economic inequality and the midterms

Amidst the many midterm post-mortems that emerged this week, this one at Slate confused me a bit. There, William Saletan argues that the messages that Republicans used to craft their recent victories were those concentrating on economic equality.  Mentioning such issues as poverty; the disparate effect of the economy on minorities; gender discrimination in pay; and the problems with under- and part-time employment, income equality and the minimum wage, Saletan highlights Republican candidates who brought these concerns to the fore during their recent campaigns.

As a piece of writing, the column is somewhat unclear. After introducing the essay by claiming that the GOP has "embrac[ed] ideas and standards that came from the left," Saletan confusingly concludes by acknowledging that "Republicans haven't become liberals." Moreover, the examples he gives generally concern specific  making arguments based on partisan advantage or local concerns; they hardly constitute a widespread trend among conservatives. His overall point emerges only at the very end: that even if Republicans are using specific economic issues only to beat up Democrats at election time, "those benchmarks endure."

But I, for one, do not share the perception that such "benchmarks" have been particularly central to the current political moment. My own impression is closer to that of the New York Times editorial board, who writes that "Republicans ran on no message except that Mr. Obama was always wrong." Yet the Democrats also lacked a strong economic message, as Greg Sargent pointed out in the Washington Post. Most of the economic issues that Democrats did focus on this cycle, like raising the minimum wage and helping out those who are paying back student loans, tend to address problems unique to specific groups. Voters, he claims, have not heard a "comprehensive message about how Democrats would move the economy forward." John Judis made a similar point on the website of he New Republic. Because wages have failed to rise and wealth has stagnated for those on the bottom, "even someone who has a job is likely to feel insecure and anxious, and to worry that the economy could go down again, and throw them out of work. Or these voters become concerned with taxes, which they see as eating away from their stagnant income." Democrats, he argues, have had little to offer these voters. 

From this perspective, then, neither party is doing much to address economic inequality. We are technically living through a recovery now, so perhaps the parties don't feel that there is much for them to gain on that issue. From an entirely anecdotal perspective, though, I know so many people who are unemployed, underemployed, stuck in poorly-paying positions, or working less than full-time because they simply cannot find stable or remunerative work. It's hard to believe that there are no votes to be found there.