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What The 2016 Presidential Candidates Talk About When They Talk About Inequality

For all the talk from both sides of the aisle, we have the makings of another mostly meaningless election buzzword.

What The 2016 Presidential Candidates Talk About When They Talk About Inequality
[Illustration: Rafael Alvarez for Fast Company]

During the 2012 election, America’s historically high levels of inequality became an issue in politics like no time in recent memory. By the 2016 go-around, income inequality is on the path to becoming just another buzzword.

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Last time, Occupy Wall Street movement was still in the news. Mitt Romney–who could have become the wealthiest U.S. president in history–was infamously caught on video dismissing 47% of the population (i.e. Obama supporters) as freeloaders on the government. Making it worse, Romney wasn’t prepared to talk about inequality as a broader issue; instead, he came across as an out-of-touch rich person. Exit polls after the election showed that voters who wanted a president who cared about “people like them” voted overwhelmingly for Obama.

Many in today’s Republican line-up have learned their lessons well. This time around, they’re talking about income inequality early and often. Some sound almost like Elizabeth Warren, the populist darling of the left.

“The Republicans today are inoculating themselves against what happened to Romney,” says Elizabeth Rigby, a political scientist at George Washington University. “I wouldn’t be surprised if income inequality is discussed even more in this election than the last, but is less consequential to vote choice.”

On the Democrat ticket, Hillary Clinton, as the wealthy (though not Romney wealthy) frontrunner, may have as much, or more, to lose than Republicans when she speaks about this issue. She has to thread a thin needle of addressing Americans’ concerns about growing inequality without veering too far into redistribution-of-wealth style rhetoric that will have her branded as a dreaded socialist (and upsetting wealthy donors) or a purveyor of empty promises. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who has gained a surprisingly large following and is entirely eschewing money from super PACs, will try to challenge her by using exactly that redistributionist rhetoric. Sanders’s unexpected popularity on the Democrat ticket is the biggest indication of the increasing focus on this topic–and frustration with the status quo.

Does all of this talk about inequality render the term meaningless? Especially at a time when wealthy donors have unprecedented sway on elections, the idea that government must work to reduce inequality risks becoming just another general economic platitude that no one is against. Kind of like being in favor of “jobs” and “growth.” When this happens, candidates of both parties link generic terms to whatever economic and social policies that they would have proposed anyway, based on where their parties traditionally stand, says Rigby.

But talking about inequality is important, at minimum, as a way to educate voters. Most of the public tends to underestimate the extreme wealth inequality there is in the country. They still care about addressing it, however. A Pew Research Center poll in January 2014 found that 69% of Americans (and almost half of Republicans) believed the government should act “to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.” A May 2015 Gallup data showed that a full 46% of Americans are “strong redistributionists”–they believe the distribution of wealth and income isn’t fair and that heavy taxes on the rich are the solution. Among liberals, moderates, and even conservatives, a full 85%, 67%, and 42% respectively believed wealth should be evenly distributed.

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Let’s look at what some candidates are talking about when they talk about inequality. We won’t go through the entire (huge) candidate field, but will go through a representative sample:

Hillary Clinton

“The deck is stacked for those at the top.” Right away, that’s the statement that greets visitors to the economic policy section of her website. In her campaign announcement, Clinton came out decrying hedge fund managers and pledging to close an infamous tax loophole that Democrats have been promising–without any real action–to close for years. Despite the rhetoric, her wealthy supporters aren’t actually too worried, according to Politico.

She says she’ll rewrite the tax code so it rewards “hard work at home,” rather than corporations that shelter profits overseas, and she’ll rein in Wall Street with policies that go beyond the Dodd-Frank Act. Other specific policies Clinton proposes that would create more opportunities for those at the bottom include: universal prekindergarten, paid family leave, affordable college, and raising the minimum wage. Notably, however, she has not endorsed a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage that low-wage workers are seeking (she supports a $12-an-hour minimum wage, saying about $15: “Let’s not just do it for the sake of having a higher number out there.”) Details on how her platform would be implemented and whether and how she would raise taxes to pay for increased spending are slim.

