Two-Fold Shame

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IT CAUGHT A LARGE NUMBER OF AMERICANS off-guard, but there it was, on record, and an abrupt turnaround from a few years earlier.

Although Mitt Romney dropped out of the race to be the Republican presidential nominee last week, he had nevertheless raised eyebrows when claiming that his interest in entering the contest was based on a deep desire to address poverty and income inequality. A subject that barely reached the surface in his last presidential run against Obama, the plight of the marginalized was now front and centre. Moreover, he announced his concern for another group as well.

“It’s a tragedy, a human tragedy, that the middle class in this country by and large doesn’t believe that the future will be better than the past. We haven’t seen rising incomes over decades. The rich have gotten richer, income equality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before under this president.”

And there it is – “this president.” This wasn’t really about poverty, but about using a popular belief – poverty and the stagnation of the middle class – in order to leverage some political advantage over the Democrats – the Democrats have used similar tactics. It has become a convenient Republican ploy to gain back the White House. Their favourite candidate of the moment, Jeb Bush (George W.’s brother), has recently concluded that, “while the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top-earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America.” Add to the list of those leading Republicans making such pronouncements Rick Santorum and Rand Paul and it becomes clear that the party will attempt to steal a page from the Democratic messaging and seek to become champions for the poor and middle class.

It must be, in part, because so much has changed since the last campaign. It has now become clear that the majority of Americans have endorsed the income inequality argument and Republicans will seek to tap into it. But what about just three years ago when Romney declared, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there?” Or when he flipped that statement and said, “I am not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine?”

There are many other such declarations from not all that long ago, but it was Romney’s support of the Paul Ryan budget that would bring about draconian cuts to the poor that truly revealed his hand.

Perhaps Mitt Romney has gone through some kind of genuine conversion, but the coincidence of this occurring just as the Republican nominee race is heating up is too important to ignore. It could be that we have arrived at a point in time whereby poverty is being acknowledged by political parties at the same time as they refuse to land on solid policies that would eradicate it.

This is especially true when talking about the eroding middle class. The three main political parties in Canada have now latched on to it as a growing theme for the upcoming national election, but the proof of the seriousness of those beliefs will only emerge if the political establishments are prepared to confront the runaway wealth of Canada’s elite and if they are dedicated to working with the larger companies to invest more in Canadians communities and the workers themselves.

The will to tackle poverty and economic inequality has been a struggle for every generation to undertake. Will we do it this time? It is when riches themselves come under suspicion that the opportunity exists to work back to some kind of balance. It is as Confucius noted, “In a country well-governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”  We are now confronting both at the same time.