GOP Fear of Populist Sentiment Presents Opportunity For Progressive Change

December 02, 2011 10:24 am ET — Jamison Foser

Intense public anger at growing inequality fostered by political and economic systems rigged in favor of the wealthy have Republicans running scared. Three Senate Republicans have now signaled a willingness to support a surcharge on income of more than $1 million; GOP message guru Frank Luntz frets "I'm so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort" and admits "the public responds favorably" to raising taxes on the rich; and Republicans are frantically trying to co-opt populist sentiment.

With public attention focused on economic justice and Republicans scrambling to portray themselves as friends of the common man, this is the perfect time for progressives to advocate bold structural changes to counteract years of policies that have benefited the super-rich at the expense of the rest of the country. Extending payroll tax cuts has merit, as does the millionaires' surcharge, but progressives shouldn't stop there. 

For years, conservatives have taken advantage of the misplaced obsession politicians and the media have with deficits, and their slavish worship of so-called "job-creating" economic elites, to push public discourse — and policy — rightward, towards regressive tax breaks for the rich and draconian spending cuts for everyone else. And they've done so with help from Democrats and progressives who stipulated to the urgency of deficit reduction and the primacy of "job creators."

Now, with the public so outraged about decades of inequality and the ability of wealthy elites to rig the system in their favor that even conservative Republican politicians are talking about income inequality and government giveaways to millionaires and billionaires, progressives have an opportunity to reverse that dynamic. When Republicans feel compelled to express concern for the "plight of the people," progressives should push for more than Band-Aids like temporary extensions in unemployment benefits and payroll tax cuts. The system is broken, everyone knows it, and Republicans feel forced to admit it. It's time to press for big solutions and structural changes — things like a living wage policy, strengthening collective bargaining rights, mortgage write-downs, an end to preferential tax treatment of investment income, massive investment in infrastructure, a change in the Fed's mandate to prioritize employment, a financial speculation tax. And how about a requirement that members of Congress disclose the effect that legislation they vote on would have on their own tax returns?

It's not that we shouldn't extend payroll tax cuts — but with a fundamentally broken system, persistent 9 percent unemployment, and public discontent so severe that even Republicans are making noises about income inequality, a temporary payroll tax cut should be the most conservative option on the table.

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