A number of factors contributed to Mr. Edwards’s losses in the early caucus and primary states. Even though he was often correct in his analyses of problems, the stridency of his critique of corporate America came up against the wall of public indifference built in the Reagan years against “class warfare,” itself an ideological attempt to defuse resentment against the upward transfer of wealth. In addition, his notion of “two Americas” conflicted with a post-partisan desire for national unity that became clearer only as the primaries unfolded. His personal lifestyle also became the occasion for exaggerated charges of hypocrisy. The 19th-century French scholar Ernst Renan once advised that if you would be unorthodox in doctrine, you must be unimpeachable in your morals. Mr. Edwards’s $400 haircuts, his 28,000 sq. ft. mansion complex and his choice of interim employment with a hedge fund all led to supercilious commentary by the media, always alert to personal eccentricities, that he was an unworthy spokesman for the poor and a suspect critic of economic inequality.
Whenever the poor have made advances in Western history, however, it has been in alliance with the well-placed and well-to-do. Whether it was the Gracchi in ancient Rome or the Roosevelts and the Kennedys in 20th-century America, the privileged have often led the deprived in the march to progress. But the chattering classes, who now may themselves be counted among the privileged, used these peccadilloes as grounds to deny Senator Edwards a platform to make his case against inequality. We do not expect politicians to be saints; but in an age of sound bites and photo-ops, “gotcha” journalism can close down debate unless it falls within the boundaries set by conventional wisdom. For the most part, even though the middle class has been shrinking, poverty growing and inequality reaching its highest point since the start of the Great Depression, attempts to explore the causes of economic inequality, and especially remedies for it, were put outside the circle of permissible discussion in the early primaries.
By the time he announced the end of his presidential campaign, Edwards was clear about his own desire to be a voice for the poor. In his withdrawal announcement, he declared that he had secured commitments from the two remaining Democratic candidates, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, that they would continue his struggle on behalf of the poor. Both Democratic candidates independently voiced their commitment to that struggle.
The leading Republican candidates, Senator John McCain and former Gov. Mitt Romney, are not vocal on the issues of poverty and inequality, but their primary campaigns, articulated within the parameters of Republican orthodoxy, continue to rely on the failed policies of laissez-faire for business, continued regressive tax cuts for the wealthy and a smaller government through reduced nonmilitary, domestic spending. These policies seek to spread the wealth in a trickle-down pattern from expanding business to the struggling middle and lower classes. In the general election campaign, of course, things could change, especially if the longtime maverick John McCain, a onetime critic of President Bush’s tax cuts, becomes the party nominee. But across the field, both Democratic and Republican, the question is, who will be a voice for the poor?
Catholic social teaching makes clear the church’s “option for the poor.” In their 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, the U.S. bishops insisted that the fundamental standard for economic policy is how it affects the poor. In their quadrennial pre-election statement, Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship (see America, 11/5/07), they reaffirmed that “a basic test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable among us. In a society marked by increasing disparities between rich and poor, Scripture gives us the story of the Last Judgment (See Mt 25:31-46) and reminds us that we will be judged by how we treat ‘the least among us.’” With respect to workers, they wrote, “The economy must serve people, not the other way around.” This is what the late John Paul II termed “the priority of labor.” In the coming election, many Catholic voters will be listening to hear which candidates give voice to the needs of the poor and priority in economic life to working people.