Edwards and poverty: love the message, kill the messenger

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.

25 replies »

  1. I haven’t seen their platforms, but unless education is a very large component of the overall plan, whatever they are saying is probably just hype and no real substance.

  2. Michael,

    Agreed. Education and funding for education has to be key for there to be any real success at improving the lives of people. You’ve got the links up there–I linked to each candidate’s site. Take a look and see if it passes your muster or not.

  3. A note for all S&R readers: stay tuned. You may have noticed that Edwards is at the center of something a lot of us care a lot about. We’re working on some more things that you’ll probably see next week. Then, as now, it’s not really about Edwards per se – it’s more like what his case teaches us about the political elite in this country.

    Thanks to Martin for doing such a great job time and time again here….

  4. I attended the poverty tour in Pittsburgh this week and found the AP report inaccurate-they state that 250 were there-I would say there were about 500, standing room only-about half black and half white middle class and upper class people-I was glad to be there and will continue to support edwards despite the media bias against him(just last night CNN had a report on how dire an Edwards Presidency would be for America, oh please!) Enlightened citizens know that solving poverty would be a very good thing for taxpayers-fewer prisons, cheaper healthcare because people would be healthier, less police needed, lower insurance rates because of less crime, safer streets and the list goes on-there is no down side to helping the poor, except corporations will lose income-I say let’s get started!

  5. if there were less crime, fewer prisons, lower insurance rates and less garbage food, then how would all the scum that make a living off of the misery of the poor be? They would have to work like everybody else and our world would be a copy of Sweden where greed and mistreatment of our fellow human beings would not be tolerated. Oh no, that would mean Socialism- come on sheeple -wake up- capitalism leaves too many people out of the picture and too many that have more than they need.

  6. In other words, John Edwards is playing the role of a third party candidate from which more prominent candidates will borrow or steal ideas, claim them as their own, and get elected for so doing. This approach is far more believable than all the hoopla about what a wonderful president John Edwards will make when he can’t get his candidacy off the ground.

    John Edward as an issue candidate would get my respect. In this role, he might even get my sympathy vote just to keep other candidates from feeling that they own the show.

    For what it’s worth, neocons want the middle class dead because it is from the middle class, rather than the poor, that social change arises.

  7. “The concentration of wealth and the conservative racket designed to protect that concentration”
    This is like a hallucination people are having. The really wealthy got that way because they are smart, hardworking, insightful and lucky. There is no racket. The great racket is pandering for votes through the distribution of wealth. Take from the rich and give to the poor….dream on.
    “how would all the scum that make a living off of the misery of the poor be…” Isn’t there enough name calling and negativity? One specific example please Blondie, just one?
    John Edwards will be lucky to even be a footnote in history. The man with the 30 million dollar house fighting for the poor.
    This is what they call the end of Democracy, when the citizens are uninformed, vituperative and manipulated into mistaking slogans for truth.
    Those in power now are evil, smug and dangerous; most of those searching for that power now are merely idiots.

  8. “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 . . .”

    Exactly — most Americans think they’re rich people waiting to happen. When that day comes, they want those tax breaks they don’t resent the rich for, they want no estate tax, the abolition of which they don’t resent the rich for.

    When was the last time you heard a person call himself a working person?

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  10. Russ,

    That’s an interesting point, actually. How often do you hear someone complaining about illegal immigrants stealing jobs from “hard working” Americans, or how our “hard-earned” tax dollars are being wasted on social programs?

    Quite a lot, I’d imagine. Americans have a very schizophrenic attitude about work. We fetishize the idea of working hard, being productive, getting the job done, etc. But yet we venerate the idea of NOT working as the ultimate goal. That comes through in the idolization of CEOs, movie stars, etc., all the way down to unearned income (like capital gains) being more favorably taxed than wages.

    It’s that whole Puritanical notion of sacrifice and delayed gratification fused with the anarchocapitalist ideal of profit above all. So the end result is a nation full of angry, frustrated worker bees who focus solely on productivity, and lash out with unfocused resentment when, despite all their efforts, no pot of gold appears for them at the end of the rainbow.

    Put more simply, we are a hopelessly dysfunctional nation, and only radical political change combined with social evolution will fix that.

  11. It’s essentially a universal feature of poor people everywhere in the “developed world”.

    Beaverbrook, a major press baron in the UK around the early and middle years of the 20th century, used to tell his journalists to always address their readers as if they belonged to the class above the one they actually belonged to. We have our council house Tories.

  12. “Americans have a very schizophrenic attitude about work.”

