Why Candidates of Both Parties Avoided Debate on Rising Economic Inequality in 2014 Campaign

Posted Nov. 12, 2014

MP3 Interview with Sam Pizzigati, veteran labor journalist and Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, conducted by Scott Harris


The results of the 2014 midterm election were decidedly bad news for Democratic Party candidates from coast to coast. Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate, gaining at least seven seats, expanded their majority in the House of Representatives by 12 seats and won more governor’s mansions and state legislatures. The few bright spots for progressive activists were seen in statewide and local referendums. Voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota all approved ballot questions boosting the minimum wage. Colorado and North Dakota defeated so called “personhood” measures restricting reproductive rights. Colorado and Oregon voters approved ballots mandating the labeling of GMO foods. Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. favored legalizing marijuana. And ballot measures banning natural gas fracking won eight ballots at the city and county level.

Pundits and political operatives pointed to a number of factors present in the 2014 election that explained the dismal showing of Democrats. Primary among them was the lowest voter turnout in more than 70 years, with only 36.4 percent of eligible voters going to the polls. Also on that list was the historic poor showing for the party in power at the White House – and the record-breaking flood of unlimited and unaccountable corporate money spent on election campaigns, a direct result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings. Then there were new voter suppression laws enforced in almost two dozen GOP-controlled states, making it more difficult for millions of Democratic leaning voters to cast ballots.

But while the buckets of covert corporate cash and new obstacles confronting voters certainly played a role, Sam Pizzigati, a veteran labor journalist and Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, says that one reason that the vast majority of voters failed to participate in 2014 was that candidates from both parties largely failed to address one of the most important issues facing American families: growing income inequality. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Sam Pizzigati, who explains why he believes both major parties avoid discussion of this critical economic issue.

SAM PIZZIGATI: Back in 1982, the richest one-hundredth of one percent of America – that's people who today are making over $20 million a year – but back in 1982, this small .01 percent of America, the richest .01 percent accounted for less than 10 percent of all federal political campaign contributions. And in the 2012 elections, they accounted for over 40 percent. And in this last week's election, I'm sure the figure is even higher. We don't have the final statistic on that yet. So, in other words, the share of campaign contributions that's come from the super-rich has more than quadrupled over the past 30 years.

And so, I don't think there should be any surprise why we have the sorts of politics that we do.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Sam, review for our listeners, if you would, some of the statistics that come out of credible sources that speak to rising economic equality in the United States, and certainly in comparison to many other countries around the world.

SAM PIZZIGATI: Let's start with one of those comparisons to another country. Let's look at France, which is a developed nation. And if you add up all the wealth in France and you divide it by the number of adults and you do the same thing in the United States, you get figures that are very close. So in France, the average wealth per adult – and again, we're taking the total wealth and dividing it by the number of adults. In France, that comes to $317,000 of wealth per adult. In the United States, it's a little bit more; it's $348,000 of wealth per adult.

But that figure in the United States is incredibly distorted by the amount of wealth at the top. So, if you look instead at average wealth, if you look at median wealth – and remember, median wealth means if you take everybody, all the adults and you look for the point in that distribution where half the adults make more and the other half make less – that's the median household wealth. In other words, that's the wealth of a typical person. In France, the wealth of the typical person last year was $141,000. In the United States, the wealth of the typical person was $53,000. In other words, almost $90,000 less. And you can look at that $90,000 difference between the median and the average household wealth as our inequality penalty.

That's the penalty that we as Americans suffer for living in a country where wealth is concentrated at the top. In other words, we have a total wealth comparable to France, but their wealth is much more equally divided than our wealth.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Would you review for our listeners, some of the prescriptions to reverse our rising economic inequality in this country. What are the policies that you would say are basic to really addressing and reversing economic inequality.

SAM PIZZIGATI: Well, there are some old staples. The tax system, of course, is a prime weapon. I think we need to make our tax system much more progressive than it is. We need to raise rates on our very highest incomes; we need to move back to the rates that we had back in the 1950s under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was, as you may remember was a Republican, but a Republican concerned about inequality. So taxes is one major area.

But I think we also need to do something about what people working on inequality in Britain call "predistribution." That is, how the market distributes rewards for the work we do. And right now, those rewards for the work Americans are doing are getting snared by a very small group of executives – people at the top of our corporations.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Given the fact that President Obama in the past has identified economic inequality as one of the major issues confronting this country, it is a bit mysterious why he nor many of his candidates around the country who were running for the House or Senate engaged in a discussion of these issues that may well have garnered them more votes, more interest and more turnout at the polls on Nov. 4th.

SAM PIZZIGATI: In fact, Scott, the exit polls that were done on Election Day last week, in those election exit polls, 64 percent of people who came out to vote said they believe America's economy favors the wealthy. That was the question, does (the economy favor) the wealthy or not? Sixty-four percent said that the economy favors the wealthy. So clearly, there's a huge public sentiment out there that wants to see candidates take on the concentration of income and wealth in the United States.

And as you just noted, candidates didn't do that. And again, I think the major reason for that is that Democratic candidates try to get their votes from average working people, but they get their money for their campaigns – the bulk of the money – from people at the top of our economy. And for those people, they don't want their candidates talking about issues surrounding the distribution of income and wealth.

Sam Pizzigati is an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies and author of the book, "The Rich Don't Always Win." Visit Pizzigati’s weekly newsletter “Too Much,” at TooMuchOnline.org.

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