How Republicans Use Populist Sentiment On Behalf Of Wealthy Elites

November 10, 2011 12:32 pm ET — Jamison Foser

With each passing day, it is increasingly clear that the Republican Party views the widespread public outrage that sparked the Occupy Wall Street movement as what is commonly described as a crisis: a simultaneous threat and opportunity. Republicans are, and rather enjoy being, the party of the rich at a time when coddling the wealthy is unpopular. But you don't build a successful political party that puts the interests of a tiny fraction of the country ahead of everyone else without having a few tricks up your sleeve, and Republicans are turning to one of their favorites: using populist sentiment against the populace.  

GOP recognition of the threat it faces has been obvious. Mitt Romney clumsily tried to get on the right side of public anger over growing inequality by falsely claiming that he doesn't want to cut taxes for the wealthy. Then Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) took a momentary break from peddling massive corporate tax cuts to feign concern about the "plight of the people." Now Politico finds further evidence that Republicans are frantically trying to shed their well-deserved image as the political arm of the 1 percent:

Republicans, long criticized by Democrats as a party that coddles the rich, are now eyeing a handful of proposals that target millionaires on subsidies, tax deductions and other federal benefits. [...]

It's not exactly a full-throated embrace of tax hikes on the affluent, but these small measures show a tinge of populism creeping into Republican rhetoric, and an acknowledgment that constant Democratic attacks over income inequality may be having an impact. [...]

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that nearly 70 percent of the public believes that GOP policies favor the rich, compared with 29 percent of voters who believe the Obama administration's policies are tilted toward the wealthy.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has generated enormous media attention for its protests across the country as it tries to highlight income inequality — so much so that the language is creeping into Republican talking points and interviews.

Not that Republicans have had a sincere change of heart. The proposals in question — "denying unemployment insurance benefits to millionaires," "cuts to farm subsidies for the wealthy," "limit[ing] Medicare payments for wealthy senior citizens," and "new means tests for Social Security" — are largely symbolic:

The proposals amount to largely nickel-and-dime savings, unlikely to make a significant dent in the federal deficit. An analysis by the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research this year argued that means-testing on Social Security that limited benefits to the wealthy would save only a fraction of a percent of benefits. Citing government data, [Sen. Tom] Coburn said that millionaires earned more than $18.6 million in unemployment benefits in 2008, and rich farmers won $49 million in farm subsidies.

Eliminating $18 million in unemployment benefits will do nothing to balance the budget and nothing to turn back decades of trickle-down, coddle-the-rich economic policy. Indeed, even some Republicans admit their efforts are largely symbolic. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) says it explicitly: "It's the symbolism." Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) says efforts to eliminate unemployment benefits for the wealthy will "play to people's sense of fairness, that this is just fundamentally wrong." Notice that he doesn't say the proposal would accomplish fairness — he says it would "play to people's sense of fairness." It's a campaign tactic, not a serious attempt at slowing the growth in inequality. 

While the substance of the GOP efforts is largely inconsequential, the symbolism is quite insidious. Consider the targets of the Republican faux populism: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, Medicaid. These aren't programs that contribute to the ever-widening gap between the rich and the rest of us — they are the safety net that protect the middle class from falling into poverty. An unemployment insurance program that helps millions of working-class and poor people stay afloat amidst an historic jobs crisis isn't the problem, it's part of the solution — even if it pays a few million dollars in benefits to rich people in the process. Yet Republicans seek to use the symbolism of (largely non-existent) millionaire unemployment recipients and Rolls Royce-driving Medicaid enrollees to undermine the most important and effective middle-class protections the U.S. government has ever implemented. After saying he wants to "play to" a sense of fairness, Rep. Cole spells out the nefarious plot:

"And second, once you do those things, you really do see the bigger problem is not just a very few wealthy people or a very few abusers — although we ought to deal with those people — it really is basically the systems that aren't fiscally sustainable."

The goal isn't to save $18 million in unemployment payments to millionaires: It's to dismantle the unemployment insurance system that protects middle-class and low-wage workers. Just as invoking the specter of wealthy Social Security recipients isn't an attempt to shore up Social Security — that could be done simply by making the super-rich pay into Social Security at the same rate as the rest of us — it's an attempt to erode public confidence in the program so it can be killed, and Medicare too, as Republicans have long wanted to do.

It's a perverse form of political jujitsu, in which Republicans are attempting to use public discontent at a political and economic system that is rigged in favor of millionaires and billionaires to further rig the system on behalf of the rich. Americans are demanding a fair shake, and Republicans are trying to use that anger to screw them over even further — and to distract them from what's actually important, as the GOP fights tooth-and-nail to retain the systemic distortions that are the real government drivers of inequality: billions of dollars in tax breaks for oil companies and other hugely profitable companies, a regressive payroll tax system under which the poorest Americans pay a greater percentage of their income into Social Security than the richest, and low capital gains taxes that result in billionaires like Warren Buffett paying a lower effective tax rate than their secretaries, among countless others.