No one following the Democratic primary will be surprised that John Edwards stepped out of the race today. It didn’t happen and certainly wasn’t just wasn’t about to happen. I find his withdrawal sad, not because I’m especially enthused about him, the Democratic party, or our particular brand of democracy, but only because he was such an uncanny presence – he talked about poverty. And this is part though not nearly enough, of the Time magazine story on his candidacy: why Edwards did not catch on…
Edwards put poverty at the front of his message, and perhaps that was his only real message. You always hear about it, the “two Americas” motif. That message never really caught on and that failure to catch says something important about poverty and ideology. In some sense, there are no poor. That is, no one describes themselves as poor. There is no identity group “the poor.” Rather, it is a category to which one can point, but in which one finds no one.
I’m reminded of a colleague’s study I heard about when I taught in Houston. He surveyed students for a handful of years, asking them how they identified themselves in economic terms. Almost none described themselves as poor. Just a cursory glance at the student data told him the opposite: almost half of his students were in fact living at or below the poverty line (the University’s student body came from struggling neighborhoods in Houston and surrounding). And the poverty line is damn poor. Not just kind of poor or struggling, but barely able to get by poverty.
I asked him how this could be the case and he said something very interesting to me. The poor can’t be poor, because this would be the same as calling them failures or losers. Who wants to be that? You see, Reagan changed everything. Sure, his policies by and large failed to get passed and he was more rhetoric than institutional damage (G.W. Bush is really the inversion of this), but that rhetoric changed our self-understanding in the United States. The poor were poor, Reagan continually emphasized, because they were weak in character. They didn’t work hard, they didn’t care about themselves or others, and they were, in all regards, unsightly. That’s why this audio piece from The Onion is so perfectly attuned: the poor are the kind of people no one wants to see. Once that rhetoric becomes ideology – that is, becomes central to how we understand and recognize our world – then even the poor cannot see themselves. With poverty comes shame. Not the shame of being less than. I don’t think that ideological sensibility, that sense of class as caste, has much purchase these days in the U.S. Rather, the shame is the shame of being a bad person, a failure as a soul. Reagan won that battle.
And so when Edwards put poverty at the center of his campaign, it was uncanny. Uncanny, that is, in the dictionary sense: something in the home that does not belong in the home. He named something real by social and economic indicators. We can identify poverty by social and economic isolation, factors that are wholly quantifiable. But we don’t live in those indicators or those quantifiable spaces. We live in a cultural space, where things like shame mobilize or fail to mobilize collectivities. Edwards met with that failure to mobilize.
I mean, think about it: he was asking people to either self-identify with “the poor” or transgress class lines. The former evokes shame. No one steps into that identity. The latter is just too weak of a pull for most. In that sense, Edwards met the full force of Reagan’s legacy: poverty is shame and individualism is self-actualization. Anything else is, well, uncanny.
The standard story, I suspect, will be that we don’t talk about class in the U.S. or that folks are afraid to admit their privilege. That’s not completely untrue, but I guess I also disagree. Actually, I really disagree. I think we talk plenty about class. So much, in fact, do we talk about class that we understand, quite naturally, that we deserve the class we’re in. That means the rich deserve their money. Fuck taxes. Keep what you earn. That also means that the poor deserve their poverty. Reagan’s endgame, ideologically speaking, was this latter effect. I think he won.
So, I’m reading this Time article and it is the standard stuff. Edwards is rich, but “for the poor.” He bought a big house. He worked for a hedge fund. He spent a lot of money on a haircut. Etc. All of that makes his position in politics about his own private conduct. And so we’re back to individualism, some sort of political Protestantism, where choosing the right G-d is the only possibility for transformation. One couldn’t possibly be right, yet not live exactly that “right” view of the world – as if eliminating poverty is about me buying a smaller house. (I don’t actually own a home, but you get my point.) And so on.
Edwards’ departure is sad. Not because I was especially excited by the idea of him as president, but because I was hoping that the question of poverty might be at home, seated in our living space as a question of justice. But I think poverty is still uncanny and shameful. Reagan still wins. More than a president or a congress, that shift in thinking and being – a shift in which we come to see the poor as part of how we understand our own home – is what we still await. Not for justice to be here in this world, but just and firstly for us to be adequate to the question: what does the other person, especially the marginal and invisible, ask of me, of us?