Caveats are needed here. The war on poverty has been much more successful than either side cares to admit, but it is far from over. Inequality is still be too high, even if it hasn’t widened for most of the population. Living standards in the American middle-class life are not ‘stagnant’—but the de-coupling of median earnings and growth is a real worry. Market incomes and inequality matter.
The truth is this: Most Things Are Getting Better for Most People, Even If a Bit More Slowly Than in the Past, and There are Plenty of Things that Can, and Should, Be Better Still. (Not a great bumper sticker, I admit.)
So why are progressives such Eeyores? Here’s one theory: In order to justify government action, they overdramatize the scale of the problem at hand. Unless you can convince voters there is a real problem, what hope is there of gaining support for a solution? Progressives want to redistribute further, so they must declaim the shocking, soaring levels of inequality. To win the battle for a higher minimum wage, they lament the collapse of middle-class incomes. (And note that four states did vote to raise their minimum wage, while simultaneously electing Republicans.) To gain support for anti-poverty measures, they highlight an unchanging record on American poverty.
For progressives, doom and gloom will be a self-defeating political strategy, since it adds steadily to the sense that government doesn’t work. This will be especially true in 2016 after occupying the White House for two terms. The subtext of downbeat progressive rhetoric is, by implication: “Yes, we have already done all these things (the Great Society, tax credits, welfare reform, food stamps), but honestly, nothing has really worked, look how terrible things are becoming.”