09/15/2011 10:02 am ET Updated Nov 15, 2011

American Voters Are Killing the American Dream

The official numbers are out, and I just don't get it. It's now a documented fact: middle-class Americans are worse off today than they were 14 years ago, in 1997. I get the fact okay. What I don't understand is this: you can trace middle-class plight to their own political behavior. They did it to themselves. And why? Why?

Maybe the only answer is that middle-class Americans actually have a death wish when it comes to The American Dream. I mean, how else can you explain a 10-year span of chronic suicide that can be directly traced to Americans' lethal blend of both perversity and passivity in the political arena.

Consider middle-class Americans' stupefyingly self-destructive performance: In 2000, the country stood by and watched, without protest, as the Supreme Court actually forbid the counting of votes that might have elected Al Gore, anointing instead George W. Bush. No one appeared on the steps of the Supreme Court to howl in protest at the most anti-democratic decision in the court's history. Apathy was universal, but especially puzzling among the middle class considering that Bush displayed a smarmy passion for currying favor with the wealthy and vested industrial interests that was as vivid and ugly as full-blown acne.

Instead, they also elected a Congressional majority all too willing to be co-conspirators in presenting a trillion-dollar tax kickback to the wealthy, while despicably endorsing trillion-dollar wars of choice which they didn't have the guts or decency to pay for: "Charge it to the children" seemed to be their mantra. Thus began the tsunami of deficit and debt now devastating Americans' dreams.

Astonishingly, middle-class Americans re-elected George W. Bush in 2004 after a campaign in which Bush, addressing a tuxedoed, gowned, and bejeweled ballroom full of the super rich smirked, "Some call you the 'haves', and some call you the 'elite'. I call you my base." Heh, heh, heh. Anybody who drives a pickup to work who thought that George W. Bush had his interests at heart was indulging in either massive denial, or a desperate hope that one day he, too, would be seated at one of those tables sipping champagne with W's buddies. How else can you explain it? He made it so clear whose interests he wanted to serve. But they voted for him anyhow. Perhaps it was just that he sounded more like the kind of guy you'd want to spend a day fishing with than did Kerry, whose monumentally inept campaign was as effective as Dr. Kevorkian could ever have been in aiding and abetting the middle class' termination of a better life for themselves.

Others have adequately documented the litany of ways in which Bush and the Republicans systematically rigged the game to favor those of us who don't need more money and to screw those who do, all the while turning 50,000,000 of our neighbors into medical beggars who face each day without health insurance. The particulars of that shameful process are no longer in doubt and continue unabated with our Republican Congress. But what I'm still trying to get at is this question: "Why would ostensibly sane people countenance and even vote for leaders who act so blatantly against their best interests?"

Beyond the aforementioned options of abject denial and/or delusional aspirations to evolve into one of the super-rich, there are other possible explanations. One that has to be considered is what I might call "The Animal Farm effect". Readers will recall that in George Orwell's painfully prescient novel, the Seven Commandments by which the community ostensibly managed itself were subtly re-written late each night by the pigs to enhance the pigs' power and privilege, while the barnyard citizens blissfully slept unawares. Few noticed the changes upon awakening, and any potential protests were swiftly smothered. Eventually, the pigs not only dominated the day-to-day wellbeing of the other animals but also re-wrote the community's history to provide a fictional foundation for their hegemony. The continual tweaking of the Seven Commandments finally morphed them all into just one undeniable declaration: "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

Sounds all too familiar to me. The changes in the rules that affect the middle class' economic wellbeing have been taking place subtly over the course of this last piggish decade. Banks and investment banks morphed into too-big-too-fail manipulators of everything from the amount of money in circulation, to the value of investment vehicles, to the glowing ratings assigned to these near-worthless securities. Liars in high places pretended that the wealthy would use trillion-dollar tax bonuses in ways that would create good jobs for the middle class, knowing all the while that those extra dollars would wind up fattening portfolios, not ringing cash registers. And those who most loudly revere our Constitution eagerly reinterpret that historic document as a selectively spun piece of Scripture that, by their lights, would invalidate every advance our country has made that benefits middle-class Americans.

Perhaps the middle class has simply been bested by those who understand the non-rational aspects of human behavior and take full advantage of them. Advertisers certainly know that people's economic behavior is far more manipulable by appeals to emotion than by appeals to reason, and political campaign appeals now also reflect that understanding. If there were ever any doubt about that, a brilliant study done at Emory University during the 2004 campaign laid it to rest once and for all. When asked to evaluate the consistency of clearly self-contradictory statements made by their own favorite candidate and similarly self-contradictory statements made by his opponent, subjects in the research easily overlooked their candidate's blatant inconsistency but pilloried the opponent's. That much was pretty predictable. What made the researchers' work so stunning was how they electronically monitored the subjects' brains during their evaluating the two sets of statements: it revealed that the areas of the brain that process rational thought were flat-lined, dead as a doornail, while the emotional regions were sparkling like Fourth of July fireworks.

If it is true that middle-class Americans (and all the rest, too, for that matter) are actually overmatched these days by those message-mongers who know how to end-run our critical faculties and trigger stupid responses, what to do? For starters, I wonder if voters might do well to adopt a simple process that my wife Patti and I employed with our children when they were very young and very vulnerable to the appeal of TV commercials aimed at their tender psyches. During the very limited hours we permitted their watching any non-public TV, we turned the commercials into a game -- a puzzle to be decoded. We would sit with them and pose one pretty easy question followed by a more challenging one: "What do the makers of this commercial want you to do?" (the easy one) and "What are they doing in this commercial to make you feel like it's a good idea?" The kids instantly jumped into the game of playing detective and couldn't contain themselves in scrambling to outdo each others' answers: "They have the camera really close to it, to make it look bigger than I know it is", "They make it look like all the other kids have one, so you'll feel left out if you don't have one, too", "They show everybody laughing, like it's really fun, but why would you want to play with that for more than a minute or so? After that, it'd be boring." By the time the kids were five or six, they saw the manipulation for what it was and were commercial-proofed. Certainly they had felt the feelings the manipulators stirred up in them -- there's no stopping that -- but they trumped the manipulative effects by analyzing and dismissing them.

Certainly there must be other, better means to help middle-class voters defend themselves against self-destructive behavior at the ballot box, and it's not a moment to too soon to bring them to light and put them into practice. For the inescapable truth is immutable: in a relatively pure democracy like ours, we get exactly the government we deserve. And given the now-devious role government is playing in the fortunes of the middle class, that cruel truth applies equally to the fate of the American Dream.