Jamelle Bouie | The Nation

Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie

 Politics, wonkery and everything in between.

Do Americans Hate the Rich?

Lately, whenever someone notes the chasm between the wealthy and everyone else, and argues for greater income redistribution to level the playing field, a member of the financial elite pipes up to complain about their maligned position in American life. The latest was Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., who complained to investors about the unpopularity of bankers

“Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it,” the JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) CEO told an audience member who asked about hostility toward bankers. “Sometimes there’s a bad apple, yet we denigrate the whole.”

Ignoring, for now, the fact that Dimon’s company received a massive bailout from the federal government—which belies the notion that he’s somehow been successful of his own accord—it’s not hard to understand why people are angry at bankers. Indeed, Joshua Brown, who himself was a banker, does a great job of explaining the dynamic at hand:

No, Jamie, it is not that Americans hate successful people or the wealthy. In fact, it is just the opposite. We love the success stories in our midst and it is a distinctly American trait to believe that we can all follow in the footsteps of the elite, even though so few of us ever actually do.

So, no, we don’t hate the rich. What we hate are the predators.

What we hate are the people who we view as having found their success as a consequence of the damage their activities have done to our country. What we hate are those who take and give nothing back in the form of innovation, convenience, entertainment or scientific progress. We hate those who’ve exploited political relationships and stupidity to rake in even more of the nation’s wealth while simultaneously driving the potential for success further away from the grasp of everyone else.

It’s hard to look at the wealth worshiping of American culture and conclude that Americans hate the rich. Rather, Americans hate people who become rich through rent-seeking, and then use their power and influence to pull up the ladder for everyone else. Financial elites crashed the economy, but rather than suffer any adverse consequences for their reckless behavior, they’ve prospered. Worse, they’ve yet to show any contrition for their actions, even as millions of Americans—who had no part in the sideshow—languish in a wounded economy.

With that as the background, it’s no wonder that Americans want higher tax rates on the super-wealthy and other redistributive policies—it’s the only recourse they have for a situation that smacks of injustice.

The Ongoing Republican Plan to Shame the Poor

That House Republicans are opposed to anything that could assist regular Americans is par for the course. After all, this is a class of lawmakers who voted for two budgets that would slash social spending and gut the welfare state. What’s remarkable, as seen in the current fight over extending payroll tax relief, is the extent to which House Republicans are eager to heap scorn and disdain on the poor and disadvantaged. In addition to forcing drug tests on those who receive unemployment insurance—as if recipients are prone to drug abuse and thus undeserving—House Republicans want to require GED training for anyone who receives UI and does not possess a high school diploma. The New Republic’s Timothy Noah explains the problem with this egregious provision:

Requiring a drug test establishes that if you are collecting unemployment you are probably a disreputable character. It’s morally repellant, but not particularly novel, since companies now routinely require lower-tier workers to piss into a jar as a condition of unemployment. […]

The GED requirement, on the other hand, is a new way to communicate that if you lack a job you must be deficient…. If you don’t have a high school diploma, or a GED, you’re going to have a very difficult time getting a job. But if someone is collecting unemployment who lacks either of these things we know that person managed to get a job in spite of this educational deficit—otherwise he or she wouldn’t be on unemployment. To require this person to enroll in a GED program as a condition of collecting benefits is in essence to say that you had no business being in the labor force to begin with.

If this sounds like an overread of the situation—or comically evil—I challenge you to reconsider. Over the last year, conservatives have doubled-down on their view that the unemployed are responsible for their fate, and that the mass of Americans are “mooching” from the “makers” of society. “Reasonable” Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman endorsed Representative Paul Ryan’s draconian budget for the United States, while more conservative candidates like Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain pushed for budget plans that would wipe out the income of poor and working-class Americans with massive tax increases.

Noah notes that Republicans regard the working poor as “morally indistinguishable from welfare recipients,” who have long been stigmatized by conservative politicians. But I think it goes a little further than that. To these conservatives, who maintain a theological commitment to the efficacy of upper-income tax cuts and deregulation, government benefits are sinful, and recipients of government benefits are sinners, regardless of whether their benefits are earned, deserved or otherwise.