Bernie Sanders

By far, Sanders is the candidate with the most aggressive and radical plan to address income inequality overall. In addition, Black Lives Matters activists have pushed him to separately address racial justice issues, and he has since added policies to his platform that address the significant economic disparities between whites and racial minorities.

His platform includes: free college and low-interest student loans paid for by a “Robin Hood” tax on Wall Street transactions, a plan to break up the big banks, a $15 federal minimum wage, a $5 billion federal youth employment program for young people of color, higher taxes on the wealthy, and a general opposition to trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership that send jobs overseas. Is he even remotely electable? That’s anyone’s guess, especially because he’s already alienated some minority voters and he will be woefully underfunded compared to Clinton. But he’s taking populism seriously.

Jeb Bush

In April, Bush said: “If you’re born poor today, you’re more likely to stay poor. We need to deal with this.” His Right to Rise PAC website says: “We believe the income gap is real, but that only conservative principles can solve it by removing the barriers to upward mobility.”

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Bush wants the Republican party to have a strategy for the middle class. But as Florida’s governor, Bush’s policies benefited the wealthy by eliminating the only progressive tax policy that the state had. Bush’s main economic policy so far has been to suggest that he’d be able to boost America’s long-term economic growth rate to 4%, creating millions of jobs.

This would be laudable, but it’s a feat that no economist or president has managed to figure out yet. If achieved, this would certainly help boost American workers, but without a federal minimum wage–which Bush seems to oppose–it might not help them very much. In a July speech before the National Urban League, Bush said that, as technology advances, the “worst inequality in America today” was lack of access to education. He emphasized his record in Florida on the topic, expanding charter schools and community colleges. As a Republican, he also believes in increasing personal responsibility and accountability. For example, under his watch in Florida, the state beefed up enforcement of child support payments.

Marco Rubio

Rubio has been among the leaders in the Republican field in attempting to rebrand the party as addressing the needs of the working class. He does not want to gut anti-poverty spending, saying in January that he would replace the earned income tax credit with a wage subsidy for low-income earners who do find employment, but he does want to send most of the federal government’s spending to the states.

In fact, Rubio wants to gut the federal government of a lot of responsibilities, and he uses class arguments to support this case too: “I hope the Republican Party can become the champion of the working class because I think our policy proposals of limited government and free enterprise are better for the people who are trying to make it than big government is. The fact is that big government helps the people who have made it. If you can afford to hire an army of lawyers, lobbyists, and others to help you navigate and sometimes influence the law, you’ll benefit. And so that’s why you see big banks, big companies, keep winning. And everybody else is stuck and being left behind.”

The glaring problem with his proposals is that the math is more than a little bit fuzzy.

Donald Trump

Trump’s campaign continues to be improbable and of all the crazy and offensive things he’s done, perhaps the most surprising is this: He became the only Republican to support raising taxes on the wealthy. Like Clinton and other Democrats, he supports ending the loophole in tax policy that lets hedge fun managers pay obscenely low taxes. Multimillionaires (yes, like himself) pay “very little tax and I think it’s outrageous,” he says. He also supports middle class tax breaks, who are getting “destroyed.”

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His declaration may be a smart way to attract more Republican voters. As the Pew survey noted, many Americans (regardless of party) support raising taxes on the super wealthy. This is about as fleshed out as his economic policy has gotten thus far–and his idea for everyone to pay the same rate of tax isn’t going to help the problem of inequality much at all.

Ted Cruz

This candidate has decried Obama for hammering “working men and women” in favor of “the top one percent.” “I chuckle every time I hear Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton talk about income inequality because it’s increased dramatically under their policies,” he has said. The claim that inequality has increased during Obama’s term is spurious at best, however.

Like other Republicans, Cruz said the government should lower taxes and loosen regulations to reduce inequality. As the New York Times reported, Cruz said when “government takes over the economy it freezes everything in place. And it exacerbates income inequality.

Above, you get the flavor of what economic inequality means this presidential race. In the end, there’s only so much a president can do levels of inequality within a society and the health of the overall economy. Technological changes and globalization are also major causes for growing inequality, and even within the realm of federal policy, the President (as we’ve all learned in President Obama’s two terms) only has so much power.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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