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The Middle Class Is Not for Itself

President Obama used his press conference to show us just how much he and the Washington press corps truly care about the people they think constitute the middle class:

I’ve been talking about what I believe should be our number one priority of the country, building a better bargain for the middle class and for Americans who want to work their way into the middle class.

I think we can all agree that Obama has been talking about the middle class, but notice that he ignores two groups: the people who don’t want to “work their way into the middle class’, and the rich who have been the beneficiaries of most of his actual policies. He uses the term middle class twice more during the press conference, saying the Republicans don’t care about the middle class because they want to kill Obamacare and shut down the government. The press never asks about the middle class.

No one in Washington actually cares about the middle class because the middle class doesn’t exist except as code words for some segment of their base voters. When Obama uses the words, he means a segment of middle income people who vote for him. When the Republicans use the term, they mean a segment of middle income people who vote for them.

Peggy Noonan has an actual insight into the 2012 campaign in a column in the Wall Street Journal. She says Obama’s campaign team held focus groups on independents who voted for Obama in 2008 but turned to Republicans in the 2010 mid-terms.

They found themselves fascinated by one frustrated man in his 50s. An Obama adviser summed up the man’s stated grievances: “I can’t send my kid to college next year. . . . I haven’t had a raise in five years. . . . I am sick and tired of giving bailouts to the folks at the top and handouts to the folks at the bottom. I’m going to fire people [politicians] until my life gets better.”

Obama’s campaign taught him to say things that would appease this guy, and remove Romney as a person who might meet this guy’s concerns.

There is another and better read. The core democrat voter isn’t as concerned about handouts to the poor, but is outraged by handouts to the rich. The core democratic voter thinks that one of the functions of government is to take at least minimal care of the poor, and to insure that the rest of us can share in prosperity.

The core republican voter is outraged by handouts to the poor. It’s a grievance that is so deep that republicans are willing to starve the poor because they obviously deserve it. It’s genuinely upsetting to democrats that republicans are so heartless. It’s the single most divisive issue in politics. It’s a grievance nursed by the right-most of Republicans, and it’s fed by their think tanks. It grows, I think, out of the standard Reagan anti-poor people campaigns featuring welfare queens in Cadillacs and strapping young bucks buying t-bone steaks with food stamps, and it plays directly into racism and loathing for the poor who are seen as undeserving of anything except punishment.

Independents are angry about both groups of handouts, because they aren’t getting help on either end. So, they vote for the person who seems more likely to end whichever set of handouts are aggravating them the most at election time, and hope that somehow they can benefit from reduction of those handouts, either in lower taxes or actual help.

See how easy it is for the two parties to play this game? Democrats look like champions for the poor when they defend food stamps, so they don’t have to lift a finger actually to help their own segment of middle income voters. The Republicans do the same thing: they claim that the democrats only want to help the poor. Both claim the other is indifferent to the problems of the middle income voter, and they are both right. The best part is that neither has to talk about the vast transfer of middle income voter’s wealth to the rich and their corporations, which is what both parties agree about.

Neither party cares. If either party did care, we would be having a national discussion of this question: why is it that in the aftermath of a horrifying financial crash caused by the financial sector that the only people prospering are the rich? We know Obama won’t ask that question. He and his economic team spent their first two years in office trying to recreate the same financial sector we had before the Great Crash. And no one thinks the Republicans will ever question the right of the rich to take all the money.

Middle income voters accept a group of stupid ideas and policies that generally fall under the name of neoliberalism. It seems obvious to me that in the near term our economic problems are caused by the stupid tax policies we have enacted supposedly to encourage rich people and their corporations to create jobs, and the stupid ideas that support those stupid tax policies. The result of decades of shifting the tax burden from corporations and the rich to middle income people is now apparent. We can’t have a decent society because we can’t raise taxes on rich people and corporations to fund them, and middle income people are tapped out.

Well, actually, you know, we could raise taxes on the rich and their corporations and their tax havens and their untaxed accumulations of wealth. But there is no organized demand for a policy change from middle income voters.

This game will continue until middle income voters demand action and vote strictly on the wide range of economic interests they have in common.

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