Thursday, October 4, 2012

Poverty Still Invisible on Debate Stage

Wednesday’s debate made it clear to me that American politics remains tragically far from an essential breaking point in how people talk about the economy. One of the nice things about living in the computer age is the access that it gives us to transcripts and the Ctrl+F keystroke. That’s great for people who are interested in analyzing branding strategies and verbal rhetoric. It is perhaps more useful in instances where the trends are chasing, which even a casual listen to the recent debate would have revealed is not presently the case.

In an article at AND Magazine months ago, I criticized the American political system for tendency to entirely eschew reference to poverty except for when such reference is politically, and momentarily, useful. The entire narrative of political economy on both sides relies on the mass delusion that everyone in America is, or at least will be, middle class. Concordantly, in a ninety minute debate that was entirely about the economy, President Obama and Governor Romney spoke solely to that artificially inflated middle class, and almost entirely about them.

I waited with low expectations for any mention whatsoever of the poor, and finally encountered one about half an hour into the debate. It didn’t exactly create a new trend in the dialogue afterwards.

The word “poor” was used exactly four times (excluding Jim Lehrer speculating about the job he did as moderator). Each of those four instances belonged to Mitt Romney, three of them appearing in the discussion of shifting Medicare to states. His use of the term in that context, and that context alone, only furthers the evidence of federal disregard for lower class Americans and for policies that might positively affect them en masse.

Said Governor Romney:
I would like to take the Medicaid dollars that go to states and say to a state, you're going to get what you got last year, plus inflation, plus 1 percent, and then you're going to manage your care for your poor in the way you think best.
In other words, addressing the horrors of poverty is not and ought not be in the purview of the president of the United State, nor even of the rest of the federal government. I would even go so far as to say that the subtext of this – as seems to be in keeping with Romney’s deluded views about universal economic opportunity and social mobility – is that poverty is a transient state, and something that is made more or less likely by policy.

What is especially objectionable in this skeleton of a platform on the subject is the fact that he presents poverty as an affliction that calls only for “care,” which is a word that sounds decidedly passive in comparison with other alternatives, like “intervention.” But why should society intervene to create economic opportunity or to close the gulf between social classes, which is yawning wider with every passing year? Why indeed, when for the likes of Mitt Romney, staying poor is a matter of choice, or the result of a lack of ambition? Given that worldview, it is the job of the individual state to see to it that their poor don’t die for their failings, but it is nobody’s job to provide the afflicted with a hand up in their struggle to escape the circumstances into which they were either born or thrust.

And Obama’s refusal to let the word “poor,” or even the phrase “low-income” pass his lips suggests that there is no ideological opposite of that perspective represented on the national stage. There is no political worldview that dares accept poverty or economic disparity as a reality in this country, much less acknowledge it as the result of policies or flaws in the economic structure of the nation.

The fourth time that Governor Romney used the word “poor,” he immediately corrected himself, referring to Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as affecting “poor kids,” then saying “or lower-income kids, rather.” The slip may have momentarily belied his message, but it also pointed to the skill with which he had trained in properly re-branding his views for the debate audience. It is difficult to think of a reason why Romney would have corrected himself via synonym, if not because he knew that he was not supposed to use the word “poor” in the context of national policy.

In fact, the same training was on display in his discussion of the segment of American society that politicians are allowed to talk about. The word “middle” appeared in the debate, with regard to socio-economic status, a total of thirty-one times. Nineteen of those instances belonged to President Obama, and twelve to Governor Romney. But what’s especially remarkable is the distinct difference in corollary words used by each man. Nine of the thirteen times Romney used the word “middle,” it was to refer to “middle-income” Americans. Obama, by contrast, used the phrase “middle class” in all nineteen cases.

This matters either to what each man believes about the distribution of wealth in America, or to the image that he wants to present of it, or both. With the deliberate application of a less common term, Romney, evidently, is trying to promote the fantasy that there is no social class in America, that there are those that work harder and earn more, and those that work less and earn proportionally, but no natural division between them. That narrative has underlay a great many of his public comments, though nobody but Mitt Romney can say for certain whether he truly believes it or if it simply advances his goals.

Obama, by contrast, sticks to the term “middle class” throughout discussions of economic policy. Speaking about impacts of policy upon only that groups, which almost all Americans believe they are a part of, is politically beneficial, though ideologically weak. But also, speaking about them as a social class must be a conscious decision on some level.

Obama heard Romney refer to middle-income Americans nine times during their exchanges, and he never modified his language to match or to directly challenge the rhetoric. Either he wasn’t paying attention to the vagaries of diction, or he believed it to be politically preferable to advance a narrative that acknowledges class divisions as an American reality. Naturally, if the latter is the case, I’m on his side. But then I wonder where, if class divisions exist, is the lower class, the poor, the perennially underprivileged? And what do the president’s – or the governor’s – policies proposed to do for them.

We never hear an answer to that question. And we never have. Certainly never during this election cycle. Never even throughout my adult life. There is a clear division between the candidates and their parties in terms of how they understand the social structures of America. In the Republican narrative, economic opportunity exists in equal measure for all and income levels differ, but never according to external factors, never in a way that patriotic Americans could construe as unfair. In the Democratic narrative, government actually has a role to play in the economic lives of its citizens, because there are natural divisions and inequities that must be controlled.

One of these, of course, is the groundwork for the lesser of two evils. But judging by the language of debates and national speeches, in neither narrative do poor citizens exist. And that makes each side similarly a party to the same grand delusion. Towards what end does every national candidate embrace that willful ignorance? Is it that they are afraid of acknowledging society’s evils? Is it tacit acceptance of the selfishness of voters, which guides them to turn a blind eye to that which doesn’t personally affect them? It can’t be that they’re simply unwilling to take on a problem that they know they can’t solve, because the entire process of campaigning is built on making impossible and contradictory promises.

Perhaps that’s just it. The political lives of our would-be leaders are constructed around convincing voters to believe in absurd fantasies about the candidate and his capabilities. Perhaps nobody wants to mention poverty because everybody has already been convinced of the fantasy that it’s not a real problem in America. Everybody, that is, except for the poor. They exist.

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