Of course, this ignores the extent to which so-called “job creators” are the beneficiaries of actual government largess (see: the bailouts), and that the massive income gaps of the last thirty years are a direct result of government activism on behalf of concentrated wealth and entrenched power. Not that the truth of the situation matters; Republicans will continue to attack the disadvantaged, and at a time where many Americans are gripped by reaction and resentment, they are apt to find political success.

Who Are the 1 Percent?

By way of political scientist John Sides and the Sunlight Foundation come two fascinating analyses of the top 1 percent in terms of their political beliefs and activity. Sides, writing for the New York Times, flags a study from the Russell Sage Foundation, which—as part of a larger survey—polled a random selection of 104 wealthy individuals (median wealth, $7.5 million) from the Chicago area over a period of five months.

As Sides points out, these people—and the 1 percent writ large—are distinctive in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. To wit, the 1 percent cares more about deficit reduction that it does economic growth or job creation. It prefers private-sector action to that by government, and it is far more politically active than the average American. Ninety-nine percent reported voting in 2008, 41 percent reported attending a political meeting (compared to 9 percent for Americans overall) and 68 percent reported giving money to a political candidate, party or cause in the last four years—a fifty-five-point gap compared to Americans as a whole.

On the other side of things, the Sunlight Foundation has released an exhaustive study of the .01 percent of all political donors. “In the 2010 election cycle,” writes Sunlight’s Lee Drutman, “26,783 individuals (or slightly less than one in ten thousand Americans) each contributed more than $10,000 to federal political campaigns. Combined, these donors spent $774 million.” To put this in somewhat more dramatic terms, almost a quarter of the total donations from individuals to nearly every actor in the political system came from a group that’s slightly larger than the undergraduate class at a state university like Virginia Tech. Overwhelmingly, these people are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists and lawyers. They are highly ideological, and live in a handful of urban areas: New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. As Drutman notes, they are the gatekeepers to political activity:

Prospective candidates need to be able to tap into these networks if they want to be taken seriously. And party leaders on both sides are keenly aware that more than 80% of party committee money now comes from these elite donors. [Emphasis mine]

It’s not just that these are fascinating data dumps; both underscore the extent to which the wealthy have immense influence on our politics. That both parties are preoccupied with deficit reduction is almost certainly a product of the 1 percent, its outsized concern with deficits and its ability to affect the political conversation through immense spending at every level of political organization.

While it’s tempting to pivot from here to a generic call to remove money from politics, it’s simply true that those restrictions don’t work. If you’re rich enough—and sufficiently invested in the political process—you’ll find a way to give money to favored causes and candidates. What’s more, it’s hard to say that money isn’t a legitimate form of speech; it differs in its efficiency (vis-à-vis other methods of influence), but it’s of a kind with most other forms of political activity.

When you drill down, the problem isn’t that there’s money being spent in politics, it’s that it comes from a small, unrepresentative group of people. A world in which large majorities of Americans donated small sums to candidates would involve far more money in politics, but would also be more democratic (and more representative) than the world we live in. Given the degree to which the Supreme Court is hostile to restrictions on political donations, the best thing that reformers could do is turn their attention to methods that encourage and maximize the influence of small donors on elections. The 99 percent can’t stop the 1 percent from spending money, but we can try to outweigh them.

Whites See Racial Progress, While Blacks See Inequality

One of my favorite demographic tidbits is the fact that there are roughly six white Americans for every person labeled as “black” in the census. Which means, given the extent to which African-Americans are concentrated in a few geographic regions, that there are large numbers of white people who have minimal to nonexistent contact with black people.

With that in mind, it’s not too surprising to discover the extent to which white Americans have a far more optimistic view of race relations than their black (and even Latino) fellow citizens. According to the latest survey by the Greenlining Institute—“a national…institute working for racial and economic justice”—just 16 percent of whites believe that there is a lot of discrimination in America today, compared to 59 percent of African-Americans and 22 percent of Latinos.

Overall, the institute found, whites have an incredibly skewed view of racial progress in this country. Despite the fact that African-Americans and Latinos earn significantly less money and have less wealth than their white counterparts, only 37 percent of whites believe that blacks make less money than whites, and a small majority believe that blacks’ and whites’ incomes are about the same. Likewise, a majority of white Americans believe that blacks’ health is “about the same” as their own, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The biggest difference in perception came with views of the federal goverment. When asked about the government’s treatment of blacks and whites vis-à-vis each other, 56 percent of African-Americans said that the government treats whites better than it treats blacks. By contrast, only 9 percent of white Americans hold this view, while a majority holds the view that the government treats the two groups equally. And 25 percent of whites hold the opposite view, which is that the government treats blacks better than it does whites.

A few things. The black perception of racial progress isn’t necessarily correct, but it seems more accurate than the reality perceived by white Americans in the survey. The government might not have an active preference for white Americans, but over the last year, conservative politicians have attacked policies—like Pell Grants and social spending—that benefit African-Americans, and have pursued “solutions,” like deficit reduction, which would harm them disproportionately.

It’s not hard to see why white Americans might hold an overly positive view of race relations. In addition to the relative lack of contact between whites and blacks, it’s simply true that elite blacks have achieved an unprecedented level of influence in American life (see: President Obama). Absent contact with everyday black communities, it’s easy to think that African-Americans are doing as well as everyone else. What’s more, in the same way that it’s hard for individuals to accept the degree to which an action might be prejudiced, it’s hard for them to accept the extent to which their country might struggle with racial inequalities. As the Greenlining Institute notes:

How people define themselves is related to the group that they belong to and identify with, in this case Americans. Things that challenge a positive view of the group are potentially damaging to an individual’s self-worth: If Americans are bad in some way, then an individual American is potentially tainted.

The problem, of course, is that it’s very hard to find solutions to racial inequalities when most Americans refuse to acknowledge their reality. And at a time when poor economic conditions feed zero-sum thinking, tailored solutions to racial problems become incredibly difficult.

The Tea Party's Distant Cousin

Writing at the New York Times, historian Kevin Boyle has created something of a stir with his review of two recent books on the Ku Klux Klan. Here is the lede of the piece, which also doubles as the offending passage:

Imagine a political movement created in a moment of terrible anxiety, its origins shrouded in a peculiar combination of manipulation and grass-roots mobilization, its ranks dominated by Christian conservatives and self-proclaimed patriots, its agenda driven by its members’ fervent embrace of nationalism, nativism and moral regeneration, with more than a whiff of racism wafting through it.

No, not that movement.

Naturally, this inspired a torrent of criticism from right-wing blogs and pundits. National Review’s Jonah Goldberg attacks the review as “lame” and complains that Boyle failed to mention the Klan’s ties to Democrats and Progressives (as if either group was the same in the 1920s), while the right-wing Media Research Center described the review as offensive. The Weekly Standard takes Goldberg’s approach, and points its readers toward proof that Democrats and Progressives were the real allies of the Klan.

A few things. Any honest historian will readily acknowledge the extent to which the Klan was entwined with the Democratic politicians in the early part of the twentieth century. Although both parties had largely abandoned civil rights by the beginning of the twentieth century, it’s fair to say that up until the 1940s, the Democratic Party was the unambiguous party of white supremacy in the United States, particularly in the South. That the Klan was involved with the Democratic Party through the 1920s isn’t a shock, given the degree to which both groups dominated border states like Kentucky in the early part of the century.

More importantly, Boyle says nothing about the Klan as an organ of Republican politics. Instead, he makes the (correct) point that the forces that animated the Klan—conservative Christianity, nativism, white populism, hyper-patriotism and racial prejudice—have manifested themselves throughout American history, including the present day. And while the Tea Party isn’t an anti-black terrorist group, it’s hard to deny the extent to which the movement is motivated by the same constellation of reactionary forces.

The facts bear this out. According to a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, 47 percent of Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement also identify with the religious right, and 75 percent of those who identify with the Tea Party label themselves Christian conservatives. Tea Partiers are overwhelmingly white, more likely to see immigration as a problem, and more likely to harbor racial resentment toward African-Americans. Put another way, it’s no accident that birtherism found a home among Tea Partiers. And of course, Tea Party rhetoric tends toward to loud proclamations of “real” patriotism, and a desire to return to the foundations of American political life.

