Bamboozled working class can't see its true enemy

January 12, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - If his conservative critics (and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman) are to be believed, Howard Dean is an out-of-touch lefty, a peacenik, a tax-and-spend liberal who believes in the nanny state. And if Dr. Dean becomes the Democratic nominee, President Bush will happily join the chorus to caricature him as an icon of the left-wing fringe.

Dr. Dean may deserve some of the criticism. His careless rhetoric - he has hammered Bill Clinton and other Democratic centrists, for example, as "the Republican wing of the Democratic Party" - has given his rivals handy ammunition.

But Dr. Dean's tough talk about American business shouldn't be so easily turned against him. When he castigates business executives who have "enriched themselves by deceiving everyone else," he ought to be gaining votes in working-class America. After all, two years' worth of headlines and newscasts have revealed breathtaking corporate scandals in which high-ranking executives lined their own pockets by scamming their workers as well as their investors.

Remember Enron, in which longtime employees were left jobless and drained of their retirement savings?

Or how about the WorldCom fiasco, which also hung workers out to dry?

Then there are the continuing revelations of fraud in mutual funds, wherein big investors pocketed extra profits by bilking small investors. That hits average Americans where it hurts, since most of us who own stock tend to buy it through mutual funds.

Oddly, however, working-class America seems less than outraged by the antics of the rich and felonious. Despite the widespread evidence of a corporate class of thieves and con artists (an international class, it seems, from reports about misdeeds at the Italian company Parmalat), average Americans seem much more upset by illegal immigrants and impoverished single mothers than they are by shameless corporate fraud.

What has happened to populism in this country? Why do struggling working-class Americans, believing they have been victimized, blame the hapless poor rather than the scheming rich?

Perhaps the disconnect can be explained, partly, by the relative affluence of the news media. While journalists of two generations ago were ink-stained wretches who barely made a living, today's journalists are usually college-educated and comfortably middle-class.

That's especially true of the Washington-based journalists who cover the White House and presidential campaigns. Most earn salaries well above the average household income of about $42,000 a year. They send their children to the same prep schools and colleges attended by the children of corporate executives; they don't relate to laid-off textile workers. So when the Washington press corps writes about Dr. Dean's criticism of business excesses, their reports are tinged with skepticism.

Or there may be another explanation: the singular success of conservative efforts to kill off populist instincts. For 20 years, a network of right-wing pundits, including talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, have decried the poor as lazy and irresponsible while lauding the rich as deserving and hardworking. The result? Even laid-off factory workers are prepared to support lavish tax cuts for the wealthy while denouncing critics of corporate excess as pandering to class warfare.

There is a nefarious class warfare under way in the country, but it is directed against the poor and working classes. Just a few days ago, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. Labor Department is telling businesses how to dodge paying low-income workers the overtime for which they are expected to become eligible later this year. Among the suggestions was raising workers' salaries to a new $22,100 yearly threshold, which would make them ineligible for overtime, or cutting their hourly wages so that added overtime would keep their annual wages at the same rate.

You can't blame Howard Dean for thinking working-class Americans would be upset about that.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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