Politicians in either party, of course, never use the term “class warfare” to describe what’s going on in America, unless it’s Republican leaders accusing Obama of waging it every time he even mildly asserts timeless liberal bromides about taxing the rich. Nor do most politicians want to talk about the depth of the crisis in present-day capitalism, since to acknowledge its scale would only dramatize how little they intend to do about it.
The whole system is screwed up, and it’s not all Wall Street’s fault—or remotely in the financial sector’s power alone to solve. As middle-class Americans have lost their jobs or watched their wages stagnate or decline while corporations pile up record profits, they’ve also seen CEOs far removed from Wall Street (at Hewlett-Packard and Yahoo most recently) walk away with rich settlements even after they’ve laid off workers en masse, mismanaged their companies, or wrecked them. But at least politicians pay lip service to the woes of the middle class. That America’s poverty rate has risen to its highest level since 1993 goes all but unmentioned by leaders in both parties. The poor, after all, don’t make campaign contributions and are unlikely to vote. And they have even less clout than usual now that Republican legislators and governors, fanning bogus fears of “voter fraud,” have mandated new, Jim Crow–style restrictions to scare away poor, elderly, and minority voters in fourteen states. In the Beltway bubble, even the local poor are out of sight and out of mind; with a 6.1 percent unemployment rate and a median income of $84,523 (versus $50,046 nationally), Washington is now the wealthiest metro area in the country and, according to Gallup, departs from all 50 states in believing by a majority that the economy is getting better.
Back in 1931, even Hoover worried that “timid people, black with despair” had “lost faith in the American system” and might be susceptible to the kind of revolutions that had become a spreading peril abroad. When Roosevelt took office, he had the confidence that his leadership could overcome that level of despair and head off radicals on the left or right. In 2011, the despair is again black, and faith in the system is shaky, but it would be hard to describe the atmosphere at Zuccotti Park or a tea-party rally as prerevolutionary. The anger of the class war across the spectrum seems fatalistic more than incendiary. No wonder. Everyone just assumes the fix is in for the highest bidder, no matter what. Take—please!—the latest bipartisan Beltway panacea: the congressional supercommittee charged by the president and GOP leaders to hammer out the deficit-reduction compromise they couldn’t do on their own. The Washington Post recently discovered that nearly 100 of the registered lobbyists no doubt charged with besieging the committee to protect the interests of the financial, defense, and health-care industries are former employees of its dozen members. Indeed, six of those members (three from each party) currently have former lobbyists on their staffs.
Elections are supposed to resolve conflicts in a great democracy, but our next one will not.
Just in time for election season, Obama has recovered his populist rhetoric (if not populism itself) and will say the right things about Wall Street, about that “frustration” out there, about the modest reforms of Dodd-Frank, and about millionaires who don’t pay their fair share of taxes. It’s not clear if anyone believes it, including him. Having been a bystander to history when the tea party harvested populist rage during the summer of 2009, he may have a tough time co-opting Occupy Wall Street now to plug the so-called enthusiasm gap in his base. There’s a serious danger that the anger could co-opt him instead. To pander to the swing state of North Carolina, the Democrats in their wisdom chose to hold their convention in a city best known as the headquarters of Bank of America, whose recent financial innovations include illegal robo-foreclosures and the $5 monthly fee on debit cards. Occupy Charlotte could be a far more telegenic show than the one happening inside the hall.
Despite all the chatter to the contrary, Obama is so far outdrawing all the GOP candidates combined in Wall Street contributions. His best hope is that that fact is blurred by either Romney, the plutocrat from central casting, or Rick Perry, a creature of lobbyists and pay-for-play government in Texas. Herman Cain’s as yet little-known corporate history would also prove problematic to Republicans: He’s not only an unabashed Alan Greenspan fan who was chairman of the Kansas City Fed but also served on the board of Aquila, an energy company that ended up paying a $10.5 million settlement for Enron-esque shenanigans. (Cain’s campaign manager hails from Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ political front.) Whatever else is to be said about Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, and Ron Paul, they actually spent most of their pre-political careers in the aggrieved middle class. But they are all history in the presidential race, and perhaps were destined to be, given how big money plays its hand. You don’t have to like their views to find their earnest but misplaced faith in the free-market efficiency of the political system a bit poignant.