The Tea Party is a classic reactionary movement in the American tradition, and as a result, it shares similarities with the Ku Klux Klan. I repeat, that doesn’t mean that Tea Partiers are Klansmen, but it’s simply true that the movement draws from similar threads in American life. Given the extent to which this is abundantly clear, the Tea Party’s conservative defenders are, perhaps, protesting a little too much.

Politicians Who Hate Politics

Last week, the Washington Post profiled Americans Elect, a “centrist” political organization dedicated to changing the presidential nomination process for the sake of offering an “alternative” to Democrats and Republicans:

A bipartisan group of political strategists and donors known as Americans Elect has raised $22 million and is likely to place a third presidential candidate on the ballot in every state next year. The goal is to provide an alternative to President Obama and the GOP nominee and break the tradition of a Democrat-vs.-Republican lineup. […]

The group is relying on an ambitious plan to hold a political convention on the Internet that would treat registered voters like fans of “American Idol,” giving everyone a shot at picking a favorite candidate.

More people might vote in an online primary—though I doubt it—but I don’t see how this is more democratic than a system where party activists, party elites and interested voters band together to choose a candidate who best represents them and their interests. The former might be less partisan, but I wouldn’t count that as a virtue—if politics is the means through which we hash out problems as a society, then partisanship is the product of our real and genuine disagreements.

Indeed, this is what bothers me about schemes like American Elect, No Labels and Unity ’08; the backers of each seem to think that if you remove the politics from politics, then you’ll have better and more democratic outcomes. Worse, they treat their own narrow ideology as representative, and act as if they don’t need to engage with the public or convince anyone. Everyone loved centrism! All this country needs, they argue, is a benevolent billionaire “to get things done.”

Despite the conceit of Americans Elect—a nomination process driven by millions of people—the underlying impulse is incredibly undemocratic. You can see as much in the reaction of its backers to the possibility that partisans might get involved:

Some longtime political hands worry that no credible candidate will want to be the first guinea pig in the effort. And the blog techPresident has asked how Americans Elect leaders can hold a fully democratic election and still guarantee that their ticket will be centrist. Others warn that the group could become an experiment in technology gone wrong.

“Occupy Wall Street has discovered Americans Elect. The tea party has discovered Americans Elect,” said one strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank about the effort. “What happens if it gets hijacked?”

If Americans Elect were a serious effort to make the process more democratic, they wouldn’t worry about the involvement of people who have ideological commitments. As it stands, this is just another attempt to impose a “centrist” ideology on voters who have shown—through numerous elections—that they’re not interested.

College Students, Blackface and How to Talk About Race

Earlier this week, Colorlines’s Jorge Rivas flagged this troubling story from the University of Southern Mississippi:

The University of Southern Mississippi confirmed on Monday that six students dressed in blackface for a costume party.

The USM Dean of Students Office said the six women, all members of Phi Mu sorority, dressed in blackface to depict themselves as the Huxtable family from “The Cosby Show,” as part of their participation in a 1980s-themed, off-campus costume party on Wednesday.

It should be said that the university gave an excellent response to the incident. “Though it is clear that these women had no ill intent,” said Dean of Students Dr. Eddie Holloway, “it was also clear that they had little cultural awareness or competency, and did not understand the historical implication of costuming in blackface.”

“Blackface” incidents aren’t uncommon—their ubiquity has inspired one of the best public campaigns against racism that I’ve seen in a long while. Even still, this begs the question, why is it so hard for (some) white college students to grasp the core prejudice and disrespect that comes with blackface? After asking friends about this, and their answers were illuminating.

As one noted, part of this has to do with our national reluctance to engage race like adults. Public schools teach the basics of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, but there’s no attempt to go deeper with the material, and move away from the notion that racism is something reserved for the Bull Connors and Klansmen of the world. It’s not just that students leave history education with a skewed, and often benign, view of American apartheid (in my experience, Jim Crow is reduced to its cultural signifiers—there’s no attempt to deal with the reality of state-condoned terrorism against black Americans), but that they come away with the belief that racism is the sole province of bad people.

