The Boys in the Bubble

There sure are a lot of issues out there. We’re fighting in two wars abroad, losing one for sure, and perhaps the other one, too. There’s a mortgage crisis, a health care crisis, an environmental crisis, and a series of constitutional crises. There’s the fact that our government is torturing people contrary to international law. There’s the rise of China. There’s, well, you get the point.

“Good thing we’re about to have an election,” you might say, “so we can figure out what to do about all of it.” Well, you’d be right to say it, but wrong to expect it. George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson, together with all the network honchos who helped choose the content of their questions for the final Democratic debate, don’t think any of these issues are as important as wearing flag pins, playing six degrees of separation with 1960s terrorists, or getting rid of that pesky capital gains tax on people making $200,000 or more—approximately four percent of the country.

As Nancy Franklin wrote in The New Yorker, “ABC, Gibson and Stephanopoulos actively trashed an important opportunity—two hours in prime time on network TV, six days before a momentous primary.” 

For fully 52 minutes of the first network broadcast debate of the season, not a single legitimate issue was mentioned by either moderator. They preferred, instead, to act as errand boys for right-wing radio hosts or their own elite economic interests. In the case of the former we got, as Arianna Huffington observed, “Stephanopoulos’ ludicrous question about 60s radical Bill Ayers, [which] had been suggested to him by Hannity the day before the debate on Hannity’s radio show. After Hannity made his Ayers pitch, Stephanopoulos revealed the hijacking in process, saying: ‘I’m taking notes right now.’”

And in the case of the latter, we got Charlie Gibson whining about capital gains taxes, based on false and misleading data, and hectoring the candidates to pledge to sign a Grover Norquist-style anti-tax pledge. (Amazingly, this was the second time Gibson has done this in two separate debates. The last time, he asserted that a typical New Hampshire “family of two professors” with a joint income “in the $200,000 category” had to worry about being unjustly penalized by the tax, prompting members of the academic audience to laugh aloud.)

A more compelling example of the warning John Dewey issued about the dangerous detachment of unchecked elites would be difficult to imagine. As I explained in a recent New Yorker article, John Dewey, the great philosopher of both liberalism and democracy, argued that, “A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge.”

Dewey also said, “The man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.” Clearly, nobody’s wearing uncomfortable shoes over at ABC News, or much of anywhere else in our elite media—unless they’re made by Prada, of course.

You’d never know it from watching television news, much less reading the questions asked of our politicians, but over the last quarter century the portion of the national income accruing to the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled. The share going to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent has tripled, and the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled. In 2005, the wealthiest 1 percent of the country earned 21.2 percent of all income, according to IRS data, while the bottom 50 percent of all Americans earned just 12.8 percent of all income, down from 13.4 percent a year earlier.

These figures define a new postwar record for American economic inequality, which is believed by many economists to be greater today than at any other time since the 1920s. For working people, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the process of collecting this data began more than 60 years ago. In the period since 2000, the number of Americans living below the poverty line has increased by nearly a third. Meanwhile, the average CEO of a Standard & Poor’s 500 company took home $13.51 million in total compensation in 2005, a year in which the top 1 percent of Americans earned nearly 22 percent of all income.

The people still wearing their old shoes don’t need to be told this. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center entitled, “Inside the Middle Class: Bad Times Hit the Good Life,” fewer Americans now than at any time in the past half century believe they’re moving forward in life. A majority of survey respondents said that in the past five years, they either haven’t moved forward in life (25 percent) or have fallen backwards (31 percent). This is the most downbeat short-term assessment of personal progress in nearly half a century of polling by the Pew Research Center and the Gallup organization.

Meanwhile, our punditocracy remains blissfully unaware—or worse—unconcerned about the problems facing the vast majority of Americans. No wonder they’ve been so consistently wrong, even in the only aspect of the election contest that interests them: the horserace. Remember when the race was over after Iowa?

They’ve been living inside their own beltway bubble so long, they’ve lost the ability to breathe, much less think outside of it. Thank goodness that this is the one instance where voters—even that sorry 96 percent who cannot manage a measly $200K a year—finally get their say.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, has just been released by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.