Why populism isn’t popular: People don’t care about income inequality

In a sprawling nation of more than 300 million, the others to whom each of us refer when establishing our expectations are going to be some others rather than all others. Part of the reason liberals deplore the Great Divergence is that their others include the “stinking rich,” Noah’s term for the top thousandth of the income distribution — people making more than $1 million a year.

The Great Divergence is a stone in the heart for the writer or intellectual who suffers from what David Brooks called “status-income disequilibrium” in his book, “Bobos in Paradise.” One of the distinctive features of the Great Compression, as described in the book, was that “an investment banker went to Andover and Princeton, while a newspaper person went to Central High and Rutgers. But now the financiers and the writers both are likely to have gone to Andover and Princeton. The student who graduated from Harvard cum laude makes $85,000 a year as a think tank fellow, while the schlump she wouldn’t even talk to in gym class makes $34 million as a bond trader or TV producer.”

By contrast, for millions of working- and middle-class Americans, the others they refer to when establishing their expectations include few CEOs but many state, county and municipal employees. These voters believe it’s unfair and unsustainable for public-sector workers to be the only nonrich Americans still enjoying defined-benefit pensions, comprehensive health insurance, early retirement and near-absolute job security.