Nobody ever accused Barack Obama of having too stiff a spine.

Even so, there is something crushingly disappointing about reports last week that the U.S. president is likely to retreat from his promise to cancel George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich.

Such a capitulation to the Republicans would concede defeat before the battle to achieve greater equality and to “spread the wealth around” is even waged. The audacity of hope seems to have turned into a readiness to choke.

Obama’s promise was a modest one — to push the top marginal tax rate from 35 per cent back up to its Clinton-era level of 39 per cent.

Obama’s reluctance to go further, to advocate restoring the serious progressive taxation that existed in the U.S. (and Canada) prior to the Reagan revolution, reveals much about the timidity and self-imposed limits of progressive politics today.

North American capitalism has changed dramatically in the last few decades. While a tiny elite always dominated, the benefits of economic growth were much more widely shared prior to 1980.

Whereas the top 1 per cent captured 9 per cent of the U.S. national income a few decades ago, today they capture an astonishing 24 per cent. (Similarly, in Canada, while the top 1 per cent captured 7 per cent of national income a few decades ago, today their share has risen to 14 per cent.)

But while progressives argue for a better deal for the poor and middle class, they increasingly shy away from directly challenging the growing wealth concentration at the top and the ferocious political forces supporting that privileged elite.

But extreme wealth concentration isn’t just a side issue; it’s the root of the problem. Such wealth confers enormous political clout, giving the super-rich the power to block income redistribution efforts and to knock down financial regulations, opening the door to disastrous Wall Street crashes like the recent one we’re still reeling from.

Indeed, such concentrated economic power undermines democracy itself. As the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted: “We can have democracy . . . or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. We cannot have both.”

What is urgently needed is a powerful campaign challenging the moral legitimacy of a small faction having such a large share of society’s resources, and with it, undue control over society.

Can’t our progressive leaders today be at least as radical as Republican president Theodore Roosevelt was in 1906 when he called for a tax “whose primary objective should be to put a constantly increasing burden on the inheritance of swollen fortunes, which it is certainly of no benefit to this country to perpetuate.”

There may be more appetite for wealth redistribution than we think. A fascinating new study by Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton and Duke University’s Dan Ariely surveyed more than 5,000 Americans to determine the level of inequality they favour.

They were asked to choose between three unlabeled pie charts. The first represented perfect equality, the second represented wealth distribution in America, the third represented wealth distribution in Sweden.

Not knowing the third option was Sweden — a country routinely dismissed as “socialist” — fully 92 per cent of these randomly selected Americans chose the Swedish wealth distribution!

Imagine if there was some inspired political leadership that didn’t just fold its tent when confronted by the army of privilege, but instead waged a fierce campaign championing the popular yearning for greater equality.

Linda McQuaig is author of It’s the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet and The Trouble With Billionaires. This article was originally published in The Toronto Star.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...