For much of the Obama era, issues such as income inequality have been deemed largely off limits by the right. The problem, according to many conservatives, isn’t the growing gap between rich and poor, or the emergence of a new Gilded Age, but rather, talking about these issues in public. Maybe, the argument goes, if we ignore the societal dilemma, it’ll just go away.
But it wasn’t too terribly long ago that Republicans felt this was at least a problem worth considering. Our pal James Carter flagged a fascinating item from 2002, written by one of the Republican presidential candidates for an academic journal.
[T]oday, growing disparity between the rich and poor is one of the critical social dilemmas we face in the 21st century. I believe that the growing wealth gap is one of the key reasons for this increasing disparity.
Despite a strong economy through the 1990s, the gap between the rich and the poor expanded. Among Americans who reach age seventy, the top ten percent own more wealth than the bottom ninety percent. How do we address this inequity? […]
Initiatives that encourage individual wealth creation are imperative to closing the gap between the rich and the poor. I believe the government can play a role in helping many Americans who struggle to enter the economic mainstream.
The same article went on to note that while “the net worth of the typical family has risen substantially in recent years, it has actually dropped substantially for low-income families…. Until recently, the booming American economy had delivered significant income gains to the nation’s upper-income earners, leaving lower-income workers on the sidelines.”
The author was then-Sen. Rick Santorum, in a piece for the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, & Public Policy.
It’s only fair to note that Santorum’s preferred prescription was not at all progressive. The Republican’s focus was on addressing inequality by expanding “wealth creation” – we would see more income mobility, for example, if working families had their own retirement investment accounts, replacing Social Security.
But what’s striking about the Santorum piece is the way in which it helps document the rhetorical transition.
In 2012, the Republican line is that discussions about economic fairness, if they’re to exist at all, should be forced into “quiet rooms,” where questions can be whispered. In 2002, leading Republicans – Santorum was the third highest-ranking GOP senator at the time – were entirely comfortable noting the “growing disparity between the rich and poor,” exploring solutions to close the gap, and even envisioning a role for government action.
Santorum’s piece 10 years ago wasn’t seen as scandalous; it was seen as routine. It’s only now that the Republican mainstream sees the need to narrow the public conversation, declaring some topics verboten. Indeed, if President Obama were to declare today that the “growing disparity between the rich and poor is one of the critical social dilemmas we face in the 21st century,” nearly all of the leading GOP voices would be quick to condemn such talk as inherently “divisive,” promoting “envy,” and fomenting class conflict.
What a difference a decade makes.
(Chart: The Economist)