By Martin Bosworth
Today in the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne looks at the Democratic candidates and confirms that a new populist message is taking hold:
Quietly, a new anti-poverty consensus — reflected in the dueling speeches Edwards and Obama gave this week — is being born. It stresses personal and parental responsibility while also addressing economic changes that are promoting inequality. It seeks to deal with the growing isolation of the poor, the need for early intervention in the lives of poor children and the importance of increasing the economic rewards for what is now low-wage work.
This is the correct path to take–building the foundations of a stronger working class through better pay, better working conditions, more protections for families and emphasis on responsibility, personal pride, and ambition as a virtue rather than vice. And Dionne acknowledges what the Times’ Robin Toner pointed out earlier–that Obama and Clinton are taking their cues from Edwards in sharpening their focus on economic issues.
So, here’s the question: If Edwards is the clear leader and thinker on these issues, why is he still trailing so far behind in the polls and fundraising?
The first answer is simple: The message Edwards presents is one the moneyed elite classes don’t want to hear. It’s obviously antithetical to corporate interests, and the modern media identifies more with business interests than the muckracking populists of yore, so they’re automatically cynical and dismissive of anyone who DARES discuss icky poor people. The Republican party, the corporate state, and the media enables would rather you think about ANYTHING than class and economic issues, so they have pulled out all the stops to destroy him as completely as possible. As Taylor Marsh notes:
Nothing is scarier than the thought of the poor rising up and realizing that the talk of the American dream through Republican policies (and the cheerleading of talk radio) will never reach that far down to them. If the truth be told to the masses, Republicans would never win another election and wingnut radio hypocrisy would be finished forever. That’s why Edwards must not only be defeated, but destroyed; like Kerry the veteran turned against war had to not only be stopped, but the symbol he represented obliterated and neutralized. Antithetical notions to Republican thinking are not allowed to thrive in the American dialogue, and the messenger will not survie to sell his story.
The second answer is more complex. Americans, despite all the evidence to the contrary, do not want to face the fact that they are poor or know what being poor is. We are taught almost from birth to identify with the wealthy as a symbol of success, and that anyone can make it if they work hard. This isn’t a bad thing to be taught in some respects, but it also shuts out any possibility of understanding that life is not so simple. As a result, when things go bad and people are living close to the edge, they still see themselves as being better off than they are–and actively, energetically resent being faced with how bad their living conditions truly are.
Oliver Willis sums this up succinctly:
Many liberals pooh-pooh this, but the vast majority of Americans still believe in the Horatio Alger story, and while it is clearly much harder to make that happen nowadays thanks to the concentration of wealth and the conservative racket designed to protect that concentration, you will still sell people better on your policies when you make it clear that they’ll be “moving on up”.
I think this is why Obama succeeds more than Edwards on articulating these issues–his candidacy is always about the positive, the hopeful, the let’s-move-past-the-ugly-to-beauty, and that’s something Americans are deeply jonesing for. Edwards is also hopeful, but he’s also more unflinching in pointing out how bad things are–and if there’s one thing Americans excel at, it’s tuning out bad news. I can’t say how well Clinton could sell this message, because of the polarized perceptions about her and because Obama is so completely about the candidacy of hope, more than any of the other players on the field.
But as I’ve also said here and elsewhere, one area that all three candidates can succeed is in pointing out how our economic malaise is stretching beyond the “invisible poor” to the middle class as well. Look at the policy planks of Edwards, Clinton, and Obama–those are issues that can be extended to people living below the poverty line and the middle-class family struggling to make ends meet alike. Because they are the SAME. By articulating the plight of poverty in a way that appeals to the middle class–“this could happen to you, and IS happening to many of you”–the message can translate into policies that lift the boats of people across different economic strata.
And even if Edwards himself isn’t going to be the one sitting in the White House making these policies happen, he has succeeded by putting them out in the discourse to a level I’ve not seen in at least a generation. No matter what else happens, that is a tremendous success–and one which will be the foundation to transform our way of looking at our country.