Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone's comparison of the Democratic agenda to "what Hitler was saying in Germany" in 1933 is, obviously, a terrible argument. But that quote, from a Politico article by Maggie Haberman and the site's well-sourced-on-Wall-Street finance reporter Ben White, is only the most obviously wrong of the numerous bad arguments the wealthy offer as a rebuttal to the Democratic focus on income inequality.
The Politico article is on the stated 2014 strategy of the Democratic party: drawing attention to rising income inequality and focusing on efforts to bolster the working class, like an increase to the minimum wage. These are not policies popular with the wealthy. A focus on income inequality obviously casts the exorbitantly rich in a bad light; an increase to the minimum wage shifts corporate income from profits to wages, after a long trend in the opposite direction.
Langone thinks that this agenda is akin to how Hitler acted as he rose to power.
“I hope it’s not working,” Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and major GOP donor, said of populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”
The comments, the Politico team notes with characteristic even-handedness, are "sure to draw ire from those who find such comparisons to Nazi Germany insensitive," whoever such timid souls might be. After all, that was the fate of venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who made similar comments earlier this year. Mother Jones reporter Andrew Kroll said that he's frequently heard wealthy donors make the same claim. "Not uncommon at all."
But the article misses the mark more broadly than that. Titled "The Rich Strike Back," it presumes that America's wealthy are dealing fatal blows to the Democratic agenda that, again, they don't like. "The terrain is now shifting fast as the 1 percent fights back hard and the effectiveness of the populist approach comes into question," Haberman and White write.
The evidence doesn't back that up. The pair note the Democrats' loss in Florida last week, which — like so many elections! — has a thousand meanings to a thousand people. Some see it as a repudiation of Obamacare, others as evidence of a revamped Republican ground game. But no one that I have seen thinks it demonstrates that a Democratic focus on income inequality and raising the minimum wage are flawed arguments. Those issues were not prominent in the campaign, so it's hard to see a close race as a referendum on the approach.
Unless you're looking for evidence of why you shouldn't focus on income inequality. White and Haberman also note that an Obama proposal to raise taxes on Wall Street was a non-starter — but that's because of Congress. A proposal to do so from Republican Rep. Dave Camp didn't go anywhere, either, as the article notes on its second page. They point to Obama doing fundraisers with wealthy people, as though that contradicts his push to diminish inequality. They note the pressure New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio faces in his opposition to charter schools, as though any challenge for de Blasio is a loss for his progressive agenda. In whole, it's an argument in search of evidence.
To the dismay of the wealthy Americans and their representatives quoted in the article, including a former Treasury Secretary who has had his own issues with progressive Democrats, the party's agenda remains popular. A majority of Republicans back a minimum wage hike; 72 percent of all Americans think it's overdue. Alex Sink's loss in FL-13 won't diminish that. Two-thirds of Americans are unhappy with income inequality including, again, a majority of Republicans. This is why the Democrats have made these things campaign issues: they poll well. And there are real-world implications to the problems of low wages and inequality. Over the weekend, the Times pointed out a link between income and lifespan. People who live in places with lower incomes don't live as long.
Langone has a history of speaking out against those who disagree with his politics and economics. He criticized the Pope after the pontiff criticized inequality, for example. His statements on the Democratic agenda are obviously hyperbolic and are, indeed, sure to draw ire from people who disagree with that hyperbole. But the broader argument White and Haberman make is only slightly less questionable. The rich have long been winning in American politics. What Haberman and White outline isn't any sort of shift; it's business as usual in Washington. The wealthy drive the political agenda and do so effectively. The response to Obama's agenda is not even a reversion to form. It's a dip in the road.