American liberalism and the Democratic Party — two partially overlapping but by no means identical institutions — have set themselves an unusually clear agenda for 2014: reducing economic inequality and boosting workers’ incomes. These are causes they can fight for on multiple fronts.
Raising the minimum wage should offer the course of least resistance. Although congressional Republicans may persist in blocking an increase in the federal minimum wage, they do so at their own peril. Raising the wage is one of the few issues in U.S. politics that commands across-the-board public support. A CBS News poll in November found that even 57 percent of Republicans support such an increase.
Democrats have concluded that they can turn Republican legislators’ opposition to raising the wage into an electoral issue by using state ballot measures. As states are free to set their own minimum-wage standards — though the rates take effect only when they exceed the federal minimum — Democrats are working to put wage-increase initiatives before voters in states that will have contested House and Senate races in 2014, including Arkansas, Alaska, South Dakota and New Mexico. Such ballot measures have proved an effective way to increase turnout of low-income and minority voters, which can translate into more ballots cast for Democratic candidates.
(Although economic libertarians object to the minimum wage on theoretical grounds, a look at the states that have refused to enact minimum-pay statutes suggests that the real opposition to the minimum wage is rooted in something else. Those states are Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee — places where persistent racism and the heritage of slavery seem to me a far more likely cause of opposition to the minimum wage than any ideological infatuation with the works of Ayn Rand.)
Most efforts to raise the minimum wage this year are likely to come in blue states and cities. The recent leftward movement of U.S. cities, symbolized by the landslide election of Bill de Blasio as New York’s mayor, is an underappreciated factor in U.S. politics.