ABC’s Supposed Conservative Matthew Dowd: Income Inequality Means ‘We Have Our Own Version of Apartheid Here’

With the departure of commentator George Will to Fox News, the job of representing the conservative point of view on ABC’s This Week seems to have settled upon Matthew Dowd. Trouble is, Dowd is not really what anyone could fairly characterize as a conservative.

Beyond the fact that he was a Democratic strategist for decades before switching to work for former President George W. Bush in the late 1990s, Dowd’s own political views seem to be rather conventionally liberal. If there was any doubt of that proposition, Dowd dispelled it in a column published last week at the ABC News website focusing on the Obama White House’s latest pet issue: the supposed crisis of income inequality in the United States.

Echoing conventional left-wing bromides, Dowd argued that the fact that much of the capital growth that’s occurred in the past several decades in this country has made it nearly inevitable that many Americans are going to become violent to address this supposedly serious problem. Incredibly, Dowd decides to frame his argument by comparing economic inequality in this country to the government-forced racial segregation system that once prevailed in South Africa (hat tip: Mediaite):

Many in New York City, Washington, DC and small enclaves around the country have done very very well, while the rest of America is either stagnant or in decline. As we reflect on Nelson Mandela's passing it is time to ask if we have our own version of apartheid here - not by race, but by economic status. [...]

Whatever the reason, at some point I believe the status quo in our politics and economics will no longer be acceptable to a large part of our country, and because the existing institutions are unresponsive, these agents of change will rise up in some way and very loudly and clearly say “enough is enough.” And I think this will be a very good thing if it is done in a forceful and non-violent way.

I have feared that the tragic school shooting and mass killings by deranged young men has been a canary in the coal mine for a growing dissatisfaction with life. I for one think we need some alternative for people in this country who have been ignored, misled, and forgotten about in the halls of power in DC and Wall Street to assert a new way and institute new leadership and structures that are responsive. Otherwise, a revolution of the heart and soul could easily become a clenched fist of force. As John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” It is time we begin to have this conversation more openly.

This analysis from the supposed representative of conservatism on ABC was not appreciably different from the argument President Obama presented the day before on December 4 when he called income inequality the “defining challenge of our time,” a phenomenon that is nothing less than the “unraveling” of the social contract that underlies human society:

But starting in the late ‘70s, this social compact began to unravel.  Technology made it easier for companies to do more with less, eliminating certain job occupations.  A more competitive world lets companies ship jobs anywhere.  And as good manufacturing jobs automated or headed offshore, workers lost their leverage, jobs paid less and offered fewer benefits.  

As values of community broke down, and competitive pressure increased, businesses lobbied Washington to weaken unions and the value of the minimum wage.  As a trickle-down ideology became more prominent, taxes were slashed for the wealthiest, while investments in things that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed to wither.  And for a certain period of time, we could ignore this weakening economic foundation, in part because more families were relying on two earners as women entered the workforce.  We took on more debt financed by a juiced-up housing market.  But when the music stopped, and the crisis hit, millions of families were stripped of whatever cushion they had left. 

And the result is an economy that’s become profoundly unequal, and families that are more insecure.

It certainly is true that the wealthiest Americans are earning more than ever before in comparison to those who earn less but there are many reasons that this is not nearly the problem that liberals like Obama and Dowd paint it to be. For one thing, everyone’s income in recent years has actually increased. It’s just that the very wealthiest have had a larger increase. Additionally, the overall standard of living for everyone has gone upward. The fact is that while today's rich have more money in comparison, in many ways, they are not really that much better off than middle-class people as economist Tyler Cowan has noted:

Most analyses of income inequality neglect two major points. First, the inequality of personal well-being is sharply down over the past hundred years and perhaps over the past twenty years as well. Bill Gates is much, much richer than I am, yet it is not obvious that he is much happier if, indeed, he is happier at all. I have access to penicillin, air travel, good cheap food, the Internet and virtually all of the technical innovations that Gates does. Like the vast majority of Americans, I have access to some important new pharmaceuticals, such as statins to protect against heart disease. To be sure, Gates receives the very best care from the world’s top doctors, but our health outcomes are in the same ballpark. I don’t have a private jet or take luxury vacations, and—I think it is fair to say—my house is much smaller than his. I can’t meet with the world’s elite on demand. Still, by broad historical standards, what I share with Bill Gates is far more significant than what I don’t share with him.

Compare these circumstances to those of 1911, a century ago. Even in the wealthier countries, the average person had little formal education, worked six days a week or more, often at hard physical labor, never took vacations, and could not access most of the world’s culture. The living standards of Carnegie and Rockefeller towered above those of typical Americans, not just in terms of money but also in terms of comfort. Most people today may not articulate this truth to themselves in so many words, but they sense it keenly enough. So when average people read about or see income inequality, they don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society. Instead, they think their lives are pretty good and that they either earned through hard work or lucked into a healthy share of the American dream.

There are several other flaws in the Obama-Dowd thesis—the most prominent of which is that nothing the president has proposed would do anything to reduce income inequality—but rather than reinvent the wheel, I would recommend readers peruse the to the Obama speech that Mickey Kaus published the other day

(Hat tip: Michael Barone who also has some relevant thoughts).

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013