People walk along Wall Street in the financial district in New York City Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What’s Been Stopping the Left?

If progressive political parties had pursued a bolder agenda in the face of widening inequality and deepening economic anxiety, perhaps the rise of right-wing, nativist political movements might have been averted. So why didn't they?

CAMBRIDGE – Why were democratic political systems not responsive early enough to the grievances that autocratic populists have successfully exploited – inequality and economic anxiety, decline of perceived social status, the chasm between elites and ordinary citizens? Had political parties, particularly of the center left, pursued a bolder agenda, perhaps the rise of right-wing, nativist political movements might have been averted.

In principle, greater inequality produces a demand for more redistribution. Democratic politicians should respond by imposing higher taxes on the wealthy and spending the proceeds on the less well off. This intuition is formalized in a well-known paper in political economy by Allan Meltzer and Scott Richard: the wider the income gap between the median and average voter, the higher the taxes and the greater the redistribution.

Yet in practice, democracies have moved in the opposite direction. The progressivity of income taxes has decreased, reliance on regressive consumption taxes has increased, and the taxation of capital has followed a global race to the bottom. Instead of boosting infrastructure investment, governments have pursued austerity policies that are particularly harmful to low-skill workers. Big banks and corporations have been bailed out, but households have not. In the United States, the minimum wage has not been adjusted sufficiently, allowing it to erode in real terms.

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