Do Democrats really care about the poor?

There are reasons to be cynical about the party's new populist push

Are Democrats just trolling the left?

That's the question Pat Garofalo and George Zornick — writers at U.S. News and World Report and The Nation, respectively — are asking in the wake of new proposals unveiled by the party last week.

The centerpiece is a package that would give every American worker making under $100,000 a $1,000 tax credit; give another $250 bonus if at least half of that $1,000 is saved; boost the child tax credit; incentivize businesses to pay employees more; and pay for it all by closing tax breaks for the wealthy and by imposing a new financial transactions tax to encourage some sobriety in Wall Street trading.

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Then President Obama announced new spending proposals to encourage states to develop paid family leave plans, and to require employers nationwide to give workers up to seven days of paid sick leave annually. And tonight, in his State of the Union address, he will call for Congress to cut middle class taxes by raising taxes and fees on the wealthy and the financial industry, in a more modest riff on the Democrats' proposal.

These are some ambitiously left-wing economic ideas for U.S. politics. And with the Democrats in their weakest position since Obama was elected to office, they also don't have a prayer of passing. Garofalo and Zornick want to know if that hopelessness is why they're being proposed. Having thrown this bone to progressives and lefties when it's in no danger of having to make good on it, will the Democratic Party just tack back to the center when/if it claws back some power? Or will it stick to its guns?

This is arguably one of the genuine mysteries in modern American politics.

But there are good reasons for these writers to be a touch cynical. The triumvirate of the stimulus, ObamaCare, and the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill was a genuine breakthrough accomplishment, and if Obama does nothing else than preserve them he will have moved the country in a genuinely leftward direction. But they also passed in a remarkable time: the aftermath of the 2008 recession, when Americans were still reeling with fury at their economic overlords.

Since then, the Democrats have been giving their left-wing supporters decidedly mixed signals: they were eager to suck demand out of the economy by working with the Republicans to cut the deficit; they allowed the payroll tax cut passed by the stimulus to expire, dealing a blow to working Americans' pocketbooks; and Obama failed to use his executive position to repair housing policy or leverage more ambitious monetary policy out of the Fed. Even the minimum wage hike campaign, the Democrats' other biggest populist push, didn't pick up steam nationally until the Democrats lacked the numbers to pass it.

There's also a larger historical and demographic context here, that intertwines with the country's rising inequality. In the 1970s, the Democratic Party's platform still boasted robustly left-wing economic populism, including a guaranteed job for every American and the eradication of poverty. But by the 1990s it was evolving towards centrist and Clintonite paeans to tax cuts, the private sector, and smaller government, even as the party became more aggressively and unapologetically liberal on many social issues, particularly since Obama's election.

And it's worth noting that the timeline for this shift in the party's economic priorities lines up pretty well with the rise of inequality.

Political science work by Princeton University's Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens, along with Northwestern University's Benjamin Page, suggests that at this point in our country's development, when the policy preferences of the economic elite diverge from those of the lower or middle class, the latter two groups are simply ignored by policy-makers. Their work and others' data also suggest that the upper class and the elite tend to be more right-wing on economics than the rest of the country. The elite prioritizes deficit reduction and slashing government spending far above fighting unemployment; and it opposes increasing the earned income tax credit, establishing a national system of universal health insurance, or using the government to provide jobs.

What does this have to do with the Democrats? Well, certain portions of upper-class and flat-out rich voters are a crucial part of its coalition — post-Citizens United the party has actually given the GOP a run for its money in terms of who can secure more funding from the elite. That brings up the work of one more political scientist, Columbia University's Andrew Gelman, who found that while rich blue state voters are certainly more economically liberal than rich red state voters, they're less economically liberal than poor people. Furthermore, while the poor vote based on economic issues, it's the rich that give social issues major importance — and rich red state voters are really socially conservative and blue state rich voters are really socially liberal. (Meanwhile, there just aren't that many poor people in the GOP.) The culture wars, in Gelman's analysis, result from this tribal split within upper class and elite circles.

The Democratic Party's priorities, in other words, are the product of a coalition between economically populist poor and working class voters, and chunks of the professional upper class and the elite, which leans more left-libertarian. And if rising inequality is working to silence poorer voters, and if both parties keep chasing the wealthy donor money machine, then we could see the “Silicon-Valley-ization” of the Democrats: robust defense of social liberalism, and a slide to the center-right on economics.

But as Garofalo and Zornick point out, how loud and hard the Democrats are trumpeting their latest ideas a year or two years from now will tell us a lot about how likely that slide is.

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Jeff Spross

Jeff Spross was the economics and business correspondent at He was previously a reporter at ThinkProgress.