In a 2019 campaign video, Bernie Sanders appeared hugging a crying single mother outside her hardscrabble trailer in the Deep South. The video, called “Trapped,” introduced us to a mother living on less than $1,000 a month in an impoverished rural Black-majority county, in a home that badly needed repairs and sat next to a polluted lagoon, in a rich country where the national minimum wage is a mere $7.25 per hour. Sanders’ distinctive Brooklyn accent in voiceover explained that this same scene could be in a Latino community in California or in white West Virginia. During the teary embrace, he told the woman, “we won’t forget you.”
Sanders did not forget. But in March, eight Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted against adding a minimum wage increase to $15 per hour into the COVID relief bill — a hard kick to the millions of low-wage service workers risking their health during the pandemic.
You won’t find direct references to impoverished trailer courts in French economist Thomas Piketty’s latest work, Capital and Ideology, but their specter is all over this massive tome. You will find those trailer parks, urban neighborhoods and small towns in the “dramatic collapse” of the lower half of American households’ income. The bottom 50 percent’s share of national income went from 20% in 1980 to just above 12% today, and the miserly federal minimum wage is partially at fault. “This reversal attests to the magnitude of the political-ideological changes that took place in the United States since the 1970s and 1980s,” writes Piketty.
Capital and Ideology is chock-full of graphs with nifty explainers and statistics that show historical income and wealth distributions. This is the “capital” aspect of the book, but it is the “ideology” portion that illuminates how wealth was distributed away from the bottom 50% and towards the one percent at such magnitude.
Postwar politics in the West generally pitted conservative parties (Britain’s Conservatives, the Republicans, Charles DeGaulle in France) with wealthier and more educated constituencies against less educated, working-class left-wing parties. The left-wing parties generally voted for democratic socialism — labor rights, universal healthcare and higher rates of progressive taxation. Piketty terms these politics as a “classist” formation, but it loses steam around the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The 1930s New Deal proved the power of government action to create jobs and alleviate poverty, and the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s mobilized masses to dismantle Jim Crow and challenge the old boys’ network. The far right’s response, Corey Robin wrote in his excellent The Reactionary Mind, has been to “harness the energy of the mass in order to reinforce or restore the power of elites,” beginning with Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful 1964 presidential run and reaching power in Ronald Reagan’s 1980s counter-revolution.
Capital and Ideology traces this shift in politics across the world’s democracies over the past 50 years. Left parties such as Britain’s Labour and India’s Congress shifted from robust representation of their working-class constituencies to become parties led by an educated, professional and more highly paid elite — the “Brahmin left.” This realignment is reconfiguring global economics and politics, and everything appears up for grabs. The Brahmin left values international trade, celebrates the winners (managers, tech entrepreneurs) and offers policy pittances to the losers (factory workers, low-paid service workers).
In the United States, Barack Obama’s anemic response to the Great Recession greased the skids for Trump’s bigoted and “America First” economic appeals to lower-earning and less-educated voters. Piketty asserts that across democracies there are four roughly equal electoral camps. The left consists of the Brahmins but also a rising internationalist, pro-wealth-redistribution activist faction embodied in the United States by figures like Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. On the right, the pro-market “merchant right” favors global trade and cooperation, joined uneasily by an empowered nativist and nationalist far-right that talks about wealth redistribution.
Piketty warns of the “social-nativist” trap — where elites can rally the bottom 50% to a platform of redistributive politics to the “native” population, with violent exclusion of immigrants and national minorities. But can a MAGA-infused GOP deliver economic gains to its working-and middle-class nativist base? One-term Trump’s lone legislative victory was a massive tax cut for the rich. His inconclusive trade war with China and disastrous COVID-19 response mostly alienated the merchant right, with notable exceptions like the MyPillow guy and the CEO of the Goya food company.
Polls show the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package is widely popular across the political spectrum, yet not a single Republican votedfor it. The bill avoids repeating Obama-era mistakes: It will provide thousands of dollars in direct relief to tens of millions of families, and is a clear blow against austerity politics and a win for the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. Critics note that the aid is temporary and wonder how we will pay for it. The Biden Administration is eyeing higher corporate taxes and making it harder for multinationals to shift profits to tax havens. But if democracy is to avoid falling into a social- nativist trap, this relief bill is a positive first step.
Capital and Ideology
By Thomas Piketty
Translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Belknap Harvard 2020
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