| So far there appears to be one topic that has captured the 2016 election: income inequality. For many years, the American middle class enjoyed prosperity and growth, buoyed by the compelling ideology of the American Dream. The narrative that, from humble origins, Americans can and do rise to success. American voters, however, have begun to wake up from this dream. The evidence is mounting that social mobility, the bedrock of the American Dream, has stagnated. And the voters have taken notice. A recent Gallup Poll showed that 67% of Americans are unhappy with income and wealth distribution in the U.S. As a result of the voters’ growing awareness and discontent with current levels of inequality, presidential hopefuls on both sides of the race are scrambling to craft an appealing political stance on inequality.
Even Republicans, who traditionally have shied away from the inequality issue are taking it up for 2016 campaign season. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and other potential candidates have all discussed income inequality as a serious problem facing Americans. This acknowledgement is in sharp contrast to the past GOP response to inequality, which largely dismissed the issue as a means of inciting “class warfare.” As the election develops, it will be interesting to see how Republican candidates intend to deal with their party’s history of economic policy championing the notion that economic growth at the highest levels benefits all of society.
Republicans, however, are not alone in facing political difficulties and conflict when confronted with the challenge of inequality. Though inequality, as a policy issue, has been historically been the turf of the Democratic party, the influence of special interest may make true inequality reforms unlikely. For example, take clear Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton’s relationship with big business. 29 of the 30 Dow Jones Industrial Average index companies have given money and support to projects affiliated with the Clinton family, especially in the area of philanthropy. As Ralph Nader points out, corporate participation in a candidate’s philanthropic efforts is not all that different from straightforward political contributions, “You’ve got to call these companies. You’ve got to meet with them. Socialize with them. You become more dependent on them. You become more obligated. It is a terrible web of influence that operates in nonprofit areas.”
Ultimately, corporate influence affects candidates of both parties and, logically, presents a conflict of interest for candidates who say they want to resolve income inequality but are also obligated to large companies. For example, policy reforms such as increasing taxes on inherited wealth, strengthening workers unions, passing new minimum wage standards, or closing tax loopholes for corporations and the extremely wealthy may all help shrink the income gap, but are also adamantly opposed by big business. This clear conflict begs the question of whether or not it is even possible to address issues like inequality without first addressing the political system that allows incredible amounts of special interest money into government. Though all the candidates are apparently willing to acknowledge inequality as an issue, it remains to be seen whether candidates in 2016 will be able to shake off the influence of corporations and the extraordinarily wealthy enough to truly champion change.