Two Things Can Be True at Once: Class Warfare Edition

Matt Yglesias quotes Cory Booker:

“I am so frustrated with the obvious changes going on between my dad’s age and now,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) delivering a stem-winder of a midday keynote address Tuesday at the Ideas Conference, hosted in Washington by the Center for American Progress to celebrate its 15th anniversary. “It’s like we inherited this incredible house from our parents and we trashed it.”

….Without stinting the importance of the civil rights movement, he also argued Tuesday that “you don’t even need to use race as one of the lenses” to understand how kids born into low-income families are disadvantaged in life. He said explicitly that when he read Hillbilly Elegy and other work about poor rural whites, it reminded him of his neighbors in Newark. “My neighbors are incredible folks who work hard — in many cases, they work harder — than their parents did, but they’re making less money.”

Here’s the closest I can come to showing how median income has changed over the past half century for Booker’s neighbors in Newark:

This chart is not perfect. “Newark” includes the entire Newark metro area, not just the city itself. And there’s no data for median income, so I had to perform a rough-and-ready conversion of per-capita income to median income based on national data. That said, this chart probably understates Newark’s income growth anyway. It includes only ordinary wage income, not income from dividends or interest or capital gains or Social Security or any other government transfers. Nor does it include noncash income like Medicaid or CHIP. If you add in all those things, the life of the average Newark resident hasn’t gotten 50 percent better since 1975, it’s gotten more like 100 percent better.

I find myself in a weirdly precarious position these days. I pretty firmly believe that the explosion of income inequality since 1980 has been a disaster for America. Sluggish income growth, which eventually turned into completely stagnant income growth, has sapped the spirit of the average middle-class worker, who grew up still believing that life was supposed to get better and better every year thanks to the growth of the American economy. By the early 90s that had turned into a faint memory, and after 2000 it was just a sick joke. Meanwhile, the rich just kept on getting richer and richer as wages were squeezed in order to set aside a bigger and bigger share of corporate profits for executives and wealthy shareholders. The whole thing was profoundly disheartening. What was the point of that whole “fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” thing if lawyers and CEOs and Wall Street bankers were just going to hoover up all the money for themselves?

And yet, even in the era of Trump, Booker’s hyperbole bothers me because I think it motivates unwarranted despair more than it motivates action. For him to say that folks in Newark are working harder than they were 30 or 40 years ago is almost certainly untrue, and to say they’re making less money is absolutely untrue. I hate to hear stuff like this partly because I value the truth, but even more so because telling people how miserable they are makes them discouraged, not raring for a fight.

That said, Booker would be a good messenger for the message Democrats should embrace: unapologetic class warfare that doesn’t pretend we’re all miserable wretches. Bernie Sanders tried the class warfare part of this, of course, but Booker has a couple of big advantages over Sanders. First, he’s not a socialist. He grew up in a comfortable, suburban, middle-class household, and that makes him a much more acceptable messenger.¹ Second, he’s black, which means that he knows (or should know) how to deliver this message without the racial tone deafness that sometimes dogged Sanders.

This is the main point of Yglesias’ post, in fact. The question is, how do Democrats run a racially sensitive presidential campaign without alienating the working-class white voters they need? One answer is to run a class-based campaign that will obviously benefit people of color, but without actually saying so explicitly. This is sort of a mirror-image dog whistle: blacks and Hispanics understand and accept what you’re not saying, while white folks don’t know anything is happening at all. Barack Obama did this on a smallish scale, but in the same way that Sarah Palin paved the way for a more effective Palin, perhaps Sanders paved the way for a more effective Sanders.

A more effective Sanders couldn’t expect much corporate support. But the fact is that a class-based campaign doesn’t really have to be especially anti-corporate. You can be fully in favor of a business-friendly economic climate (as I am) while also believing that the profits it generates should be more broadly shared (as I do). And if Trump has re-taught us anything, it’s that people love enemies. For Trump, it was China. For Booker it could be Wall Street. Why not?

¹Maybe this is fair, maybe it’s not. But it’s true. Politics isn’t always fair.