Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Poverty in Politics - Either Used or Forgotten

I originally wrote this piece to be posted elsewhere, so the comments and events it refers to are a week or so old now. I still thought it worthwhile to post it here.

I think it’s honest of me to identify myself as coming solidly from the left with all of my political writing. But I certainly don’t make a conscious effort to fit myself into a particular camp, so even while I acknowledge my liberal tendencies, I won’t hesitate to begin an editorial with my own criticisms of fellow liberals or the Democratic Party. One party obviously contradicts my ideals more often than the other, but I have no love for political parties in general. And there is plenty of common ground on which I think both Democrats and Republicans routinely fail to serve the country’s interests.

It’s cheap politics for the DNC to utilize Mitt Romney’s remark that he’s “not concerned about the very poor” and to make a campaign ad out of it. In that ad, the quotation is very conspicuously cut off, and anyone who views such things objectively ought to immediately recognize that it both mischaracterizes Romney’s remarks and allows the Democratic Party to dodge the need to present a clear distinction between their policies and his. Taken out of context, Mitt Romney’s comment sure does portray him as callously out of touch. And indeed, I believe he is just that. But he didn’t say what he’s being accused of saying.

What Mitt Romney really said was, “I’m not concerned about the very poor; we have a safety net there, and if it needs repair, I’ll fix it.” That’s quite different from simply declaring that you don’t care one bit about a particular segment of the population. Romney’s not saying that society has no responsibility for the poor; he’s saying that we already do enough for them. I don’t think one needs to twist that argument in order to criticize it. It would be cartoonishly villainous for a presidential candidate to say, “I don’t care if the poor starve to death,” but it’s not exactly saintly to say, “as long as the poor don’t starve to death, I’m satisfied.” It worries me that the Democratic Party feels the need to mischaracterize Romney’s remarks so they sound like the former statement, because that implies that they don’t see the latter as being sufficiently divergent from their more liberal views.

It says something about the alienation of liberalism in modern American society that commentators like Rush Limbaugh unabashedly deride Romney for defending the very existence of the social safety net while Democrats merely pretend that he doesn’t defend it and make that the focus of their criticism. If liberalism were genuinely at home in American politics, somebody would be quoting Romney’s words exactly as he said them and using them to express indignation at the idea that the poor are sufficiently taken care of. Not only is no prominent politician or commentator saying that in this case, no one ever says it.

After his misleadingly shocking sound bite, Romney went on to say, “We will hear from the Democrat Party: ‘the plight of the poor.’” But will we? Honestly, I can’t think of any Democrat who has reliably expressed lofty ideals about ending the epidemic of homelessness or providing assistance to the poor that goes beyond food stamps and unemployment insurance and that attacks the actual system that keeps people poor, by providing public works employment, for instance.

“You can choose where to focus,” Romney said, ostensibly differentiating his campaign from that of Democrats and other Republicans. “You can focus on the rich – that’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor – that’s not my focus. My focus is on middle-income Americans.” I don’t believe him when he says that his focus isn’t on the rich, but that aside, I find that everyone in politics today pronounces their focus to be entirely on the middle class. And that’s easy to understand, since not many votes are found on either extreme of the income scale. In fact, given how broad and flexible different people’s conceptions are of “middle-income,” that’s where all of the votes are. Frequently, Americans, whether sitting comfortably within the top five percent of income earners or walking the poverty line like a tightrope, view themselves as middle class. So when a politician talks about defending middle class Americans or putting his political focus on their interests, citizens will tend to think that he’s talking about them. And there’s little doubt that politicians know this.

President Obama’s comments at the National Prayer Breakfast regarding the Christian obligation to help the poor were striking precisely because they are so anomalous in mainstream politics. The sentiment seemed earnest and was well-placed at the event, but the fact that the DNC ad was released on the same day compels me to view it with a great deal of cynicism. The ad is a transparent attempt to score points by leaping on an easy way of portraying the Democratic Party, fairly or unfairly, as having more compassion for the poor than their opponents. I can only hope that the prayer breakfast speech was genuine, and not a more subtle example of the same – a quick response to Romney’s ostensible gaffe the day before.

If it was intended as a response, that illustrates the very problem with political treatments of the issue of poverty and economic disparity. The best that the Democratic Party can do most of the time is wait for a Republican to say something objectionable, and then issue a response that says, “We’re not like that; we care about everybody.” I’d be far more convinced if they took the lead, if they actually demonstrated their commitment to solving society’s ills from the bottom up, rather than from the middle out. As it is, the commitment to helping the poor is only something that is claimed, and rarely something that decides policy.

The DNC ad was framed entirely as part of a negative campaign. It cites nothing that Democrats have done or plan to do in order to eradicate poverty, homelessness, or hunger. It points out the initiatives that Romney would likely undertake that would hurt the poor, and it is right to do so, but a preponderance of negative campaigns risks miring us in negative government, wherein the avoidance of harm is considered a good unto itself. I trust the Democratic Party to avoid willingly making life worse for the nation’s poorest citizens, but I do not trust them to undertake truly original initiatives to mend what is broken within American society.

So long as I have reason to believe that the choice in American politics is between the party that doesn’t care about the poor and the party that cares about them only enough to make themselves look good, I won’t be much inclined to take empty pronouncements on the topic seriously, not matter which side they come from.

No comments: