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September 2, 2014

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American middle class has no choice but to go on

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After the water recedes, after the fires are extinguished and as neighbors help one another recover from the devastation of the October storm forever and incongruously known as Sandy, the work will have to go on grimly from Virginia to New York and Connecticut, from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and Ohio. It is the way of storms.

In the midst of all the devastation to America’s most densely populated region, the country will go about the business of choosing a president. Unfortunately, despite the billions of dollars spent, the countless hours consumed, neither major candidate has adequately addressed how they will go about rebuilding something else.

And that is the American middle class. The storm is an apt metaphor for a nation whose most important asset — its middle class — was not just battered in the economic storm of 2008 or worn down in the ensuing years, but eroded steadily for two decades prior. And yet, even if grimly, Americans will go on with the task of trying to reclaim their lives, hopes and futures — whomever sits in the White House. We have no choice, after all, but to go on.

Talk of polls, horse race politics and campaign rhetoric aside, the most important trend in America is the steady and relentless decline of the middle class. By now, the statistics are familiar: There are more poor people in the suburbs than in the inner cities. The median income of the American family has steadily declined for a decade to just $60,974.00, according to The New York Times. The cost of college has soared even as belief in a better future has fallen. And yes, it is irrefutably true that the wealthiest among us have become exponentially wealthy at the same time. If you make about $8 million per year (and good for you), your household income has generally gone up 199 percent since 1980.

But none of this is new. These are not the effects of the current administration, as Republicans would have you believe. Nor are they the legacies of the previous administration, as Democrats would have you believe. These are the effects of the past 20 years. Of the computerization of society. Of globalization and the massive transfer of work, capital and wealth halfway across the world. Of the transformation of America into a society increasingly indebted, publicly, privately and by its own demographics.

The net result is to turn the American middle class into nothing but digits: defined by our financial and political system merely as consumers, taxpayers, holders of mortgages, car loans, student loans and national debt. Of course, the presidential campaigns never really dwelled on these realities because they can’t be used to easily caricature one or the other candidate as an incompetent or a liar. Instead, the campaigns dwelled on taxes and spending, immigration and health care, the issues that test well with focus groups and align with track records, promises and constituents — and worst of all, the contributors of the cold, hard cash who make this the most expensive contest in history.

And yet the good news that may result is this: It isn’t clear that our votes actually can be bought. Indeed, it isn’t even clear that the candidates succeeded in truly connecting with the people with talking points, slick advertising or shopworn platitudes. Out in California, researcher Alan Zorfas of Motista has devised a new way to measure the intent of voters, and that is to look at their “emotional connection” to the men running for president.

Zorfas calls this “turning the camera around to look at the desires of the voter” as opposed to merely their reactions to the candidate. He notes that about four in 10 base voters — on either side of the partisan divide — do not believe that the candidate they’re backing truly empathizes with them. And of course, independents are the most suspicious of all — even as they go to the voting booth and grudgingly choose.

In the days ahead, everyday people will emerge as heroes in the midst of the shock, tragedy and adversity of the storm. Your hero may be your neighbor. And vice versa. It will be a linesman who restores power or a worker who finally succeeds in getting fresh, clean water back in your home. Their most important needs largely unaddressed in this election, the American middle class, too, has no choice but to go on: to hold on the best we can, to try to reclaim our lives and futures, regardless of who sits in the White House.

It is the way of Americans.

Richard Parker is the president of Parker Research in Austin, Texas. He is a regular contributor to McClatchy-Tribune as well as The New York Times.

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  1. The middle class is the backbone of the USA.

    CarmineD