Even worse, decades of "Pimp My Ride"/"Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" acculturation have idealized the wealthy and have left the majority with a subliminal message: If you're struggling economically, it's your fault.
The leftist Brazilian educator Paolo Freire spoke of "internalizing the oppressor consciousness": internalizing the values of those who colonize, rule, and exploit you, accepting their distorted, Matrix-like view of the world as an objective reality.
This can lead to agony, as well as continued exploitation. When I first began writing about illegal foreclosures in 2009 and 2010 -- before bank fraud became common knowledge -- I began receiving dozens of emails from bank victims saying, in essence, "I thought it was my fault" and "I thought I was the only one." Some of them had contemplated suicide, which is the tragic end point of an "oppressor consciousness" within.
(I published some of those emails, with permission, in a piece called "Letters From Foreclosure Hell.")
Books and films like The Pursuit of Happyness have delivered the message that anyone who's struggling economically hasn't been brave enough, bold enough, or smart enough, while movements like the Tea Party have mocked underwater homeowners and other victims of Wall Street fraud and predation.
(That movement was born in a "spontaneous" demonstration at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange led by financial snake-oil salesman Rick Santelli, in which pampered and taxpayer-rescued traders mocked Wall Street homeowner/victims as "Losers! Losers!")
The last two Democratic Presidents have tried to have it both ways, exalting, deregulating, and pampering the wealthy while speaking the language of justice. That has weakened the Democratic "brand" and undermined public confidence in government, while failing to resolve our underlying economic problems. The rhetoric of "consensus" and "compromise" contributed to the decades-long rise in inequality.
As Paolo Friere said: "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."
So what do we do?
1. Expand our avenues of political expression: First, we need to remind ourselves that electoral politics is not the only productive avenue for political activism -- that we need strong and independent voices and movements.
2. Refuse to let politicians use social issues to exploit us economically: We also need to reject the exploitation and manipulation of progressive values by corporatist politicians who use social issues like gay marriage and reproductive rights exactly the way Republicans do -- to manipulate their own base into ignoring their own economic interests. Politicians who don't take a stand on economic issues should be rejected, up and down the ticket.
3. Explain what is changing -- and contrast what is with what should be: We need to do a better job of explaining what's happening, so that we can make people aware of the harmful changes taking place all around them.
And it's not just about "change": It's also about contrast -- between economic conditions as they are, and conditions as they should be and could be, if we can find the political will.
4. Expand the vocabulary of the possible: The "learned helplessness" outlook says "the rich and powerful always win; we don't stand a chance." History tells us otherwise. From the American Revolution to the breaking up of the railroads, from Teddy Roosevelt's trust-busting to FDR's New Deal, from Ike's Social Security and labor union expansion to LBJ's Great Society victories, we need to remind ourselves of what we've accomplished under similar conditions.
5. Tell stories: And we need to tell stories -- human stories. That's why Tuesday night's Bill Moyers special on PBS is so important. "Two American Families" tells the story of a white family and an African-American family in Milwaukee over two decades. Their stories bring home, in a personal way, the agony that has accompanied the destruction of middle-class jobs -- a destruction that only happened because politicians made conscious policy decisions.