The acronym TINA — There Is No Other Alternative — may explain Herman Cain’s recent surge in the polls. As far as the Republican base is concerned, Rick Perry’s mandatory vaccinations and his provision of in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants put him in the same RINO pen with Mitt Romney. Quick — someone check the man for Mormon underwear.
But it would be wrong, I think, to define what Cain has purely in terms of what Perry lacks. Perry was never the only conservative among the contenders. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum could match Cain’s score on any ideological fidelity test. Unlike Cain, both have served in government.
In The American Prospect, Jamelle Bouie argues that Cain, a black man who proudly disavows any grudge against the Jim Crow South, offers “a unique chance to turn the tables on liberals who accuse the right of racism” along with “a chance to feel good about race without actually doing much.” For some, that might be the icing on the cake, but with the economy looking so dismal, and with Romney, until recently, looking so dominant, I have a hard time seeing it as decisive.
No, Cain cashes in on his willingness to play class warfare — on behalf of the upper class. Recently, he dismissed the Wall Street protestors as haters who “resent” the rich and advised them: “Get rich.” This might seem like a strange tactic to employ in courting a bunch of populists like the Tea Partiers. Marie-Antoinette lost her head for less. But then, the ancien regime did not survive on the promise of unlimited upward social mobility. America has. In Newsweek, Jerry Adler points out that, in a Forbes list of the 75 wealthiest people, 14 of them were self-made American entrepreneurs born between 1831 and 1840. He cites researchers Page and Jacobs to the effect that “large majorities of Democrats and low-income Americans agree with Republicans and more affluent people that it is still possible to start out poor, work hard, and become rich.”
In order for that notion to be satisfying, the race for wealth had to offer a consolation prize to losers. If it is possible that anyone can become rich, it has always been patently impossible that everyone could. Living comfortably, if not luxuriously, had to be an attainable goal. Studies are showing it’s becoming ever less so. In 2005, CitiGroup analysts found that America’s economy had become a plutonomy, meaning its “economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few.”
The researchers saw this as a good thing — or at the very least, not a bad one. But then, they failed to predict either the stock market crash or the recession — events that, as Don Peck points out in the Atlantic, have fallen with increasing force as one progresses down the social ladder:
Housing crashed hardest in the exurbs and in more-affordable, once fast-growing areas like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and much of Florida—all meccas for aspiring middle-class families with limited savings and education. The professional class, clustered most densely in the closer suburbs of expensive but resilient cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Chicago, has lost little in comparison. And indeed, because the stock market has rebounded while housing values have not, the middle class as a whole has seen more of its wealth erased than the rich, who hold more-diverse portfolios. A 2010 Pew study showed that the typical middle-class family had lost 23 percent of its wealth since the recession began, versus just 12 percent in the upper class.
This, says Peck, corresponds to a trend of longer standing: the “culling” of the middle class. He quotes MIT economist David Autor: “The Great Recession has quantitatively but not qualitatively changed the trend toward employment polarization…[Job losses] have been “far more severe in middle-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs than in either high-skill, white-collar jobs or in low-skill service occupations.” In other words, the Great American Social Contract is being rewritten, and not to the benefit of most Americans.
This is a big thing for anyone to acknowledge — especially if any plan for wealth redistribution is on the table. By caricaturing the motives of the protestors on the one hand, and by proposing the flat 9-9-9 tax on the other, Cain is saying louder than anyone that reports of the middle class’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
As a representative of the class affected least, or even positively, by the economic free-fall, Cain might seem a little biased, but at least the bias comes well packaged. Like Sarah Palin — and, come to that, like Bill Clinton — Cain has that touch of vulgarity that makes him seem, well, in touch. No silver-spoon elitist would have released a graphic video of the 9/11 attacks, interspersing his own voiced-over rendition of “God Bless America” with eyewitnesses’ horrified screams. Beppe Severgnini writes that Silvio Berlusconi’s awful jokes, no less than his sex life, make him appear to a surprising portion of Italian voters as “just like us.” Well, Herman Cain’s rough edges make him the man Republican voters believe they can — despite the odds — aspire to be.