One of the strangest sides of the story of American politics is the paradox of ordinary and even poor Americans voting for a political party whose performance is inimical to their economic and social interests.
A friend of mine a few months back, summed up the paradox this way: Many Americans "live poor but vote rich." He got the quote from John Grisham the author of The Appeal, in an interview with Bill Moyers. Grisham was talking about how people in Alabama and Mississippi are "sold" the politics of opposing unions, of small government, and supporting big corporations and wind up getting screwed. Obviously, Grisham could have been talking about a lot more states than Alabama.
My point was that the middle class, and even the very well off group of Americans who make, say, $100,000 (this was in the 70s and the 80s) has more in common with, and were closer together in, economic circumstance, than the 10 percent who were at the top of the pyramid.
This fact about American economic circumstance has been rather well-known among economists and social scientists who study these matters; Occasionally it comes back into public discussion. In Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson's book, Winner Take All Politics, the authors demonstrate how seriously distorted our politics has become.
Indeed in the George Bush years, this politics of inequality became seriously tilted to a very, very small group of "super rich" billionaires who, because of the workings of our tax code were allowed to make a virtual killing at the expense of everyone else. But Hacker and Pierson make very clear that this distortion of inequality was accomplished with the active support of much of the Democratic Party.
Recently, also, two other authors, one at Duke (Dan Ariely) and the other at the Harvard Business School, Mike Norton, have made the same point brilliantly with a beautiful graphic and a small study. They asked a group of Americans, one group who supported George Bush in 2004, and another who supported Senator John Kerry (D-MA) about the distribution of wealth among the top 20 pecent of Americans, the second twenty percent, and so forth, down to the lowest and next lowest income and wealth groups: five groups of Americans and their share of wealth.
The the results were very unexpected and very interesting: Both groups, Republicans and Democrats estimated the share of each of the five groups, and both came up with roughly the same numbers. Both thought the top 20 percent in wealth (not income but total assets or ownings) controlled roughly 60 percent of the total wealth. Both groups were roughly similar in their estimate of how much was "owned" by each descending groups. Both were "wrong" in similar ways.
Then they were asked what might be an ideal distribution of income, using the philosopher John Rawls's idea about the original position and the veil of ignorance. Basically the idea is to ask people to imagine that they are put into a society without knowing their own circumstance---an imaginary society with a gradation of income from low to high---what would be an ideal or fair distribution?
Both came up with very similar distributions. Both thought there should be a range of economic wealth from high to low but that the range should be far more moderate and equal than what obtains in America today. The range would give the wealthy a substantially larger share of total wealth but it would be far less than what obtains now. And the poor and those next to the poor, or the bottom 40 percent of wealth holders, would have far more than they do now.
And both groups thought that this more ideal society should be financed by the wealthy paying for more of their share of total taxes.
Here is the shocker: then Ariely and Norton revealed what actually obtains in wealth distribution today, in the U.S. and what turned up was a dramatic statistic: the top 20 percent of wealth-holders in the U.S. own or control 84 percent of total wealth. Put another way, 80 percent of Americans own only 15 to 16 percent of total wealth. In this real or actual distribution of wealth, the amount controlled by the bottom 40 percent is so small it doesn't even show on the Ariely and Norton's graphic.
Again, we know that many among this bottom 40 percent who "own" so little, "live poor" and "vote rich." And the same goes for those who have more but who still control so little compared to the very wealthy, the very group whose reckless gambling with out economy nearly brought it all down. My guess is that if we could depict these results according to race or skin color the percentages of those who are white and who live poor and vote rich is much, much higher that those who do this and who are black or brown. And this percentage would be even higher in the American South and in the border states, the plains states and the Southwest.
In my view this is the greatest tragedy of American politics: the inability of those at the bottom of the economic ladder and those at the middle of the economic ladder to join forces at the ballot box and demand a fairer share of total wealth. Or to put it another way, this is how the design of our party system, our Constitutional order, and the history of slavery and segregation, and our endless individualism makes it so much harder to cause that joining together to happen.
Senator George McGovern, in his disastrous race against Richard Nixon for the presidency, was successfully attacked for defending the inheritance tax, the very tax that in the ideal situation would help finance a more fair distribution of wealth. McGovern was really beat up in the media and in public opinion because he defended a wealth tax. McGovern responded with exasperation about those who live poor but vote rich. "What do they think they are going to do, win the lottery?"
Well, yes, I suppose they do think that, in some vague way. If you live in a society that still thinks of itself as a nation of immigrants who are all put in the race to see if they can wind up on top, the hope that this will turn true is very powerful because to admit that you aren't going to be a winner in the race of life is too shameful to bear.
This is because the other side of that hope is the bitter hopethat dies hard among the poor or near poor; the hope or dream that they are not cornered permanently in the American dream, especially among those who don't want to share that corner with a person who is not white.
People who are forced to face the truth about their circumstance often act with a kind of political resentment and anger, embracing the very party that is busy disenfranchising them economically, reasoning that at least they are on the side of those who share that dream of winning the lottery. The truth hurts so much that they react with anger when faced with it. "When in doubt, shout!"
I suppose this political paradox is not only true of the U.S.; among the western democracies, wealth is very unequally distributed but income is much more fairly distributed by the workings of the tax code and social democracy and its benefits.
But in the U.S., capitalism has successfully fended off this social democracy, so much so that even the Democratic party has substantial numbers in its rank who run like hell from the designation of "redistributionist."
I think this is one of the great secrets and puzzles of democracy. Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel Laureate in economics, once said in Congressional testimony (to the best of my memory), "The great puzzle of our democracy is that the poor and the middle class don't join together and rewrite the tax code."
Once again, we need to remember, and never forget, how easily it is to mobilize resentment and how hard it is to mobilize fairness, and politicians in both parties know this great secret of our politics: in the real politics of our democracy, "ours is a battle between the winners and the losers and the fix is in and the prospects for peace are awful."
These are Kurt Vonnegut words and I think they are true and I think we who call ourselves liberal need to hold them close to our hearts, to keep our sanity and to avoid cynicism.
We liberals are often on the losing side of the power equation, at least for the past decades, and maybe permanently, and what we are fighting for is a decent level carved out for the middle class and the poor, knowing full well that we will win some and probably lose many more. And those we are trying to help by trying to practice a politics of political truth about America will oftern react with a furious shout.
Dan Ariely suggests that these results indicate that "Maybe this suggests that when there are no labels, and we think about the core of our morality in abstract terms (and under the veil of ignorance), we are actually very similar?"
I believe this is so, but politics is not about abstract, imagined, Rawlsian models of society. Politics is about the struggle, and the cherished dreams, for the future and even for those who know, somewhere down deep, that their future is only a reckless gamble, they choose to vote their dreams and their resentments instead of facing the truth and the reality of their lives.