Preferential Option for the Middle Class?

In discussion with my more politically progressive Catholic brethren, I’ve had it put to me that the American political party which receives by preference has at its heart a “preferential option for the rich.” Supporting a Democrat such as Obama may mean compromising on the abortion issue (while hoping that the economic miracle that will spontaneously occur when a Democratic posterior inhabits the chair in the oval office may in fact do a better job of “decreasing the incidence of abortion” than actual restrictions) but at least we can be sure that there will be an end to senseless war mongering, a “preferential option for the poor”, health care for all, an end to the cruelty of capital punishment, restriction of those murderous pieces of inanimate metal called “guns”, etc.

This long list provides the “proportionate reasons” to vote for the most pro-abortion presidential candidate in history, not merely with a sense of reluctant necessity, but with a moral righteousness that scorns all others.

Thinking back over this election in particular, however, I find myself wondering how much there is to all these other threads of the “seamless garment”. Senator Obama, as with all recent Democrats who want to be elected at the national level, is in favor of the death penalty. He’s said that he’ll never seek to “take away our guns”. He’s gone well out of his way to insist that he’s no pacifist, and indeed promised to prosecute the war in Afghanistan more vigorously, making incursions into Pakistan if necessary.

In regards to health care and economic assistance — Obama’s proposals are heavily focused around providing more benefits to the middle class. Oh, sure, the poor are not actually excluded from Obama’s tax cut/credit for everyone — nor from his child health care mandate. But have we really heard much of any mention about “the poorest Americans” out of the Democratic nominee this year? Much less programs specifically targeted to relieve or eliminate poverty?

Not really. Instead we have the Obama campaign trumpeting the fact that he has used the phrase “middle class” far more times than his opponent.

Let me broaden this attack and criticize both parties: Over the last twenty years both parties have increasingly competed to see who can promise the most benefits to the American middle class — a demographic which by global standards is already incredibly well off. McCain has been heavily criticized by Obama and his surrogates for providing no “middle class tax cut” in his plan. But the real reason for this is that the Republican originated series of tax cuts which began in the 1980s has brought us to the point where half of Americans simply do not pay any Federal income taxes. The only way that Obama manages to provide a “tax cut” to “95% of Americans” is by giving tax credits (give-away checks) to people who do not end up paying any taxes in the first place.

It’s often pointed out that the American middle class lacks benefits that the middle classes of some other countries (such as Europe) enjoy. (“Free” health care, “free” college tuition, etc.) On the other hand, our median incomes in the US are higher. We live in 2,000+ sq/ft houses instead of 600sq/ft apartments. US homes (even in the decidedly working class and minority heavy neighborhood I live in) feature SUVs and full size cars in the driveway, not 50cc scooters and micro cars. One may argue that we don’t spend out money well, but we unquestionably have it.

However, politicians realized some time back that helping the bottom 20% of the population provided limited electoral advantages, while piling give-aways upon the middle 60% provides endless benefits at the polls. (Buying votes through government give-aways goes back as far as voting — just ask the Athenians.)

Conservatives at least have some degree of consistency here, since principled conservatives hold that government should limit itself to a very small number of activities and leave the populace to provide for the common good through private/charitable activities. And indeed, statistically conservatives do give more money and time to charity than their ideological opponents. (“Moderates” give the least money and time to charity — which perhaps fits with the theory that a “moderate” if often someone who doesn’t believe in much of anything.) That’s something, but I remain leery of a situation in which a very small percentage of the very highest earners provide nearly all the tax revenue. Cutting taxes is all very well, but I think conservatives would do well to keep in mind that a Republic can probably not long survive a situation in which the majority funds itself entirely out of the pockets of a minority, without succumbing the temptation to become spendthrift with the state’s money.

On the progressive side, it may be that the idealists have told themselves it is necessary to package increased socialization as something which primarily benefits the middle class in order to get it in — all the while assuming that it’s actually best for the weakest among us. However, if they want to be seen as anything other than self-serving, I would suggest a return to ideals. Most of those who make their livings in the American middle class are smart enough to realize that any really serious form of socialization would pull their lifestyles down rather than up — so the self interest approach wouldn’t work anyway.

It is also, perhaps, time to ask the equal and opposite of the “How much have Republicans really done to end abortion over the last thirty years” question: If war, capital punishment, immigration and help for the poor are remaining threads of the “seamless garment”, are they really forcefully enough present in the Democratic party at this time to make any argument for “proportionate reasons”? Or in this election, is the seamless garment in which progressives have long clothed themselves actually composed of the same airy fabric as the emperor’s new clothes?