Edwards' Thankless Poverty Tour
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That may well be an apt description of John Edwards' "Road to One America" tour, his 11 city, three day journey to bring attention to the persistent - and resurgent - scourge of poverty plaguing the United States. But while Edwards' call to address the plight of America's most needy is admirable, it is out of sync with the current psyche - and voting patterns - of today's American electorate.
No doubt, Edwards and his wife Elizabeth deserve praise for their eight state swing. The first American politician since RFK to make poverty the centerpiece of his campaign, Edwards is trying to breathe new life into his "two Americas" theme. (Cynics, of course, view the tour as Edwards' attempt to redirect focus from conservatives' incessant and childlike fixation over his $400 haircut, his 28,000 square foot mansion, and sizeable jury awards.) Retracing Bobby Kennedy's steps from 1968, Edwards will hold a series of events highlighting the 37 million people living in poverty (12.6% of Americans in 2005, up from 11.3% in 2000), with an emphasis on urban neighborhoods, workers' rights and rural poverty. And he's no doubt right when he says:
"A lot of Americans think of people who are struggling as people who don't want to work, and that's nonsense. We need to make sure the country understands that."
Unfortunately, the very people John Edwards wants to help most may help him least at the ballot box. In 2004, for example, voter turnout was 21% lower for households with incomes below $50,000 (59%) compared to those over $75,000 (80%), a gap which has persisted since the 1950's. In 2000, only 38% of Americans with incomes below $15,000 turned out to vote. And as Princeton's Larry Bartells told a Brookings Institution forum in October 2000, "The nonvoters are noticeably more Democratic in their partisan loyalties than the voters are."
A 2003 study by Elaine Kamarck highlighted the implications for Democratic candidates. Kamarck pondered why the overwhelmingly Democratic states of Massachusetts and New York persisted in electing Republican governors throughout the 90's and early 00's. Her research suggested that a major change in voter turnout patterns from less well-off, less educated residents to more affluent and better schooled suburban dwellers. Issues like an increase in the minimum wage, a change supported by all five Massachusetts Democratic primary candidates in 2002, affected less than 5% of actual voters.
Which isn't to say that John Edwards isn't right or virtuous to call on "the better angels of our nature." But his poverty fighting campaign isn't merely out of step with who shows up to vote on election day and their issue priorities. At a basic level, Edwards misreads the national mood when it comes to the economy, class and inequality.
In a nutshell, Americans remain attracted to aspirational messages that speak to their possible futures, not their current circumstances, to their images of themselves, and not what statistics define as their reality. Opinion surveys consistently show that Americans see themselves doing better financially than the nation as a whole. And more important, study after study confirms that Americans view themselves as higher up the income ladder than they actually are. As a result, Democratic politicians need to speak to Americans' hopes and dreams, not their fears.
Which isn't to say that Americans don't have a lot to worry about when it comes to their standards of living. Exploding income inequality, stagnant wages, and spiraling education, energy and health care costs are issues of fundamental economic insecurity that span class, race and geography. Poverty is a blight on the promise of the United States, but at its most basic, the American Dream of each generation doing better than its predecessor is now at risk. In 2008, Democratic leaders would do better to speak more broadly to Americans' own feelings of insecurity, instead of merely calling on their consciences to conquer poverty.
With his current tour tackling poverty, John Edwards isn't just reinforcing his "brand." He's showing a lot of political courage. It's just too bad he probably won't be rewarded for it.