Visibility and Resentment — Musings on Inequality

Well, that Wisconsin election is definitely deflating isn’t it? Here we have a case — a clear case documented in the Scott Walker’s own words — of a governor lying to the public, using a false pretense to launch an assault on public employees, and doing so in coordination with a reactionary billionaire from out of state… and yet, he wins. I mean, wow.

Now, yes, it is a weird case. Recall elections are always weird. As are special elections. And yes, the GOP outspent the Dems by a wide margin. And yes, until very recently, the Dems were in fraticidal primary mode. All true… and yet… and yet… and yet. If we can’t beat Walker in Wisconsin, then what hope do we have to avoid this sort of war on unions in other, less blue, states?

It is almost as if the American middle class and working class wants to get screwed over by moneyed interests.

The usual interpretation of all of this is some sort of false consciousness, but I think there is something else, something about the visibility and character of inequality that is making a difference.

I guess, first of all, I think that American politics are being driven by a deep-seated feeling of resentment that is, essentially, a function of the stagnation of median incomes over the past 30 years. Really for the first time in American history, we have a situation in which, for the vast majority of the country, they are not really better off than their parents. Yes, homes are a bit bigger and we have more toys, but we work at least as hard, and with the cost of health care and education rising dramatically, life isn’t any easier. Indeed, it may be harder.

The reason for this dynamic is obvious if you look at the numbers. All the economic gains of the past 30 years have gone to the top 1%. You would expect, given this empirical fact, that the sentiment of resentment would be aimed at the wealthy. But it just isn’t, at least not outside of liberal/progressive activist circles. Why?

Well, the traditional explanation is that Americans, being an optimistic people, project themselves into the top 1%, so they don’t resent what they aspire to. I’m not so sure that’s the case.

I think the more important dynamic is that poverty and wealthy now provide different visuals and different visibility.

Let’s talk poverty first. I think one of the key changes in poverty over the past several decades is that it is just generally less shabby. There was a time when the poor could be readily identified — tatteredclothes, poor nutrition, desperate material privation. When the “War on Poverty” was announced in the 1960s, the face of the poor was the rural poor is Appalachia.

But, as right-wingers constantly note, being poor in American in 2012 is a different thing on the whole. Aside from the homeless, even poor Americans now have running water, electricity. They have, if not designer clothes, at least presentable ones thanks to Wal-Mart. They have a lot of material goods — TVs, appliances, cars.

Now, the essence of poverty is not much different. The oppressive weight of never quite getting caught up on bills, the constant stress knowing that one is operating right on the margin, where any illness, any layoff, can blow everything up. There is that sense of being trapped because better education seems unaffordable, unachievable. There is frustration at being unable to provide ones kids with enrichment opportunities — sports, music, camps, travel.

What makes poverty oppressive in modern societies, in short, is increasingly invisible. For a middle class family, the poor look a lot like them. Middle class folks live in nicer communities with better schools, but that is easy enough to blame on people not caring about their communities or being bad parents. But the face of poverty has changed, and the real grinding aspects of it are now mostly captured by psychological dynamics — stress, anxiety, frustration, resignation — rather than physical privation.

On the flip side, I don’t think most middle class people have any idea about how the wealthy live. They live behind gated communities, vacation in exclusive hotels that are priced so that only people of means can stay, they just move in different social circles. Boats, vacation homes in exclusive areas, private schools that cost more than the annual income of many families, and so onĀ also serve to create distance.

I don’t want to get into too many personal details… but let me just say that I have a better visibility into the lifestyles of the rich and famous than many. And I have absolutely no doubt that the charts and data showing the dramatic increase in wealth of the top 1% reflects reality. But I also realize that I have a unique window in a sense. I live in a very wealthy area — DC suburbs — and both my profession and my wife’s often allow me to move in circles that are more rarified than our own circumstances might normally warrant.

So, that’s my point. For a middle class family, what is visible to them — the rise in the material standard of living of the poor — drives their view of politics more than what is invisible — such as the grinding, psychological reality of poverty and the increasinly gaudy lifestyle of the wealthy. Given that context, it is easy to see how resentment can seem to flow downhill.

It isn’t about wanting to have someone to feel superior to. Rather, it contributes to the notion that the problem, the cause of middle class stagnation, is somehow related to the material amelioration of the poor. So, instead of focusing on whether the money has really gone, it becomes more compelling to blame the welfare cheats, illegal immigrants, greedy public employees, and so on.

The GOP taps into that. All of their narratives capture those visual. And that is why a guy like Walker can win in a state like Wisconsin.

2 comments to Visibility and Resentment — Musings on Inequality

  • [...] Bernard Finel is frustrated with Scott Walker’s handily surviving his recall fight. Here we have a case — a clear case documented in the Scott Walker’s own words — of a governor lying to the public, using a false pretense to launch an assault on public employees, and doing so in coordination with a reactionary billionaire from out of state… and yet, he wins. I mean, wow. [...]

  • atheist

    There’s also the problem that, to be blunt, most US voters are “low-information”. They have a vague understanding of the issues at best. A tribalist crowd, they are extremely susceptible to emotional appeals, manipulative promises, and hucksterism.

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