Treating Citizens Like Children
Published: Friday, February 15, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 17, 2013 17:02
Recently-elected Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren, has prided herself as a fighter for America’s middle-class. However, a few weeks ago, when a reporter asked her what income range describes the “middle-class,” she responded, “It’s not a numbers issue. I know you’d expect a very wonky answer for me, you know, about the percentiles.” The reporter politely pressed her and maintained that bills pertaining to taxes do indeed involve numbers. Warren again failed to answer the question and claimed, “When we strengthen education, when we make it possible for kids to go to college, then we strengthen America’s middle class, and that doesn’t need a dollar figure.” To explain how the definition of the middle-class is not related to numbers, the senator then argued, “How about somebody who’s taught school for ten years, and takes off a year to go to graduate school, and has an income of only $4,000 in the year that she’s not teaching? Would you say that she’s fallen out of the middle class? I wouldn’t. It’s a whole lot of characteristics that define the middle class.”
One would assume that a woman who claims to be an expert on the finance industry would be quick to answer the question with relative ease by citing various statistics, area, median incomes, and quartiles. While there is not a precise definition of the term middle-class (especially since income varies by region), defining the middle-class is fundamentally an issue based on numbers. Senator Warren’s response is a classic example of a politician dodging a reporter’s question in order to bring up a talking point that sounds pleasant to the ears of constituents. This was not a good start for her, if you were hoping that the Harvard Law professor would bring substantive change to the beltway (something many Holy Cross students believed last fall). She had an opportunity to talk directly about policy and how it would affect the ‘average Joe.’ Instead, she talked ambiguously. When she could have talked to Americans like adults, she talked to them as if they were children.
Warren’s dodge on this question is disappointing, but it is not surprising, except, perhaps in the sense that it was an especially simple question to dodge. We live in an age where large numbers of Americans do not know who the Vice President is (41% according to a 2011 Pew poll) or how many justices sit on the Supreme Court (63% according to a 2011 Newsweek Poll). Poll results vary depending upon the pollster and the sampling size, but you get the picture: frighteningly large Americans do not know basic facts about their own country. What do such statistics imply to candidates seeking votes? Most of the people out there do not have an adult-level understanding of big issues. Therefore, it’s not critical to bore them with facts and knowledge about statistics.
The alarming ignorance of American history and government within the American public coincides with a rise in the emphasis on empathy in politics. As George Will pointed out in a September 2012 article, “A recent The Washington Post/ABC News poll asked respondents to say which presidential candidate ‘would you prefer to have take care of you if you were sick’ and which ‘would you rather invite to dinner at your home.’ What is depressing about these questions is not that they miss the point of presidential elections nowadays but that they seem to touch the electorate’s erogenous zones.” Politicians can frequently appeal to pure emotion over reason. They can win over the crowds by acting like their friend as opposed to seasoned statesmen charged with upholding the Constitution. That is a travesty. We may like our leaders, but we should elect them because we respect them, not because we think they would be nice company at dinner.
The United States is in a perilous position. We are at roughly 7.8% unemployment; but, including the under-employed and those who have given up for work, we are at a much higher 14.7%. American public debt is over $16 trillion. Retiring baby boomers continue to put pressure on smaller, younger generations as they collect Medicare and Social Security. So-called Generation Y is on track to being the first generation in American history to have a lower standard of living than our parents. Our fiscal woes ensure serious discussions about taxation and spending.
These are tough questions that require adult thinking and adult solutions. If we want adult solutions, then we should demand more answers out of leaders. We should demand precise answers - not ambiguity - on questions, particularly ones that are as basic as “How do you define the middle-class?”