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When the Poor Conspire to Keep Themselves Poor

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Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

So the poor are conspiring with the wealthy, against their own self-interests, to keep themselves in poverty. How is it that economic inequality makes the poor more conservative and in opposition to government programs that are designed to fight inequality?

A new study by Nathan J. Kelly and Peter K. Enns suggests that income inequality is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Based on responses to survey questions from 1952 to 2006, the authors concluded that as the gap between the haves and the have nots widens, public opinion moves towards a conservative mindset of smaller government. Meanwhile, as the wealth gap narrows, there is a more liberal attitude among rich and poor alike.

Oddly, according to the authors, despite all of this, poorer people are more acutely aware of increases in inequality. Kelly and Enns suggest that the elites are controlling actors in the distribution game, and can play a role in shaping public opinion by distracting and manipulating the masses. They also speculate that media and the nature of media coverage play a role. For example, during economic boom times the press covers stories emphasizing individualism, which will boost public antipathy towards welfare. And in hard times the media tend to report on the problems people are facing, and the role of government in solving these problems. I think there is some validity to this theory, given the popularity of welfare reform and dismantling the social safety net during the economic expansion of the Clinton years, and widespread support for health care reform and unemployment insurance under today's Great Recession.

This study is a good starting point in helping us understand the obstacles to forming a progressive-led movement for economic justice in America -- a fight against the cancer of neoliberal privatization of the public sphere, and a move towards social democracy, if you will.

Many people placed their hopes on the Obama presidency to bring about this new era of economic redistribution. Although the history still has yet to be written on the Obama presidency, it looks as if the second coming of F.D.R. ain't gonna happen just yet. There are very good intentions in this administration, mixed with conflicting allegiances and amateurism. Its flawed notion of bipartisanship was doomed to failure under the current troubling political landscape, one in which the opposing team is an unsavory assortment of neo-Nazis, the Klan, Christian Taliban and swamp-running hillbilly lynch mobs on their best days.

The ever-looming presence of Wall Street in the politics of this country -- and in this administration in particular -- has put the proverbial cold water on attempts to fundamentally change America's economic pie. Not only do we need to reassess the way the slices are doled out and the sizes of the slices, but we also need to change the recipe itself. When the president placed key neoliberal Clintonistas and Goldman Sachs enablers in his inner circle -- you know, the people who paved the way for the Great Recession -- he signaled he had no intention of rocking the boat. He decided against the "radical revolution of values" demanded by Martin Luther King, the man he so admired.

Job creation was not taken seriously, and stimulus funding was half-hearted. And health care reform was Rahm Emanuel's opportunity to cut deals with lobbyists and give away the store. Boldness of ideas was eschewed in favor of technocratic aloofness, and scolding the base for not beholding with awe this White House's missteps, triangulations and policy dilutions. Granted, inheriting a dysfunctional economy explains many of Obama's challenges, but does not explain away the self-inflicted wounds of this administration.

Crises demand far more than tweaking and nibbling at the edges. Obama squandered a unique opportunity, not realizing that you don't bring a spatula to a gunfight. He refused to do the class warfare thing and place blame where blame rests -- Wall Street elites that have hollowed out working class and poor Americans (there is only a token vestige of a middle class left). In the process, he gave a football stadium-sized opening for Republican gangsterism to thrive. The teabagged GOP has crafted a narrative of hate and anger, built on an infrastructure of corporate-sponsored, ersatz populism. Some white working-class and poor Americans are drawn to this phony movement the way they have acted against their interests time and again. But they need to be shown another way out.

With that said, President Obama is the best hope for progressives right now, and will continue to be until he isn't. Hope is not all lost, though. After all, President Obama is dismantling his privileged white-male roundtable and bringing in Elizabeth Warren. But at the same time, he still seems to want to protect the vested moneyed interests by lifting the ban on deep water oil drilling, and falling short of halting all foreclosures, opting to study the issue instead. And this president has accomplished more than many -- but then again, the expectations were high, and rarely have the stakes been higher.

To its credit, this White House is railing against the buying of democracy, which we have seen recently with Rupert Murdoch purchasing the Republican Party, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce apparently using foreign funding to buy the 2010 elections. The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allows unlimited money to influence politics on the grounds that corporations are people too, and deserving of free speech protection. But as Justice Stevens warned in his dissent:

In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.

It is this type of corruption of democracy that twists the system and causes the poor to act against their own interests. And this is one of the myriad issues that a progressive movement must tackle, whether or not the president chooses to. It is said there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. Well, there are permanent values, and it takes a movement to articulate and sustain those values. Progressives can demand that Obama adhere to certain principles if he wants their support.

But a president does not a movement make, and we're learning that now. That's the job of the people.

David A. Love is the Executive Editor of BlackCommentator.com, and a contributor to The Progressive Media Project and theGrio. He is based in Philadelphia and is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. His blog is davidalove.com.