In any given presidential campaign, there exists what we might call an “issues palette”—an underlying set of public concerns that seems likely to end up being what the race is fundamentally about. To take three obvious examples: the 1932 election was about the Depression; the 1980 campaign focused on stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the larger questions of statist failure; the 2008 campaign, from September 15 onward, hinged on the economic meltdown and its dangers.
The important point about these issues palettes is that they always tend to favor one party or the other, for the obvious historical reason that our two parties are associated in the public mind with particular sets of issues, and each is seen by most voters as good at certain things and bad at other things. If terrorism or deficit reduction is the top electoral preoccupation, the tilt will be toward the Republicans. If an election ends up turning on protecting Social Security and Medicare, that should favor the Democrats. (The condition of the economy underlies everything else, and the incumbent party is typically rewarded or punished based on its strength or weakness.)
So here we are, in the protean stages of the 2016 campaign, and already it seems that we can say, with all the requisite qualifiers, that the issues palette should be reasonably favorable to the Democrats. As matters are shaping up so far, the sense of many people I speak to is that the election appears destined to be about the condition of the middle class, the issue of wage stagnation, and the recognition (finally) that the American economy has been working far better for those at the top than for those in the middle or, obviously, on the bottom.
The salient basic numbers are these. Since 1979, compensation for the top 1 percent has grown 138 percent, while median wages have increased just 6.1 percent. Worker productivity has grown 63.5 percent in this time, and if wages had kept pace with productivity, the annual median wage today, instead of being around $35,300, would be $54,400.
All this has been known for a long time, and groups like the liberal Economic Policy Institute have produced dozens of papers documenting the problem. But middle-class wage stagnation, and the inequality that has resulted as compensation at the top has surged, has never been the central economic preoccupation of Washington. It is becoming so now.
This is happening for a number of reasons, some of which have percolated up by design, others by accident. Certainly, President Obama has taken up the theme of middle-class incomes with considerable energy. Various Democratic-minded think tanks in Washington push the notion as well. The Center for American Progress, arguably the most influential of these groups, released in January a major report on “Inclusive Prosperity”1 that recommended…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.