Oren M. Levin-Waldman will discuss his most recent article: “Rising Inequality: Where is the Revolution?” By Oren M. Levin-Waldman, Ph.D., https://www.yonkerstribune.com/?p=39190, on Wednesday, February 14, 2018th at 10am EDT on the Westchester On the Level radio broadcast. Listen “Live” or “On Demand”. Use the following hyperlink … http://tobtr.com/s/10571345 to access the broadcast. (NOTE: This URL is activated at the top of the hour on the day of the broadcast and is thereafter part of our archive … to listen, make an inquiry, or share your perspective dial the call-in number: 347.205.9201. Participants are asked to be respectful of all our guests and to stay on topic. This segment will air from 10-11am.
“Rising Inequality: Where is the Revolution?” By OREN M. LEVIN-WALDMAN, Ph.D.
Most public choice theories of democracy suggest that as income inequality grows and the distance between the top and bottom widen, the situation will be ripe for a revolution. Why the focus on inequality? Because it speaks to the disappearance of the middle class, and that the wealthy are getting wealthier while those at the lower end continue to struggle.
Inequality, after all, has only gotten worse, the middle class has been in decline, and those at the bottom have been struggling to make ends meet. Arguably the presidential election of 2016 was a response to decades of economic transformations that have left so many dislocated. But can we really say that an election that effectively upends the political establishment represents a revolution?
Let’s consider the public choice model for a moment. Democracy is thought to prevail when either economic equality is high. Economic equality may promote democracy because it effectively reduces pressure for redistribution, which could occur as a byproduct of mass revolution and the creation of a more authoritarian regime. By contrast, authoritarianism tends to be prevalent in those countries in which the level of inequality is high. Redistributive demands of the worse-off citizens are especially intense in highly unequal societies.
In societies that are already authoritarian the model simply assumes that their regimes will seek to pacify the masses by giving them the right to vote. The elites, however, will seek to resist. They will resist for the simple reason that greater democratization in response to authoritarianism will lead to mass support for policies that result in redistribution.
Why, then, has there been no such revolution in the U.S.? For all intents and purposes we are still a democracy, or are we? The classic answer to this question is perhaps exemplified in Louis Hartz’s book The Liberal Tradition in America published over sixty years ago. Echoing DeTocqueville’s famous observation that America was born free, Hartz argued that the liberal tradition grounded in Lockean property rights could flourish because it wasn’t weighed down by a feudalistic tradition characteristic of Europe.
To say we were born free meant that America escaped history, which was the history of class revolutions. Being born free meant that we were born free of the feudalistic baggage that otherwise would have made upward socioeconomic mobility impossible. In the old world, one was typically born into a class and died in that class. The only way out was either through death or revolution.
In America, however, there were no caste-like classes and everyone had the potential to make it and become a member of a higher economic class. The mythology of the American dream — that anybody can go from rags to riches — became deeply ingrained in the American psyche. On one level, then, if we all believe that we can rise up from humble beginnings and become successful, then perhaps there is no need to rise up in rebellion. Truthfully, one would only need to rebel if the political system were totally unresponsive because it is perceived to be in the complete service of the economic elites.
On another level there has really been no need to because workers in America going back to the 1820s have enjoyed the right to vote, or at least white male workers did. It perhaps seems trite to emphasize George Washington’s precedent of establishing a peaceful transfer of power by only serving two terms. But the importance of this cannot be emphasized enough. In a world where power was either passed down through monarchical lineage or changed through the barrel of a gun, this was an important precedent for people to see.
When people, even those at the bottom of the distribution, see that power can be peacefully transferred simply by voting in an election, the imperative of a revolution becomes considerably less. But this also presupposes that the political system will be responsive to the needs of those at the bottom, especially when inequality is on the rise.
A political system is nothing more than a mechanism designed to aggregate individual preferences about the ideal distribution of assets among the governed along with the ideal distribution of public goods. In a democracy where all individuals are able to vote, increasing levels of economic equality will bolster claims of democracy as individuals use their democratic right to vote to pressure the legislative body — the U.S. Congress — into guaranteeing a more equitable distribution.
Still, what happens when the political system is non-responsive? If too much inequality should result in increased redistributive pressure to the point that action is taken, the end result could be a left-wing dictatorship whereby the poor supposedly rule. But this doesn’t make the regime any more democratic or responsive; rather one repressive regime — the traditional authoritarian one — has been replaced by another repressive regime that could be equally authoritarian.
Could we possibly substitute populist and/or demagogic for authoritarian? This isn’t to say that the Democratic party was authoritarian in the traditional sense, but it wasn’t any more responsive to those at the bottom of the distribution. Instead of addressing a changing economy that has left many displaced from the middle class, many public officials simply sought to lecture the masses on how they should behave. When certain issues become intractable, it is easier to deflect by focusing on social issues.
Now let us return to the 2016 election. Was it a revolution in the sense that workers who felt displaced came out en masse and opted for the populist and perhaps demagogic candidate who promised, if nothing else, to upend the Washington establishment? Surely, it has been upended. How else do we explain the Democratic party’s doubling down on resistance and clinging to Russia investigations as though, even if they were to prove collusion, it would restore the heir apparent to office?
The reality is that this election resulted from a political establishment that has long been unresponsive to the plight of working Americans who have been displaced due to an increasingly globalizing economy. The answer, however, does not have to necessarily point to greater redistribution as the public choice models suggest. Rather a program aimed at shoring up the middle class through support of institutions that will lift their wages will go a long way and most likely be more effective. Now that may restore faith in the American dream.
Oren M. Levin-Waldman, Ph.D. is Professor at the Graduate School for Public Affairs and Administration at Metropolitan College of New York, Research Scholar at the Binzagr Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, as well as faculty member in the Milano School for International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School. Direct email to: firstname.lastname@example.org .