U.S. Public Opinion Favors Bold Action to Address Rising Economic Inequality

Interview with Chuck Collins, program director with the Institute for Policy Studies' Program on Inequality and the Common Good, conducted by Scott Harris

As some 17 Democrats have announced their intention to run for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination, launched fundraising campaigns and begun to make stump speeches across key primary states, it’s clear that the progressive wing of the party is in the ascendency.  While Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign for the White House was unsuccessful, he garnered wide support for his bold policy prescriptions to address long-standing economic issues, such as his advocacy for a Medicare for All universal health care system, free tuition at public colleges and moving the nation to a $15 hourly federal minimum wage. Many of the announced candidates in the 2020 campaign have embraced Sanders’ proposals as their own.
President Donald Trump, who will presumably be running for a second term, and many of his Republican party supporters have revived a line of attack on Democrats popular during the Cold War years, warning the nation that the party of FDR and Barack Obama are scheming to impose a socialist state on capitalist America. During his State of the Union address on Feb. 5, Trump said, “We are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country. We renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” 

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Chuck Collins, program director with the Institute for Policy Studies’ Program on Inequality and the Common Good. Here, he discusses rising inequality in the U.S. which has inspired – despite the predictable GOP red-baiting campaign – bipartisan support for many progressive initiatives, such as imposing heavier taxes on the nation’s wealthiest citizens and corporations, establishing a universal health care system and forging ahead with the proposed Green New Deal.

CHUCK COLLINS: Well, one way to think about it is, we’ve kind of lived through a pretty much a century of red scares. Whenever anyone has proposed public policies that now we sort of take for granted as part of progress – you know, people and organized groups of people have always said, “Oh, that’s socialism. You can’t cross that line.” So, you know, a hundred years ago there was a proposal for the income tax and the estate tax, an end to child labor policies, direct election of U.S. senators by voters and not state legislatures. All of those were greeted with “Oh, this is Bolshevism. We’re moving the United States toward Bolshevism.” And our more recent history when Medicare was proposed. It was considered socialism and socialized medicine in the 1960s. Here it is again. Some members of Congress are proposing restoring the progressive tax rates that we had under President Dwight Eisenhower.

At the top, tax rates were much higher. And again, people are hollering, “Oh, this is going to lead toward socialism.” So it’s an attempt to get us to stop thinking, just kind of respond in a reflexive way, as opposed to saying, “What is it? How do we really want our society to be organized? And, do we have to have these extreme levels of inequality?” It’s amusing to me that we’re hearing the “specter of socialism” once again, when we’re mostly just talking about not having extreme levels of inequality.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Chuck, I’ve read some recent polls indicate that there is wide public support for increasing the tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. There’s a lot of support out there for free public education. Universal healthcare such as Medicare for All scores high points with most people in these recent polls as does raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. What do we know about public opinion in terms of support for major structural changes in our economic system here in the U.S.?

CHUCK COLLINS: Well, I think Scott, as you say there, the first thing just emphasizes again, there’s wild wide support for an agenda that would reduce these structural inequalities. And the fact that we don’t have those policies is just a reminder that our political system has been captured by big money interests, big donors, a couple hundred global corporations Their voice, their megaphone is considerably bigger. But I think there’s good news. And I believe there’s a realignment happening, a kind of pressure building from below of people who are saying these inequalities are not sustainable. We can’t have an economy where almost all the benefits of both and productivity go to a small segment, a small slice at the top. We would all be better off. And there’s fascinating polls when people are asked, you know, how unequal do you think we are? What do you want U.S. society to actually look like?

And then you sort of look at that alongside of how unequal we really are. And I think most people don’t realize just how concentrated wealth and power has become. And when they learn about that, they feel even more strongly that we should raise the minimum wage, restore progressive taxation, eliminate the scourge of student debt, have universal health insurance. If any of your listeners have those feelings, you’re not alone. You’re in the majority. Even among Republicans, 60 percent of Republicans favor significantly higher taxes on the wealthy. So those are not marginal ideas. Those are right down the middle, popular centrist ideas.

For more information on Institute for Policy Studies’ Program on Inequality and the Common Good, visit ips-dc.org/inequality-and-the-common-good.

Subscribe to our Weekly Summary