While the op-ed pages of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and apparently at least one dinner party at a million-dollar Brooklyn brownstone, are increasingly obsessed with the sharpening ideological divides among the public, people in the United States seem to agree often enough. According to a recent Pew Research study, while Democrats are still likelier than Republicans to say they regularly wear masks while they’re out, an estimated 80 percent of Americans say they always or sometimes wear masks at stores and other public places.
Likewise, the reopening of public schools in the fall has become a flashpoint of grievance for Trump, Betsy DeVos, and several Republican governors, who have called for schools to resume—a ghoulish rejection of public health recommendations that has prompted some teachers to draft wills. Yet a Reuters poll released last week found that three out of four parents said they thought it was unsafe for schools to reopen, and nearly half resolved to keep their kids at home if schools resumed in-person classes in the fall. “I’ve had a migraine every day for the past month, just with the stress and fear of all of this,” Tameka Dumas, the mother of a high schooler in Mississippi, told Reuters.
In light of what seems to be a fairly widespread public consensus on best practices for weathering the coronavirus, the far more troubling divide, perhaps, is the one that exists between Americans and their representatives. Congress, which reconvened at the start of this week, wasted no time in passing a massive defense spending bill to the tune of $740 billion but continues to quarrel over a new stimulus package. While Democrats have advocated for an extension of the unemployment supplement, increased assistance to renters, and fiscal aid to cash-strapped state and local governments, their Republican colleagues have vowed to oppose all of it.
This, despite the fact that by several measures we’re in worse shape now than we were when the first stimulus was passed in March, and a growing number of economists, advocates, and commentators have warned that further inaction will guarantee wide-scale suffering. At the same time, Republicans incredibly continue to raise the alarm over the national deficit, with senators like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul vehemently objecting to more spending. “There is significant remorse over letting deficits rise by $9 trillion during the previous economic expansion,” a Manhattan Institute spokesperson who consults for GOP Congress members told The Washington Post.
But the deficit, as it happens, is one classic example of how wildly the priorities of Congress diverge from those of their constituents. To put it bluntly, almost no one in America cares about the deficit save for a small minority of upper-class voters who hold undue sway over the policymaking process. A few years ago, a study by a team of political scientists found that Congress’s disproportionate attention to the concerns of wealthy constituents—and the deficit in particular—came at the expense of the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession. In the wake of that crash, while the middle- and working-class people who were hit hardest expressed concerns about unemployment and the economy, upper-class voters and the various interest groups representing them worried instead about the deficit. As a result, representatives’ rush to curtail spending at the behest of upper-class interests prolonged the downturn. “Even while unemployment remained high and growth remained sluggish, the focus in Congress turned quickly to the deficit, resulting in large spending cuts to many domestic programs, which arguably slowed the pace of economic recovery,” the researchers wrote.
In most cases, of course, the attention that members of Congress focus on the rich simply means looking after their own. As the Center for Responsive Politics noted in April, over half of all Congress members who filed earnings disclosures through 2018 were millionaires, with the richest among them a bipartisan bunch. At the time of filing, Republican Senator Rick Scott was worth $260 million; Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner was worth more than $214 million; Nancy Pelosi was worth around $115 million. Furthermore, according to Quartz’s Dan Kopf, the average member of Congress got richer in the years after the Great Recession, whereas the net worth of most American households dropped. It’s little wonder, then, that policymakers have been so disposed to handouts for the rich while also opposing funding for public programs.
Contrast the perpetual deficit fretting—which has started anew in the midst of an even more ruinous economic collapse—with Congress’s general response to the kind of debt that affects far more people. Student debt now totals over $1.6 trillion, and a poll conducted by The Hill last year indicated that a majority of the public, and 72 percent of Democrats, supported the idea of tuition-free college and the canceling of student debt. As journalists Alissa Quart, Astra Taylor, and Brittany M. Powell wrote earlier this month in The Guardian, it’s especially disheartening that so many of the same essential workers now putting their lives at risk struggle with enormous student loan burdens incurred while completing the training required for their jobs. “I think my education was worth it. I wake up every day with a sense of purpose,” medical doctor Susan John told The Guardian. “But I think the price is too high. It’s not just the dollar amount which adds to it. It’s also the price you pay in stress, and anxiety and depression.” Though there’s been some bipartisan interest in extending a freeze on student loan payments for the duration of the pandemic, there’s little momentum in Congress on the subject of debt forgiveness, even though a group of over 100 grassroots groups have called for such a measure and an estimated 63 percent of the public supports eliminating $20,000 of debt for all borrowers.
It’s probably not much of a surprise to anyone at this point that some constituents and their concerns are more equal than others in the eyes of our supposedly democratically elected officials. Yet a 2018 report in The New York Times revealed the astonishing extent to which members of Congress continue to completely misapprehend the interests and priorities of the people they’re meant to represent. According to a team of researchers who interviewed senior congressional staffers—that is, the people who regularly advise lawmakers on policy—representatives consistently and drastically underestimated their constituents’ support for government intervention on issues like climate change and background checks on gun purchases. On the other hand, while 70 percent of Americans in 2017 supported raising the minimum wage, congressional Republicans instead crafted and passed a deeply unpopular tax cut for the rich.
And even with elections looming, plenty of Congress members seem to have abandoned any pretense of working for the people rather than in their own interests. Just before he was ousted in New York’s June primary, New York Representative Eliot Engel asked to speak at a demonstration against police brutality and was famously caught on a hot mic saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” Though Engel will be replaced in Congress by Jamaal Bowman—a former public school principal who campaigned on Medicare for All, criminal justice reform, and other progressive planks, and refused corporate contributions during his run—Engel’s style of governance remains the unfortunate standard in both the House and Senate.
The profound disconnect between most of Congress and their constituents quite literally now threatens the livelihood of millions, as Republican lawmakers attempt to roll back unemployment benefits. (“I need that extra little bit of money to keep the lights on and food in our stomachs,” Bronx resident Christine Montpeirous, who cares for her grandmother in addition to paying her own rent and bills, told USA Today earlier this week.) Those same Republicans have simultaneously taken up a new crusade to protect businesses from being sued for putting the public at risk. “One helpful policy would be strong legal protection for schools, colleges, nonprofits, and employers who are putting their necks on the line to reopen,” Mitch McConnell said last month. No word yet on protections for everyone else.