In his recent book, After Shock, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich argues that the economic downward mobility of American workers, has "to do with power...income and wealth in fewer hands." Apparently, many working class Americans want to keep it that way. A recent SEIU poll reveals that, 38 percent of American voters are opposed to rescinding Bush's tax cuts for the 2 percent who earn $250,000 or more annually. 2 or 3 percent of taxpayers probably earn close enough to $250,000, to think they might be affected someday. This leaves about 33 percent voting against their self-interest -- higher taxes on the wealthiest would reduce the national debt, facilitate spending on levies, bridges, schools, healthc are, and create jobs. Similarly, an AP-GfK poll found that in the upcoming election, 58 percent of white working class Americans favor Republicans who opposed rescinding the Bush tax cut, and fought every Democratic bill benefiting low income earners including extending unemployment benefits.
On the other hand, a 2005 study by Dan Ariely of Duke and Michael Norton of Harvard, reveals that when presented with unlabeled pie charts representing wealth distribution in the U.S where the richest 20 percent control about 84 percent of wealth and Sweden where the top 20 percent control 36 percent, 92 percent of respondents -- who reflected U.S. ideological, economic, and gender demographics -- stated they would rather live in a country with Sweden's wealth distribution.
"Why don't more Americans -- especially those with low incomes advocate for greater redistribution of wealth?" the authors ask. Their answer: Americans drastically underestimate the disparity between the very rich and the rest of the population, are overly optimistic about social mobility, and there exists a disconnect between their attitudes toward inequality, their self-interest and public policy preferences.
Why do so many working class Americans hold these detrimental false assumptions. Why this disconnect between self-interest and voting patterns?
Our country has long been admired for its extraordinary social mobility, but as Arianna Huffington points out in Third World America, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and France now have greater social mobility -- university education is free, or at minimal cost in Western Europe. Compared to other advanced industrialized countries which all provide universal health care, we are at the bottom in life expectancy and infant mortality. Americans have three months unpaid parental leave -- Swedes have 13 months, paid. Unlike Western Europeans, we have no government legislated paid vacations. In Germany, the world's largest exporter after China, workers get 6 weeks a year off. Americans average 13 days.
American conservatives delight in predicting the imminent demise of socialistic Western European benefits. But these benefits are part of the social contract within which all major European political parties, including conservatives, operate. While large national debts are leading to some cuts in benefits, these cuts do not represent reneging on that contract, just as cuts to education in the U.S. do not represent reneging on government funding for education -- which is part of our social contract.
A look at the divergence in political thinking between Western Europeans and Americans provides much of the answer to why we lag so far behind.
- European workers define themselves as working class which facilitates awareness that their interests are opposed to those of the upper classes -- factory owners, bankers, financiers etc. Since WW2, the common wisdom in the U.S. has been that we have no working class. Factory workers, the folks who flip Hamburgers at MacDonald -- they're all middle class, so it's a small leap to becoming upper middle class. Someday, with hard work and a little luck, you, or your children, could be making millions, or at least hundreds of thousands -- true for a small percentage of working class Americans, but for the vast majority more than ever, a fantasy that discourages struggling for better conditions.
- The shift to "we are all middle class," coincided with virulent McCarthyism which lumped socialism and communism together -- no distinction made between murderous, totalitarian Communist regimes, and democratic socialist societies developing in Europe -- and turned both into un-American dirty words. (Right wingers' attacks on centrist President Obama as a "socialist" testify that it remains an attack word 60 years later.) Talk of working class versus capitalist class, common among European workers, became anathema -- such talk supposedly created class conflict where none existed. But it does exist. With all due respect to our many responsible CEO's -- and wealthy Americans willing to pay higher taxes -- a vast majority care only about their bottom line.
- Unions, still influential in Western Europe, are committed to democratic socialism. Since the 1970's U.S. unions have been in sharp decline. Industry moving to un-unionized areas, employers -- with their lawyers -- using labor law to evade unionization, corrupt union leaders, have been factors. By the 1990's most workers -- especially blue collar -- were without power and without the political education that unions historically provided.
Instead, as Reich points out "rich and powerful think tanks, books, media, ads" were designed to convince Americans that free markets "know best" and operate in the interest of working people. They also convinced them that their enemies are not the heads of large corporations and the Republicans who represent them, but rather the Ivy League quiche eating, Eastern elite -- people like Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, outspoken supporters of policies beneficial to working class Americans. This has fed into a "Real Men Vote Republican" reaction among many white male blue collar workers.
Because of our long history of pioneers going into territory uncharted by any but Native Americans, we have developed a strong frontier mentality of self-reliance, leading to a "government off my back," attitude.
Nothing could be further from European workers' approach. Their concern is getting corporations off their back by pressuring government to pass legislation protecting them from corporate greed, and they look to government to provide benefits improving their quality of life.
- Many working class Americans believe that programs such as welfare and Medicaid only help inner city African Americans (in fact a majority of recipients are white.) Understandably, they resent Medicaid recipients getting free medical care that many of them cannot afford, but instead of demanding universal health care and other benefits, they demand less government spending.
- American exceptionalism leads to support of unnecessary wars -- supposedly fought in the name of democracy -- which eat up funds that could improve the quality of life of working class Americans. According to Robert Reich, the total cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be approximately 3 trillion. It also leads to the assumption that we are the greatest and have nothing to learn from other countries. Most American workers would be shocked if they knew how much better off Western European workers are.
- In Europe elections are almost entirely publicly financed. In the U.S. bribery is an essential ingredient of the electoral process. Corporations and wealthy Americans throw money at candidates who support their interests. Democrats -- who have traditionally represented working class interests -- are also on the take which explains the timidity of many of their votes, and the inadequacy of many of their bills. This facilitates working class people voting for Republicans who are completely opposed to their interests.
In Third World America, Huffington argues correctly that a "complete reboot of the way we finance our elections," is the single most important change needed to rescue our country. In the meantime, our best hope for the 2012 election is that the American left will wake up, start organizing unemployed workers, and move them away from self-destructive voting.