Why Obama, McCain and You Should Care that Middle-Class Americans have no Idea what Congress is up to

Is all of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate up for election in November? In the midst of all of the talk of vice presidential choices, Paris Hilton and who is the real celebrity, and how much was raised this quarter by the DNC and RNC, I almost forgot.

Well, I didn't forget. I can't forget. But things are seriously amiss when it comes to the attention paid to The Other Election day happening on November 4 - and, frankly, on how much people know or follow Congress at all. When 72% of middle-class Americans can't name a single bill passed by Congress in the last two years that benefited them or their families, we have a problem on our hands.

Now I'm not expecting people to have encyclopedic knowledge of the voting records of their representatives, but in a time in which the minimum wage was increased and college made more affordable and a stimulus package passed, that percentage speaks to a profound disconnect between people and their policymakers that festers in a culture in which reporting on Congress is confused with political horseracing.

The stakes are high. America's middle class today are "fearful families." This is not just election-year rhetoric. They are struggling to make it. Less than two in five (38%) middle-class respondents to the Drum Major Institute's new poll say they live comfortably. One-third (34%) say they meet their basic expenses each month with just a little left over for extras, while one-quarter (26%) of middle-class adults would say they just meet their basic expenses (17%) or have trouble meeting their basic expenses each month (9%). And, economy and jobs tops their concerns. They are pessimistic about the direction of the economy. They think it's more likely that Brangelina will celebrate their 25th anniversary than gas prices returning to $3 a gallon.

The upside here, though, is that these fearful families know what they want. Across party, they support progressive economic policies. They support making it easier for people to join a union. They support taxing the income of hedge fund managers the same as everyone else. They support expanding SCHIP to bring health insurance to more low- and middle-income kids.

They know how they wanted their member of Congress to vote on these policies when they came up last year.

But they have absolutely no idea HOW their member of Congress ACTUALLY voted.

68% of middle-class adults wanted card check. 60% had no idea how their representatives voted on the bill. 68% want to tax hedge fund managers at the same rate as the rest of us; 69% have no idea how their representative actually did vote when it came time to choose. And so on.

And there, in a nutshell, is the reason that the actualization of a progressive agenda eludes us. Think that all problems will be solved with the wave of a magic Obama/Bayh, Biden, Kaine, Clinton, Sebellius in the White House wand? Call me cynical, but I just don't think so. Plus, a President Obama needs an informed populace prepared to hold Congress accountable if he really does want to advance a progressive agenda.

Progressives have the advantage here - on the merits. Middle-class Americans want paid family and medical leave. They want the DREAM act. They want national health insurance. They want to empower judges to renegotiate mortgage payments to prevent foreclosures. So let's make the case. (And while we're at it, someone might want to mention, for example, that Senator John McCain's supporters disagree with him on every one of these economic policies around which they feel strongly. I mean, does he know that 62% of middle-class Republicans and 60% of his supporters would like to see federally-funded health insurance expanded to cover more children from low- and middle-income families? Apparently he didn't, when he applauded President Bush's veto of the SCHIP expansion.)

The middle class can't exercise their political power if we allow Congress to function in a vacuum. And if the middle class aren't exercising political power, it's sure as hell that people even more out of the economic mainstream ain't.

Ignorance is bliss for those who want to maintain the status quo.