Last week, as Wall Street's biggest institutions dissolved, John McCain and Barack Obama seized the opportunity to appeal to the most coveted and elusive cohort of voters: the middle class. "Now more than ever we've got to have the kind of broad-based middle-class tax cut that I talked about for 95 percent of working families," Obama said.
McCain, who just a week ago said the economy was fundamentally sound, changed his tune, commenting: "Most Americans feel very strongly this isn't their fault. It's Wall Street and Washington and the cozy insider relationships that have caused a great part of the problems."
A $700 billion bailout for the country's richest is being framed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as a gift for the country's most average. The middle class, he and the Republican fear-peddlers argue, will have to suffer the slings and arrows of a desolate economy if the big banks aren't restored to royalty. True, credit must be repaired so that students and small business owners can take out loans, but let's be honest, there are no super heroes for the middle class here. We've already been thrown on the tracks.
It's almost refreshing to have the national media and our elected leaders focused on average Americans' worst fear -- not terrorism, but failure to meet their basic financial needs. Middle class Americans don't wake up in the middle of the night, feverish from nightmares of suicide bombers; we are up already, calculating and re-calculating the month's stretched-thin budget, wishing for some kind of safety net.
The middle class -- our fears, values, and relationship to politics -- has been misrepresented for too long. Slapdash polls and shock-and-awe media peg us as highly bipartisan and dogmatically religious, petrified of so-called terrorism, still embroiled in the culture wars, and suspicious of any social safety nets. The truth paints a far less militaristic, far more compassionate picture.
In the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy's first annual Survey of the Middle Class, they found a consensus on many public policy issues, among them a universal national health insurance plan (75 percent), requiring employers to provide paid family and medical leave (71 percent), making it easier to change mortgage payments to keep homes out of foreclosure (62 percent). We support the expansion of SCHIP (78 percent), health insurance for uninsured kids, and the Dream Act (61 percent), legal residency for those who came to the U.S. illegally as children and are going to college or serving in the military.
It is not a fear of violence that the Drum Major Institute found at the center of their conversations with middle-class America, but a fear of letting down our own families, of losing our jobs, of not having enough money to afford yearly dental appointments or take care of aging parents. In fact, middle class responses were so colored by personal economic worries that the Drum Major Institute dubbed respondents the Fearful Families.
Though they proved unaware of contemporary Congressional politics (most could not name a single law passed by Congress over the last two years), the Fearful Families were very clear about their policy desires: more federal support for working families, caregivers, and homeowners. This political wish list is grounded in the tough financial realities American families are facing everyday; less than two in five say they live comfortably, one-third say they meet their basic expenses each month with just a little left over for extras, and a full one-quarter say they just meet their basic expenses or have trouble meeting their basic expenses each month. Fearful Families ranked their worries in the following order: economy and jobs, gas prices, the war in Iraq, health care, education, and finally, taxes. It turns out that we are actually willing to pay for our peace of mind.
The anxiety born from this kind of economic insecurity is currently being exploited by the Republican party in unconscionable ways. Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has been positioned as a middle class heroine, swooping in to distract voters from McCain's beer fortune and untold number of homes, while Obama has been consistently framed as a member of the intellectual elite (never mind that he was raised by a single mother and, at times, his grandparents -- a reality for many middle-class Americans). The GOP continually underscores McCain's military history, unaware that it isn't his guns that the American electorate is interested in; it's our own butter.
"Pandering to the middle class is a typical election-year tactic," says Andrea Batista Schlesinger, executive director of the Drum Major Institute. "But no matter the attempts to position Sarah Palin as the spokesperson for regular working people, the truth is that the conservative right has no leg to stand on when it comes to speaking for the interests of America's middle class."
Americans are pessimistic about the direction that the country is headed -- 77 percent of those polled said that the country is on the wrong track. But will the middle class voters see the truth in this smoke-and-mirrors election where there's an awful lot of pandering to us? Will we hear beyond Palin's down-home dialect to take note of the McCain campaign's anti-middle class policies underneath? Will we remember, despite McCain's urgent performance of care for the nation's economic security, that he has historically done little for middle class stability and didn't even realize there was a financial crisis looming until last week?
Only November 4 will tell. Let's all hope that the pandering to the middle class's supposed top priorities of national security and socially conservative values doesn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Average Americans are not convinced that our country's biggest threat is foreign evil. As a group, we feel most threatened by domestic, economic uncertainty. We need to know that, while we may have issues that divide us, we share our mostly deeply held fears and values. And most importantly, we need to go into the voting booth with the most pressing issues facing America foremost on our minds, undeterred by empty rhetoric, emotional manipulation, and the other dangerous distractions at this campaign crunch time.