When the history of this year’s presidential campaign is written, one of its more remarkable features will be that candidates of both parties feel it necessary to talk about income inequality. Surely that makes this a watershed moment.
Indeed, income inequality has become a defining issue of our day, with Republican candidates seizing on it just as avidly as Democrats - though with different views of its causes. No one suggests there are easy solutions.
To be sure, there are politicians, especially on the right, who believe there’s not much room for public action. Market forces will sort it all out, they argue.
Yet some reform-minded conservatives agree with Democrats on at least one point, which is that government needs to act to achieve the broad public objective of greater fairness and opportunity in the economy.
The stresses we see in our political system today - free-floating public anger and distrust of government and large institutions - stem at least in part from the widespread perception that economic insecurity has become entrenched in our system and there’s very little ordinary people can do about it.
There are some broad directions we should be moving to ensure a degree of fairness. Current trends are not inevitable if citizens are determined to reduce the influence and power of money on the system. We need to shift resources to education and workforce training, though that will take time to produce change.
Encouraging technological change that boosts unskilled employment - rather than stripping it away - will matter. So will protecting the progressivity of the income tax, encouraging the well-to-do to follow the excellent examples of their peers who are sharing their wealth, focusing on trade deals that favor workers and not just the business community, and providing incentives for people of ordinary means to save and invest.
We need to promote policies that help all children advance, and discourage efforts to further concentrate wealth. These are incremental changes requiring limited government action.
A reduction in inequality is an essential ingredient in a healthy democracy. To let the gap between rich and ordinary Americans grow larger will allow political pressures to build in our economic and political systems.
We should aim for a country where opportunities are more equal and the distribution of wealth and income is fairer.
Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.