people serving. (The same thing happened after Truman desegregated the armed forces — people quickly figured out that it didn’t matter whether the person serving beside them was white, black, Latino, etc.)
  • If you encourage women to join the workforce and put forward policies that make it easier for them to do it (FMLA, tax benefits for childcare, etc.), it may offend the “Leave It To Beaver” or “Mad Men” contingent at first, but you end up with more people working, a higher GDP, and a larger tax base. After a few decades, it becomes the new normal.

It’s easy to see why Democrats have pushed so hard on social issues over the last few decades, and why it has worked so well for them. Sure, there may be one hell of a rip current to contend with, but if you time it right, movement surfing is a very efficient way to spend your political capital.

The problem is that this approach works great for social issues, but for many of the most critical issues of our day, and especially for issues of distribution of wealth and income, there’s no surfing to be had, only swimming against the current.

The fundamental reason why movement surfing works so well for social issues is that “trigger” effect. You’re pushing against something that’s in large part irrational, and when people are forced to confront it, there’s a relatively quick and lasting shift in public opinion. Adults change their minds (or hide their prejudice); young people grow up without learning the prejudice.

That reasoning doesn’t apply with issues of wealth and income inequality. Holding onto one’s money, unlike holding onto one’s prejudice, is a very rational thing to do. If you levy meaningfully higher taxes on the rich, there is no sudden shift in opinion after which a majority of rich people believe in spreading the wealth around. They don’t end up with a bruised ego; they end up with a smaller wallet. Every once in a while, there may be a wave of economic populism that you can ride, but it’s hard to make it stick — you better believe that as soon as that wave breaks, the zero-point-one-percenters are going to be right there with their campaign contributions, pushing as hard as they can to roll everything back.

This holds for a lot of the remaining racism that’s left in the system too. It may be irrational to exclude black customers from your lunch counter, but it’s pretty rational (if morally repugnant) to raise revenue by ticketing poor black people at elevated rates, tacking on fees and suspending their license when they can’t pay, and ticketing them again for driving under suspension.

Since the election, there have been lots of pieces arguing “less identity politics, more economic populism,” followed by lots of other pieces arguing “that’s racist; there are systemic issues we need to address.”

I would broaden it up a bit: What we need is less movement surfing and more swimming upstream.