The Great Congressional Wealth Gap

Examining politics in the US, there seems to be a growing disconnect between Congress and the people; the people are making their wants known, but Congress is not responding. Sometimes it appears to be doing the exact opposite, in fact, and citizens are finding it harder and harder to reach their members of Congress, to feel like they are valued constituents, to feel as though they belong in the political process and are an important part of it. Congresspeople, it seems, are too busy meeting with lobbyists and making deals to benefit the banks, and they don’t have time for lowly citizens.

One marked indicator of that gap is the very impressive wealth gap between Congress and the rest of the US. It, like other indicators of economic inequality, is quite staggering, and it helps to explain why Congress doesn’t seem interested in acting in the best interests of residents of the US. It’s because those interests are not really in alignment with the interests of members of Congress.

Congressional representatives are, at least in theory, elected by the people. Obviously, the real story is much more complex, because there are a lot of factors that determine who arrives on the ballot in the first place. Wealth is a significant contributor, because it is very hard to get political attention without being wealthy. Both because you need to bankroll components of your campaign, and because you need contributors who will support your campaign, and those contributors need to be wealthy. Which means you need to be wealthy, so you can speak the same language and seem like one of them.

The United States doesn’t have a perpetuated system of hereditary power in the sense of a monarchy, but it absolutely has inherited political dynasties, because power and wealth breed more power and wealth. There’s a reason the same names keep recurring in politics, and there’s a reason many of those names are from famously wealthy families. Money is what you need to be active in politics these days, and your actual political values come second. They determine which party you should belong to, which supporters you should approach, not whether you should be elected.

Grassroots campaigns for candidates with limited funds and supporters rarely get far. They don’t have the reach of their opponents and they can’t hope to compete. Not with glitzy events, not with advertising, not with travel to meet constituents. And they don’t have the glamour and veneer of wealth that appeals and dazzles, nor do they have the support of the lobbyists they can promise sweet payouts to once they get into office. People trying to run campaigns with integrity in particular are in a poor position because there is simply not enough money, and money is what you need, above all else.

Having a huge wealth gap between Congress and residents means that many members of Congress do not understand what the lives of their constituents are like. Many have never had to use welfare, although they do rely on government-funded services like an excellent health care plan. Many have never had to choose between heat, food, and rent. Many aren’t familiar with the routine activities of being poor, or even middle class, in the United States. They don’t understand in a personal way how the policies they are making will affect the people in their districts, because their lives are so remote from those of the people they claim to represent.

And many are not even interested in representing the lower classes in their districts, because these are not the constituents who get them elected. There is nothing to be gained in championing their causes and it could be politically damaging; no one wants to be known as the politician who is fomenting class war and arguing for better conditions for the working class. Politicians don’t want to take a strong pro-union stance and risk offending industrial contributors who might decide to put their money elsewhere, with a politician who isn’t as interested in worker health, safety, and welfare. Politicians don’t want to push for more social services when it means they, and their powerful backers, would pay more taxes.

There are of course exceptions; some members of Congress clearly are interested in their low-income constituents or have picked particular causes to focus on with the goal of improving conditions in their communities. These members of Congress may be the only thing standing between some people in the US and hopeless freefall in a system that doesn’t care about them, actively sneers at them, and would be perfectly happy to see them go away. Their work sometimes happens behind closed doors and below the radar where you don’t see it, because they are well aware that calling attention to their actions could get them in trouble during the next election cycle.

But for the most part, the wealth gap between people living in the US and the elected officials in Congress representing them speaks to the larger cultural and political gap, one that is unlikely to be breached as long as money has such a profound role in US politics. When your primary concerns are money and getting re-elected, the welfare of your constituents, let alone their lived experiences and your impact on their lives, is simply not a major issue of interest for you. There’s no reason to follow their lives, and in fact doing so might make you uncomfortable, so it’s better to focus on your champagne brunches.