Why Working Americans Vote Against Their Own Interests
Part of being a progressive is being perpetually baffled by the propensity of working Americans to vote against their own interests.
Some of us get it. As John Steinbeck once said, "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires."
Conservatives get it, too. Consider how Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels glossed over the growing wealth gap in America in his rebuttal to President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address. "We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have-nots," he said. "We must always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves."
"Soon to have" is the American Dream. It is ingrained in our national DNA.
But what if the dream is more of a delusion?
In his new book, "The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future," Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz points out, "There is less equality of opportunity in the United States today than there is in Europe - or, indeed, in any advanced industrial country for which there are data."
A study by the Economic Mobility Project showed the U.S. lagging behind Denmark, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany and France in economic mobility. Only the UK had slightly lower economic mobility. Stiglitz's work shows that in the first year of the recovery from the Great Recession, 93 percent of income growth went to the top 1 percent of earners, exacerbating an already exaggerated wealth gap.
If you need further evidence that middle-class Americans are falling behind, consider the fact that our median net worth fell to $77,300 in 2010 from $126,400 in 2007, and median net income declined by over $4,000 over the same period.
It is worse in North Carolina, where the unemployment rate of 9.4 percent remains well above the national average of 8.2 percent and the median income is $6,500 below the national average.
"An important ideal embedded within American economic culture is the notion that hard work always pays off," the latest issue of the North Carolina Justice Center's Prosperity Watch notes. "Unfortunately, this general principle has not translated into reality for North Carolina's workers over the past two decades, as wage gains have fallen significantly behind productivity gains in the last three economic expansions."
The phenomenon is hardly limited to North Carolina. A study by the Economic Policy Institute in 2011 reported, "Between 1979 and 2009, U.S. productivity increased by 80 percent, while the hourly wage of the median worker has gone up by only 10.1 percent."
Part of the reason for the inability of the middle class to hold its ground is the decline of collective bargaining. Studies by the Center for American Progress show that as union membership has declined, so has the middle-class share of aggregate wealth in the U.S.
Not coincidentally, the Center says, "The states with the lowest percentage of workers in unions - North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas - all have relatively weak middle classes."
Politics for middle-class voters has become an effort to appease "job creators." We've bought into the notion that collective bargaining is socialism, that a progressive tax code is socialism. We're told that if we don't give the job creators everything they want, they will lack the certainty they need to create the opportunities that we expect as our birthright - and we'll have only ourselves to blame.
But from 1947 until 1979, when union membership was strong and tax codes progressive, when the Cold War raged and no one mistook Dwight Eisenhower for a socialist, middle-class Americans were the job creators, and our economy was the envy of the world. We understood then that jobs are created not by the benevolence of "job creators," but by the opportunities for entrepreneurship that are created when working people have an extra dollar in their pocket.
In a country with a Supreme Court that cannot tell the difference between a legally created entity and a human being, those lessons are lost. "It's easier to fool people than it is to convince them that they've been fooled," Mark Twain once opined.
So it was as we watched voters in Wisconsin affirm a governor who would deny them collective bargaining and cut back benefits that working people earned and counted on. So it is that "temporarily embarrassed millionaires" extend that embarrassment into perpetuity.
Kevin Smith lives in Aberdeen. Contact him at email@example.com.
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