Columnist Joe Gannon: Without economic justice plan, fear will win in 2020

  • The French economist Thomas Piketty in 2016 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. gazette file photo

Published: 7/12/2019 7:00:17 PM
Modified: 7/12/2019 7:00:05 PM

The first Democratic debates have come and gone and it is more clear than ever that the Democratic Party has two bases it is pitching itself to this election cycle: the more traditional base that aligns with Joe Biden and the more progressive base that aligns with the policies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (and a few others who are running as more progressive than they are.)

Do we play it safe, tuck in our horns, and try to simply defeat President Donald Trump with a moderate platform? Or do we roll out the progressive agenda introduced into our political DNA so recently by Sanders?

A fascinating new study suggests a Biden-like shift to the center will leave a significant segment of the voting population in the hands of the fearmongers and xenophobes in 2020.

The study, “Brahmin Left vs. Merchant Right: Rising Inequality & the Changing Structure of Political Conflict,” is an exhaustive analysis of 70 years of election results in Britain, the United States and France, which insightfully lays out how voting patterns have changed in those nations and the West in general. It also explains how, if not why, we arrived our “Age of the Authoritarian.” The author is the French political economist, Thomas Piketty, whose 2013 book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” was a huge international best-seller.

His essential point is this: If liberal parties do not offer a straightforward, progressive, class-based, redistributive economic policy to the working class, they will lose, as they have been, to the fearmongers on social issues like immigration, abortion and LGBTQ rights.

For example, liberals often deride the (white) working class for voting against their economic interests when they vote Republican — and make no mistake, they do. Piketty’s research shows that this is largely because the liberal party does not actually offer them an economic policy that is in their self-interest. This is due mostly to liberals, like the Democrats, who surrendered their working-class base for what Piketty calls the “Brahmin Left” — the more educated, white collar, urban and Wall Street-oriented voters. These Brahmins, he notes, largely voted conservative for decades until the 1980s. In the same manner, the working class, once the solid base of left parties, shifted right in the 1980s as well. It’s a phenomenon originally known as Reagan Democrats in America, but it occurred in Europe as well.

President Barack Obama is an excellent example of this. For all the hope he inspired, when Obama came to power in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, he kept on, and adhered faithfully to, the policies of the Goldman Sachs executives in the Bush administration who’d helped create the very same crisis. Thus one of Obama’s first acts as president was to leave hundreds of thousands of Americans holding eviction and foreclosure notices in their hands, while Wall Street cashed their bonus checks. It took some time for that betrayal of working families to kick in, but it did.

Those folks mostly stuck with him in 2012, but when the “Great Fearmonger” came on the stage in 2016, a significant number of those voters jumped ship. And why shouldn’t they have? Piketty’s point is that in a battle between left and right over hot-button social issues, the left will lose support of working class folk to the fearmongers, as fear usually trumps kindness when it comes to “the other.” However, with a class-based economic justice policy — tax the rich, a living wage for everyone, infrastructure as a jobs program, universal child care and pre-kindergarten — the left has a counterbalance to the fearmongers. Otherwise, they do not.

We can see this already at work on the Republican side. The rise of restrictive abortion laws in conservative states, the attempt to paint the Democrats as the party of open borders, the use of “socialism” to stampede voters away from progressives. This is what Trump needs to run on to win.

And it is working. The GOP needs a straight-up fight over social issues to prevail in 2020. And so far, only Warren and Sanders are offering an economic justice platform. Warren is running advertisements in West Virginia about the opioid crisis, which has gutted that blood-red state. Rather than lamenting the crisis and calling for us to all combat it together, she names the pharmaceutical corporations that made vast profits from flooding the state with opioids, and names how much she will make them pay to restore those broken communities. No vague job-training programs, and no calls for love and support. Instead, it’s here are the CEOs that did this to you, and here is what I will make them pay to help restore you.

That kind of in-your-pocket, in-your-home, in-your-town (and in their face) specificty can counterbalance the faraway threats of immigrants, the red flag-waving of abortion or LGBTQ rights.

Monsieur Piketty is quite clear: Over the last 40 years, the old working class has been won over by the right. It is time for the Dems, and western liberals in general, to win them back with economic justice.

But he is equally clear: Trump’s secret weapon for success in 2020 could be to dance nervous liberals into the center, where he can beat them with his “Fear Stick.”

Joe Gannon, novelist and teacher, can be reached at

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