Michael Kazin: A New Rhetoric of Income Inequality
Michael Kazin is the author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.
Every significant political movement creates, or inherits, a compelling image of the people it vows to liberate and serve. The contemporary American right, for instance, idealizes the self-reliant, nuclear family in its modest home, with Bible verses on the wall and a flagpole in the yard. But what image comes to mind when progressives think about the Americans who would benefit from a more egalitarian society? None of the images or phrases currently in vogue are all that inspiring. “Middle class” merely describes a bland, imprecise economic status. “The 99 percent,” the slogan of Occupy Wall Street, is certainly majoritarian and inclusive; but it begs the question of what, besides wealth, distinguishes that vast throng from the tiny, super-rich minority. Bill Clinton’s praise, two decades ago, of those who “work hard and play by the rules” certainly had the ring of virtue; but it never stuck politically.
Liberals and radicals did not always have such trouble describing the group for whom they were fighting. Throughout much of U.S. history, activists and politicians on the left spoke glowingly about “the producers”—those Americans who used their bodies and their minds to grow, manufacture, or transport goods that everyone needed or who, through medicine, education, or some other professional field, provided important services.
The “producer ethic” had its origins in the eighteenth century. The Jeffersonian farmer William Manning saw the new nation divided “between those that Labour for a living and those that git a Living without Bodily Labour.” A century later, Ignatius Donnelly, in his bravura address to the first convention of the People’s Party, argued that “wealth belongs to him who creates it.” Then, for support, he quoted St. Paul: “If any will not work neither shall he eat.” In 1909, the magazine of the American Federation of Labor ran a long, anonymously authored poem in praise of “the average man” who “is the man of the mill/The man of the valley, or man of the hill/The man at the throttle, the man at the plow— ... There is not a purpose, a project, or plan/But rests on the strength of the average man.”...
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