The Real Reasons Our Elected Leaders Suck (and the Poor Get Ignored)

In the first two presidential debates, we heard President Obama and Governor Romney mention poverty just once. This is not unusual. In fact, it’s the norm. Issues affecting the poor are nowhere to be seen on the national stage. When was the last time you heard a person running for federal office mention food insecurity? Or the fact that school funding is tied to local property taxes so the richer the neighborhood, the richer the school, and vice versa? Or what about the fact that pollutants in our air and water disproportionately affect the poor?

The middle class has it a little better. They at least get lip service to the issues they care deeply about. If you watched the debates, you saw the candidates tripping over themselves to see who could say “middle class” the most times. Where the rubber hits the road, however, both sides cater to the interests of the wealthy first and foremost, and the rest of us are left wondering, “How can these guys be so out of touch?”

A common answer to this question is that our elected leaders have been bought by the special interests that fund their campaigns. While money is a corrosive influence to be sure, I place the blame for these “out of touch” leaders on two other factors: who they interact with and where they came from.

My first job out of college was working for a congressman. My official title was “deputy finance director,” but I literally was low man on a fairly unglamorous totem pole. One of my jobs was to prepare the congressman for call time. These were large blocks of time we would set aside where the congressman would dial for dollars. My job was to make lists of really rich people the congressman could call to make requests for campaign contributions. Each call would end the same way—with an ask—but the preceding minutes of each call was the congressman having to endure each rich person bending his ear about whatever issue or issues they cared about. The result? The congressman probably spent 10 to 20 hours every week talking to the one-percenters about issues important to the one-percenters. In contrast, the interaction I observed between the congressman and ordinary people was typically very superficial contact such as him shaking hands while walking in a parade or some other very brief meet-and-greet event. Townhall meetings were sort of the one exception to this, but even then, ordinary folks had to wait a long time to get their question asked, and could usually speak for just a few seconds with no opportunity for follow-up. This is not said as indictment of my former employer. This is the way the system works for every elected leader who needs to raise money.

Members of Congress simply have very little interactions with people who work outside of politics or who are not rich. How can that not shade their perception of the world and how they approach their jobs?

With regard to backgrounds, members of Congress are not like the rest of us. For instance:

  • In 2009, the median net worth of American Households was $96,000. The median net worth of members of Congress was just below $1 million (and that’s not even counting their primary residence).
  • While 30% of Americans have college degrees, 95% of Congress does. And members of Congress are much more likely to have gone to an Ivy League institution.
  • Members of Congress are exponentially more likely to have attended private schools or been the child of a member of Congress.

If a politician does harken back to their modest roots (e.g., “my father was a millworker” or “my grandfather was the first in his family to graduate from college”), you will notice it almost always does not involve them, but rather their parents or grandparents—as if their families’ experiences before they were born have any impact on who they are now. When you hear these statements of their parents or grandparents, it is a dead giveaway that these politicians have no compelling personal story to demonstrate overcoming obstacles or pulling themselves up by their boot straps.

Some will criticize the pointing out of this disparity in wealth and background by saying something to the effect of, “Well, of course members of Congress are richer than most of us and went to better schools. Don’t we want the best and brightest in charge? I’m glad we don’t have some average Joe at the helm.” This argument presents a false choice—i.e., we must select from either an out-of-touch rich person or some poor slob who can’t find Asia on a map. There used to be a time when we had amazing leaders from privileged backgrounds who cared a great deal for the least among us; people like Franklin Roosevelt, Bobby Kennedy, and William Randolph Hearst. The false choice of out-of-touch elitist versus poor ignorant slob also ignores the fact that many brilliant minds and amazing humanitarians choose important occupations that do not necessarily lend themselves to establishing muli-million dollar portfolios. There should be a path for these modest, but brilliant and principled, individuals to attain positions of political leadership.

There are three strikes to getting elected to office, particularly federal office: (1) being born to ordinary Joes; (2) working in a profession dominated by ordinary Joes; and (3) spending too much time with ordinary Joes. In other words, the better position you are in to understand the problems of average Americans, the worse your chances are of being able to represent them. It should be no surprise to anyone that being ruled by rich people who spend all day talking to other rich people is not a great way to bring about a system that helps non-rich people. I am not ready to offer a solution just yet, but I think public funding of our elections would be a fine place to start the discussion.

– Dylan


4 Responses to “The Real Reasons Our Elected Leaders Suck (and the Poor Get Ignored)”

  1. Alison L. Says:

    Great post Dylan!

    One of the most poignant things that I have heard to date in this election is the statement that, essentially, “…of course Romney has no problem making cuts to Planned Parenthood, he couldn’t even begin to understand the circumstances that would lead a person to seek out medical care at such an organization…” In Obama’s defense (and I am not known to take on this position very often), I do believe that in contrast, his experience of being raised by a single woman in a moderately middle class setting, does put him in a better position to at least begin to imagine what is it like for people trying to do their best to have their basic needs met. So, while it wasn’t him personally visiting the clinic as a child (or maybe it was?), his childhood observation and experience as a member of a community who might access these and other services, does give him the background to at least comprehend this scenario.

    Similarly, I have observed people who serve as commissioned officers in the military, but come from a family where a parent was enlisted during their service, take a very different approach to their leadership and decision making. Generically speaking, these officers who are children of enlisted soldiers seem to be able to connect better to the enlisted people who work for them because of their connection back to this group from the previous generation.

    I don’t know that it universally translates, but I would tend to believe that there is at least a correlation between personal struggle in an immediate previous generation and the influence that that has on the decisions that one makes as a leader. That said, as someone raised in a middle class household and not having anyone I can claim in my family that belonged to part of the 1%, I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to lead a life at that level of privilege. So maybe it only works if you are actively engaged in the process of climbing to the top.

    Thanks for the excellent ‘thinking’ points! -Alison

    • Alison – Just now seeing your response. Very interesting stuff. I have never heard anyone explain that officers with enlisted parents make for better officers (at least with regard to understanidng and relating to the enlisited personnel). Makes sense.

      Romney is an interesting case because his father, by all accounts, was a very good man who cared a great deal for those less off than himself. So it would seem that for whatever reason, the very empathetic characteristics of George Romeny were not passed onto his son. Maybe that is just Mitt Romney, or maybe it is as you state, due to the fact that he is so rich and virtually no one can live such a life of privilege and be exected to appreciate any lessons of humility from your parents.

      – Dylan

  2. I have decided if you wish to pull yourself up by your boot straps, it helps to have rocket boots.

  3. […] emphasizes the need to have a legislature that either: truly represents a cross-section of America (which it currently does not); or is at least made up legislators who have the capacity to empathize with those outside their […]

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