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David Callahan

David Callahan

Posted: July 7, 2010 06:26 PM

The Strange Politics of Class in America

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Last week's historic vote on financial reform in the House served up yet another reminder of the upside down politics of class in America. The new legislation, which will curb both the power and profits of Wall Street, won support from most members of Congress who represent the wealthiest districts in the country -- while scores of members from downscale America voted against the law.

Once upon a time, it was the poorer heartland that hated Wall Street and wealthy East Coasters who defended the banks and investment houses. Today, plenty of people in the heartland still hate Wall Street -- but apparently not enough to push their representatives in Congress to back reform. Those members of Congress who sided with Wall Street in last week's House vote were overwhelmingly from rural parts of the country. In New York State, the one Democrat who voted against the bill was not from Manhattan or Westchester -- those places where Masters-of-the-Universe types live. He was from a sprawling district that covers the most sparsely populated and remote reaches of northern New York. In California, it wasn't the members from coastal districts where bankers and hedge fund managers live who voted against the bill -- it was the members from the state's vast interior.

Meanwhile, every member of Congress from Connecticut and Massachusetts -- two states dense with financial services firms -- voted for the bill. So did most of the members from America's wealthiest metro areas, including Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Civics textbooks teach us that self-interest tends to drive outcomes in a pluralist democracy. Well, not in this case. Of course, coming on the heels of the health care debate, none of this is very surprising.

At the core of health care reform is a clear-cut redistribution of wealth. Lower income Americans will receive subsidies so that they can afford to buy health coverage, while affluent taxpayers will foot much of the bill through higher taxes. Reform would not just transfer wealth down the income ladder, it would also move wealth from affluent coastal metropolitan areas to poorer heartland states.

These realities might well have dictated a set piece of class and regional warfare over health care. Those members of Congress with the highest number of wealthy constituents might naturally have led the charge against reform, while members representing poorer Americans should have been its main cheerleaders. In fact, almost the exact opposite happened. In the crucial health care vote, as with financial reform, a large majority of those House members from the top 20 wealthiest congressional districts voted yes. Many of those voting no were from downscale rural districts that stood to benefit the most from the law.

It is no secret that ideology often trumps economic self-interest in American politics. Nor is it a secret that the right has largely monopolized the populist impulse in recent times and adroitly directed such anger at government. Still, what all this means in practice never ceases to amaze: It is hard to recall two examples like financial and health care reform in which the legislative battle lines were drawn in such sharp contrast to what voters' pocketbook concerns might logically dictate.

Liberal Democrats have long decried the upside down politics of class. It is especially maddening for the rationalistic Barack Obama, who patiently imagines that reason can win the day. How mistaken he is.

The good news for Democrats, and a fact rarely noted, is that the most affluent parts of the nation have stood firm behind reforms that may hurt their bottom line but help the common good. These days, upscale liberal voters don't just support Democrats on social and environmental issues, but also back efforts -- albeit ones modest in scope -- that make the economy work more fairly