"soak-the-rich" - a history of polarizing rhetoric

Railing Against the Rich: A Great American Tradition


Franklin Roosevelt himself, trying to steal the thunder of the populists, proposed the so-called "soak-the-rich" tax, passed in 1935, which targeted high corporate salaries and investment income, even though it did little to increase government revenues or reduce the real wealth of those required to pay. He made a series of speeches in 1936 excoriating the selfishness and greed of the "economic royalists." He had struggled, he said, "with the old enemies of peace, business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering…. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred." This polarizing rhetoric was greeted with some of the most enthusiastic responses of any of his speeches.


Few 21st-century Americans have any real experience with economic populism. That appears to be changing fast. In the 1930s, the demonization of the upper class did not really begin until almost two years after the stock-market crash. We are now six months into our own economic crisis, and signs of populist resentment are already visible: in the perverse fascination with Bernard Madoff's remarkable fraud, the popular outrage at the tax problems of public officials, the growing contempt for the many overseers of the credit markets, the ruined investments of millions of ordinary people, the growing army of the unemployed (still far below the 15% to 25% unemployment of the 1930s, but 7.6% in January and growing fast), the likelihood of a recession that could last not just for months, but for years. These are the preconditions of populist revolts. Mr. Obama's chastisements of bankers and CEOs have been relatively mild compared to the routine denunciations of "economic royalists" in the 1930s. But the longer the crisis goes on and the deeper it grows, the more Huey Long-like challenges to those in power will arise, and the more pressure there will be for national leaders to launch populist battles of their own.

Whether that would help or hurt the Obama administration is hard to predict. In 1896, in the midst of another great depression, the Democratic party chose as its candidate the great populist hero William Jennings Bryan. His crushing defeat ushered in 36 years of almost unbroken Republican rule. In 1936, at the height of Franklin Roosevelt's populist rhetoric, his landslide re-election helped solidify a comparable period of Democratic dominance. Cultural populism has been a staple of the right since at least 1968, and it has alternately helped, and badly hurt, conservative candidates and causes. Economic populism has the same capacity either to bring down the president's ambitious agenda or, if handled skillfully, to open up opportunities for greater change than he may yet have imagined.

Comment: I used to think like this - basically thinking that the rich got that way by luck or inheritance. The "soak the rich" mentality is actually counterproductive to real economic progress.

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