Herman Cain just doesn’t get it.
His allegiance to the Horatio Alger myth makes him far too dismissive of real world problems facing recent college graduates. Cain demonstrated how out of touch he is when asked his opinion about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations now gripping New York and other cities around the country. Many of the protesters are young people from middle class backgrounds and with college educations.
Cain tore into the protesters. In his view, they are nothing but a bunch of whining, lazy losers who can’t muster enough gumption to grab their piece of the American pie.
“If you don’t have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself,” he chided, adding a finger-wagging explanation that his parents didn’t raise him to look enviously at those with more wealth.
“It is not a person’s fault because they succeeded,” Cain said. “It is a person’s fault if they fail.”
Cain doesn’t seem to realize that young people today do not lack initiative; they lack opportunity. They face the worst job market in decades.
But that is not the worst of it. Young people see a dysfunctional political system, in which policies that could alleviate widespread distress and help put the economy back on a path to growth have been declared off limits. They see a political system that makes them suffer — along with middle- and lower-income people of all ages — for the sake of the corporate interests whose money now dominates American government.
The classic Alger virtues — determination, focus and work ethic — worked for Cain (age 65) and fellow candidate Mitt Romney (age 64) when they were young in a world where America’s expanding economy was dominant. Young people today are no less entrepreneurial or driven than previous generations. The problem is that times have changed, and the Republican candidates might want to take note.
The lion’s share of the new wealth the United States economy has generated over the last few decades has gone to the very rich — the “1 percent,” as the Occupy Wall Street protesters put it. The rest of us have faced stagnating wages but spiraling costs for the things that are necessary for a secure middle-class life, including housing, education and health care. Many Americans have made up the difference by borrowing. And the fact that middle-class living standards have been maintained at all owes much to the fact that both spouses in a typical household now work — which actually makes families more susceptible to the risks of job loss.
These trends came to a head in the catastrophic aftermath of the real estate bubble. The balance sheets of average American families blew up. We’re now tapped out; millions are insolvent beyond repair. Our economy will not recover, will not return to normal, until average Americans get out of that hole.
But the widespread sentiment is — and if you listen to the protesters carefully, you’ll hear it — that the only ones who can count on a sympathetic hearing in Washington are the powerful business intersts, especially Wall Street. They, after all, own our government.
So put yourself in the place of one of the shiftless college graduates that Cain so disdains. A college degree has never been more necessary to gain a foothold in the middle class — and even a bachelor’s degree is becoming less valuable these days. So young people take on frightening levels of student loan debt, because what is the alternative? Now, however, many have no job and dim prospects and huge debts, and nothing is being done to mend the broader economy because one party — the party of Herman Cain — is dead set against it.
Cain and Romney and the rest of their party produce all sorts of flat-earth arguments against any government action such as public works and restoring taxes on the rich. They also label the Occupy Wall Street protests as “class warfare.”
The truth is, Americans respect wealth and tolerate a remarkable amount of inequality. But they are catching on that the playing field is tilted now more than ever, and that the financial arrangements we all must make are becoming more and more predatory. Something is wrong in America, and it’s not a failure of the work ethic. People feel themselves falling behind.
In 2012, if any candidate honestly addresses these truths, and convinces American voters that he will reclaim democracy from the forces of oligarchy, he will be our next president.
That person will not be Herman Cain.
(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(c) 2011, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Tribune Media Services