    “Beaverbrook. . . used to tell his journalists to always address their readers as if they belonged to the class above the one they actually belonged to.”

    Lacking the professional credentials of many of you Scholars and Rogues, I’ve spent much of my working and family life among regular working people (lower-middle to middle-class).

    Because of that, as well as spending an inordinate amount of energy trying to figure them out, I pride myself on understanding where they’re coming from. But I see you guys do too!

    This inspiring thread is a prime example of why I enjoy commenting at Scholar and Rogues.

  13. What is wrong with a man of wealth caring about those less fortunate? You are a typical, ignorant selfish republican swift boating piece of crap who needs to crawl off and die so some other bottom feeding creature can consume your dumb ass!!! You are not even worthy of being called a human!

  14. You’re right-on about “those icky poor people”–Americans have a problem with people in poverty, and in our country it’s no longer considered heroic to stand up for the underdog. It’s understood that the underdog deserves to be crushed underfoot because they’re lazy and immoral. But I think if you start talking about universal health care, that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. The buzz I hear on the street is that a whole lot of people who hate welfare think the idea of a real national solution for our broken health system is a really great idea. And when it comes to poor people, the idea that health care is a matter of basic human dignity is a better sell than “give people money to buy booze and cigarettes and lie at home beating their kids.”

  15. The really wealthy got that way because they are smart, hardworking, insightful and lucky. There is no racket.

    I don’t have a problem with rewarding smart, hardworking, and insightful, and I’m sure that some of the really wealthy got that way because they were all three. But last I checked, we taxed the really lucky (lottery winners) pretty heavily. Yet we’re lowering taxes on the really wealthy and reducing or eliminating the “I’m dying filthy rich and I want my kids to die filthy rich too” tax (aka the estate tax).

    There most definitely is a racket. The political process is inherently biased toward those with money because money has been declared equal to speech. Corporate personhood has been expanded to give corporations equal Constitutional rights to a real person, meaning that corporations with more money than most countries, and the CEOs and boards of those corporations, have WAY more influence over the political process than most individuals. NGOs like the Sierra Club are adopting the corporatist approach because they have to in order to influence lawmakers, and in the process the individual communities they represent are losing, not gaining, influence.

    The courts are wealthy-friendly because the wealthy can afford to hire massive law teams, high-powered lawyers, and tie up “poorer” opponents in the legal system so long that the poorer side usually loses by default when they run out of money to pay their lawyers. And it’s generally worse if you’re a minority of one kind or another.

    These are just the two biggest examples I can come up with quickly. If you truly don’t believe that the really wealthy have set up the system so that they stay really wealthy, you’ve either taken their bait hook, line, and sinker, or you’ve got just as much a vested interest in keeping the system the way it is now. The first can be solved with education, and if you keep coming back, you’ll get educated so long as you’re willing to see reality for what is is. But if you’re the second, you’re part of the problem that some of us here are going to solve.

  16. Edwards is showing he’s a leader.

    Naturally, the public should take notice and elect him to do the job.

    I would like to hear Edwards speak more to the middle-class about ‘raising all boats’ and the American Dream.

    It’s more enticing than only saying ‘Poverty poverty poverty’.

  17. “Rich nations backlash against globalisation”
    Financial Times
    July 22 2007

    “A popular backlash against globalisation and the leaders of the world

  18. Martin,
    I’m curious as to what kind of “radical political change” you would suggest? Perhaps Edwards has “heard” somehow that many Americans are interested in a liberal party that represents working people, in the same way we have the Labour Party in England.

    To make change of any stripe requires sacrifice. Sacrifice and hard work may bring results. However, sacrifice can often be translated as “taxes.” I would be interested then in looking at where this translation is occuring, why it occurs, and what are countermeasures that progressive people can use to change the frame of the argument?

  19. “The really wealthy got that way because they are smart, hardworking, insightful and lucky. There is no racket.”

    They got there because of deliberate government policy, primarily, and because of the times second.

    There has been a huge rise in inequality and the number of rich and the amount of their wealth in the past 35 years, and it didn’t happen because a whole bunch of really good sperm hit really good eggs andmade genetically superior human beings.

    Number one error: attributing major changes in a society to individual decisions.

    No doubt the reason most Americans were farmers a hundred years ago and the reason most Americans aren’t now is because all those guys individually decided “gee I hate farmwork!”

    (Well, they probably did. But a 100 years ago they would have stayed farmers, along with tons of people who said “gee, I’d love to be rich!”)