The Organizing Structure for Income Equality

Reading yesterday’s New York Times story on Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty (as well as general coverage of the failure of the Buffett Rule) made me think about the problem of women’s effort to obtain the vote in the US. I know, this doesn’t seem obvious – but you stuck with me through my argument about how Canada in the Great Depression had lessons for the Affordable Care Act, right? Trust me, the analogy will eventually become clear.

American women in the 19th century  who sought the right to vote felt that they had a fairly clear moral case. From the clarion call of the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments to Susan B. Anthony’s unheeded legal argument in 1873 that she was a citizen and therefore should not be arrested for voting, advocates rested their claim on the principle that fairness required that they gain access to a category of rights from which they had been legally excluded. However, if women were going to gain the vote, they would need to convince the people who were able to vote at that time to agree to expand the franchise, potentially dilute their own influence, and move beyond the plentiful rationalizations in favor of the status quo.

I think when we think about women’s current political rights we fail to consider the scope and duration of the campaigning that needed to occur in order for women to gain the vote.  Over 70 years — 70 years! — passed between the movement’s inception and the achievement of its aims. The movement was generally peaceful, with occasional episodes of official violence which brought increased public attention to the commitment of movement members. What I believe was truly necessary in achieving change at the national level was to fight the national and state-level battles simultaneously. That was a subject of some unhappy tension at the time, but I think the common consensus now is that the two struggles reinforced and gave legitimacy to one another.

The Occupy movement and the effort to reform the tax code with an eye to achieving greater economic equality are two sides of the same coin. If the effort to achieve a national-level response to unfair levels of economic inequality looks anything like the women’s rights movement, the diversity of organizing structures will be an asset, not a liability.

Of course, if there are lessons from the struggle for woman suffrage there must also be a recognition that sea-changes in public opinion don’t so much happen overnight, and where political power is currently strongly influenced by individuals who benefit from current regulation, they have little reason to reduce their own advantages. The long game, focused on the innate and powerful argument about fairness, is where I think the action really is.

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