The day before the Connecticut primary, Joe Lieberman was getting down with the folks in a restaurant in Southington, a small town near Hartford. As the American Prospect reported, a longtime state employee named Paola Roy told Lieberman she felt the middle class has been forgotten by the federal government. Lieberman responded that he shared her concerns, and for good reason: “I came out of the middle class," he said, "and, being a senator, I haven’t gone much beyond the middle class.”
Being a senator, I haven't gone much beyond the middle class. Could anything better sum up the way American politicians seem to have relocated en masse to a new planet, and forgotten how things are back on Earth? In 2005, Lieberman and his wife Hadassah—a lobbyist at D.C. powerhouse Hill & Knowlton—together made $366,084. This places them securely in the top 1 percent of U.S. households. In fact, just the money they receive each year for supervising family trusts would likely put them in the middle quintile of American families. Moreover, they have financial assets —i.e., over and above their homes in Connecticut and Washington—worth somewhere between $465,000 and $1.9 million. The comparable amount for the average U.S. family is about $30,000.
Then there's Rick Santorum. In a New York Times profile last year, Santorum moped about the difficulty of supporting his large family on his senatorial salary of $162,100:
''We live paycheck to paycheck, absolutely,'' he says. Does he have money set aside for college? ''No. None. I always tell my kids: 'Work hard. We'll take out loans. Whatever.'"
In fact, continued Santorum, his parents "send a check every now and then. They realize things are a little tighter for us.''
According to Santorum's 2005 financial disclosure documents, his parents recently did more then send a check: They gave him two condominiums near Penn State. And while his children may be sad about their lack of a college fund, hopefully they take solace in the fact their family now owns five condominiums total as investments—each valued between $100,000 and $250,000.
What gives rise to this kind of obliviousness among our nation’s politicians? Several factors. First, politicians at a national level tend to be wealthy above and beyond their six-figure salaries. At least 46 out of 100 senators are millionaires, with the number probably much higher. (It's impossible to know, because they're only required to report assets within a broad range.) The average net worth of President George W. Bush’s cabinet falls between $9.3 and $27.3 million. And all the 2004 presidential candidates and their running mates—Bush, Cheney, Kerry and Edwards—are worth in the tens of millions. Indeed, together with his wife, Kerry may be a billionaire.
It's easy to imagine how hanging around with this crowd, Lieberman and Santorum might see themselves as the working poor. (Lieberman's opponent in Connecticut, Ned Lamont, is worth between $90 and $300 million.) And of course politicians don't just spend time with other pols—they know their peers who've gone onto to bigger and better things. Before retiring in 2005, Louisiana's John Breaux found it funny to joke he could barely afford a cup of coffee on a government salary. Now a lobbyist, he's increased his income by an order of magnitude.
Then there are the campaign contributions courted by politicians: the Center for Responsive Politics found that 86 percent of itemized money raised in 2004 came from less than 0.2 percent of Americans. Politicians spend shocking amounts of their time on the phone hitting these people up for cash, and it's safe to assume few among them worry much about hikes in their health care premiums. And when they're not raising money, politicians are rushing off to the TV studio. Lieberman, for instance, is constantly buddying it up on TV with Tim Russert (annual salary: $5 million), Sean Hannity ($5 million plus), and Chris Matthews ($4.3 million second home on Nantucket).
Subtler things affect politicians' perspective as well. As William Greider points out in his book Who Will Tell the People, Washington is now the wealthiest metropolitan area in the United States. Three of America's five richest counties surround D.C. Greider writes:
The general political vision [is] inevitably warped by the gilded prosperity that politicians see all around them...once sleepy [Washington] has become a cornucopia of luxurious shops, prestige department stories and gourmet dining...The general affluence makes it harder for the people in power to see the contradictory social facts beyond their own everyday experience.
Lastly, politicians see the world, like everyone else, through the distorting lens of the media. And the media is desperate to produce content that attracts an audience with the spare cash to buy a Lexus. A senior congressional aide told TomPaine.com :
Politicians receive most of their information from TV, just like the rest of the population. TV presents a skewed view. And they and their staffs read a lot: most of what's written is skewed. So even if a pol spends all of his time glad-handing at the county fair, he'll still have a skewed idea of what the problems and solutions are.
Is there an answer to this problem? There may be, but first we have to recognize that it is a problem. As the commoners said during the English Revolution in the mid-1600s:
It will never be a good world, while Knights and Gentlemen makes us laws, that are chosen for fear, and do but oppress us, and do not know the people's sores. It will never be well with us till we have Parliaments of Country-men like ourselves, that know our wants.
Jonathan Schwarz has contributed to many publications, including the The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times and Slate. His website is called A Tiny Revolution .
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