In the minds of many white students, another friend pointed out, racism is something of a Platonic state. Racism isn’t expressed in behavior—if they themselves aren’t racist (meaning, if they believe that they aren’t racist), then none of their actions can be racist, even if they are clear demonstrations of racial prejudice. The flipside of this is a devotion to the idea of “colorblindness” as if racial disparities no longer exist. I’m sure that if you were to poll white university students, you’d find significant opposition to affirmative action, on the view any consideration of race is racist, even if you’re trying to adjust for past disparities.

Challenging this—and providing students with a more sophisticated understanding of racial prejudice—is much harder than it might look. As we’ve seen in politics on multiple occasions, people tend to shutdown the conversation when challenged with the notion that they’re indulging one prejudice or another. I would like to know the details of the University of Southern Mississippi’s plan to educate the students in question. Honestly, if it involves a sitdown with African-American students, I’m not sure that it will be effective. In general, people of color are burdened with the task of “educating” others on race, so much so that racism is seen as a problem for minorities, not necessarily white people.

Minorities have a part to play, certainly, but when addressing racial prejudice among white students, other white students need to do the heavy lifting. The longer we think of racial prejduce as something that people of color have to fix, the much harder it will be to develop a half-sane conversation about race in this country.

Oops, He Did It Again

The most dramatic event of last night’s Republican presidential debate was the speed with which Rick Perry’s mistake became a campaign gaffe of historic proportions. The National Review’s Rich Lowry wondered if it was “the most uncomfortable moment” he had “ever witnessed in presidential politics.” The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato had a more definitive take, “To my memory, Perry’s forgetfulness is the most devastating moment of any modern primary debate.”

I don’t think it’s wrong to write-off the Texas governor as a viable candidate for the nomination, but it is wrong to attribute his non-viability to this particular gaffe. If Perry had established himself as an intelligent, composed and serious candidate, then he could afford to have mistakes like these; they’d be seen—rightly—as a one-off occurrence. The problem for Perry is that he’s developed a reputation for undisciplined vapidity. For GOP voters, last night’s performance was a reminder that Perry is unprepared for the rigors and diffiulties of a presidential campaign. In other words, the problem with Perry’s gaffe is that it confirmed a particular narrative—his conservative virtues notwithstanding, the Texas governor isn’t equipped to handle a face-off with Barack Obama.

How to Lose an Election in Two Minutes

Step one, insist that banks are in no way responsible for the current economic situation, in the clearest language possible. Step two, scream at your now-erstwhile supporters:

Representative Joe Walsh—the congressman on display in the video—has represented Illinois’s 8th District since last year, when he defeated the Democratic incumbent in the 2010 midterm elections. Unfortunately for Walsh, the Illinois legislature has gerrymandered him out of his district—if he runs again, he’ll have to choose a new district, and face a more Democratic electorate, as well as a potentially formidable opponent. Good luck.

What Should Be Done About Campaign Finance?

Political scientist Seth Masket is skeptical about campaign finance reform and its efficacy:

[C]ampaign finance reform, to a very large extent, simply hasn’t worked. That is, every time a government tries to enact a specific contribution or spending limit to reduce the amount of money in elections (FECA, BCRA, you name it), innovative donors and candidates figure out ways around it. You want to give more than the limit to a group of candidates? Fine, just donate to a 527 or some sort of independent expenditure committee that can spend unlimited amounts on behalf of a candidate…This is part of the reason that, despite decades of campaign finance reform, the amount spent in campaigns continues to rise, much faster than inflation.

Masket goes on to note that this web of rules has the unintended effect of making the system less transparent. Because so many individuals have formed so many groups to get around campaign finance laws, it’s much harder to determine basics like who is donating and where there money is going.

Everything in politics, from building campaigns to communicating with voters, costs money, and there’s no way to avoid that. But the problem isn’t the quantity of money – running television ads is expensive, after all – as much as it is the limited sources politicians have to draw on. If reducing the flow of money is an unworkable approach to campaign finance reform, then the next best alternative is to broaden the base for donations. Matching systems are one mechanism for this, but there are others, including full-on public funding of campaigns.

Regardless, the important thing to remember is that the amount of money in politics is less important than who it comes from. A $1 billion campaign funded by 10 million people is much preferable to a smaller campaign ($200 million) with fewer donors.

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