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Inequality Divides Members of Congress from Their Constituents

Only rich people need apply (photo: Dave Reid, flickr)

The LA Times writes about a shifting message for the 2012 election campaign, which the President will employ but which will also undoubtedly get taken up by the rest of the Democratic ticket. They will position their party as the defenders of the middle class.

“This isn’t just about recovering from this recession,” said a senior advisor to Obama, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal White House discussions. “This is about saving the middle class from a decline that’s been going on for three decades.”

Obama began to highlight the shift this month, and it may already have helped him when combined with a somewhat warmer economy and Republican disarray. Public approval of the president, which in late summer had fallen below 40% in at least one major poll, has now approached 50% in several surveys.

“It’s a much stronger position than where he was before,” said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. In a closely divided electorate, shifting by a few points “matters substantially, and it reflects a sustained change in the narrative” from Obama. Talking about the “state of the middle class” connects with voters in a way that discussing the “state of the recovery” doesn’t, he said.

It’s certainly a better frame than “Winning the Future.” And it’s good that, inside the article, White House advisers acknowledge that focusing on the budget deficit was a grave mistake. But it’s going to be hard to sustain given the messengers. You don’t have to come from the middle class to champion it. FDR taught us that. But income inequality has stratified so much, and so distinctly, that it has become clear that the man and woman on the street and our elected officials are living in two different countries.

Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House more than doubled, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars, excluding home ­equity.

Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the comparable median figure sliding from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan.

The comparisons exclude home equity because it is not included in congressional reporting, and 1984 was chosen because it is the earliest year for which consistent wealth statistics are available.

The reasons for this are manifold. First, campaigns now cost an inordinate amount of money. Campaigning is no longer a two-month sprint but a two-year perpetual cycle, and sometimes you need to run multiple times for Congress to make it. This puts your entire life on hold, as well as the life of your family, and without a massive safety net – as well as self-funding in many cases – you can’t pull it off. Second, those with access to wealth also have greater access to the wealthy, the men and women who fund modern campaigns.

But the reason why this is so dangerous is that the experience of the wealthy bears no resemblance to the lived experience of the mass of the electorate. Of the 534 current members of Congress, only 18 of them responded to a survey from the New York Times asking if they had close friends or family who lost their job or their home in the Great Recession. And of the 18, only 9 of them said they did. The reason John Edwards succeeded as much as he did, despite the obvious disparity between his personal wealth and the core issues he spoke about, is because the Two Americas theme has a deep resonance for anyone who lives in this country. In fact, the wall has been built between those Two Americas, and those on the wrong side have little hope of scaling that wall.

There are some truths so hard to face, so ugly and so at odds with how we imagine the world should be, that nobody can accept them. Here’s one: It is obvious that a class system has arrived in America — a recent study of the thirty-four countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that only Italy and Great Britain have less social mobility. But nobody wants to admit: If your daddy was rich, you’re gonna stay rich, and if your daddy was poor, you’re gonna stay poor. Every instinct in the American gut, every institution, every national symbol, runs on the idea that anybody can make it; the only limits are your own limits. Which is an amazing idea, a gift to the world — just no longer true. Culturally, and in their daily lives, Americans continue to glide through a ghostly land of opportunity they can’t bear to tell themselves isn’t real. It’s the most dangerous lie the country tells itself.

More than anything else, class now determines Americans’ fates. The old inequalities — racism, sexism, homophobia — are increasingly antiquated. Women are threatening to overwhelm men in the workplace, and the utter collapse of the black lower middle class in the age of Obama — a catastrophe for the African-American community — has little to do with prejudice and everything to do with brute economics. Who wins and who loses has become simplified, purified: those who own and those who don’t.

You can forgive the American public for becoming a little jaded about this state of affairs, and for not believing that their representatives, who represent the 1% more often than the 99%, won’t advocate for them in the halls of Congress. In fact, those representatives increasingly don’t even know what it’s like to be one of their many constituents.

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David Dayen

David Dayen