Income inequality is having a national moment. The growing gap between social classes isn’t new, but the focus is. And as witnessed this week, America’s political and cultural response is divided.
Indeed, “divided” was the top response Americans gave pollsters when asked for a one-word description of the country. True to form, the divided state of America was omnipresent as President Obama gave his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.
Sure, the optics may have improved: Congress congregated on a more bipartisan basis than in past years. But sorting out parties was easy if you observed hands. For the most part, Republicans sat on theirs, while Democrats gave several standing ovations.
Washington’s partisan paralysis wasn’t only represented by Tuesday’s congressional Kabuki. Congress only passed five of Obama’s asks from last year’s long-forgotten address.
So to signal recalcitrant Republicans that 2014 will be a “year of action,” Obama used his presidential prerogative to raise wages for newly hired federal contractors to $10.10 an hour. Executive orders like this, however, will result in Obama running into “a brick wall,” House Speaker John Boehner said before the speech.
Besides, raising the minimum wage will have minimum impact on income inequality when the real issue is growth, countered the Republican response.
That is, responses — there were three. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington gave the official version. Unofficial versions from Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee, representing the Tea Party Express, and Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul, seemingly representing his rush to run for president, were a sign that “divided” could describe Republicans as well as the republic.
It’s not just politics but popular culture that reflects society’s divided approach to inequity. Sunday’s Super Bowl, for instance, mirrors the nation’s fragmented framing of social class.
Billionaire owners and millionaires in cleats compete in a stadium just miles from Wall Street. Rivaling the athletics is the advertising, as marketers like Budweiser pony up millions for Clydesdale spots meant to tug at heartstrings (and wallets).
Along with Denver’s Peyton Manning, the glare has been on Richard Sherman, Seattle’s defensive back who offended some with his spirited interview after the NFC Championship Game. But the backlash had its own backlash after it became more widely known that Sherman came out of Compton to study, and star, at Stanford. In many ways, he embodies the dichotomy of the world’s wealthiest league made America’s pastime by Joe Sixpack (sorry, fellow baseball purists, but Nielsen ratings ratify this fact).
It’s not just the big game but the big screen mirroring this split. “Blue Jasmine’s” Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins are Oscar nominees for playing sisters at opposite ends of the equality equation. Leonardo DiCaprio is contending for playing financial fraudster Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” On the other end of the wage gap (and country), Bruce Dern’s depiction of an aging Midwesterner who thinks he won a lottery prize may win him his first Academy Award.
Those who prefer the small screen can watch both ends of inequality in PBS’ popular “Downton Abbey.”
Beyond TV and movies, music awarded its artistic best at last Sunday’s Grammy Awards. The event may be remembered mostly for a different equity issue — marriage equality — after Queen Latifah presided over several same-sex weddings. But beyond the queen, “Royals,” from New Zealand teen Lorde, captured society’s split reaction to inequality (as well as song of the year).
“Royals,” which critiques the materialistic bling singers brag about in pop songs, is a down-to-earth message that might be appreciated by Pope Francis, whose focus on disparities has made him such a rock star that he’s on the cover of this week’s Rolling Stone.
The just-folks vibe of “Royals” also might have harmonized with Pete Seeger, who died just a day before the State of the Union address. A champion of the little guy, Seeger played at Obama’s 2009 inauguration, channeling the campaign “Hope” mode that seems far from the current version on Capitol Hill. In a statement, Obama said that Seeger “used his voice — and his hammer — to strike blows for worker’s rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along.”
Like previous presidents, Obama used his speech to try to strike blows on similar issues. But it seems unlikely that Congress will join the chorus.
Not surprisingly, members of Congress did clap along during Tuesday’s one genuine bipartisan moment: the recognition of Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, who was wounded during his 10th Afghanistan deployment. For at least a moment, the national narrative wasn’t about income inequality or the minimum wage, but the maximum price some are willing to pay in order for our democracy to disagree. His selflessness reminded all that when it really counts, the state of the nation is not only strong, but tough, and that the United States need not be as deeply divided as it appears.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.