Ralph Ellison wrote The Invisible Man. The book’s narrator is a black man who passes through community after another, encountering vastly different expectations of how blacks should behave. Eventually he says, “I have been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.”
Ellison concludes those who struggle in any society speak on what he calls, “the lower frequencies.” No one else speaks for them. Their life experiences are not shared by those who govern, but only by those who struggle.
That’s a problem in a democracy. Representative government is supposed to allow everyone’s voices to be heard, particularly the disadvantaged. Ellison knew what we are now learning. The sum-total of the special interests does not equal the public’s interest. Our form of government is like the childhood game of musical chairs, designed to assure there aren’t enough chairs for everyone.
Take the recent Reuters investigation suggesting that Powder River Basin coal companies may be under-paying hundreds of millions in federal royalties. Although two U.S. Senators directed the Interior Department to investigate, Wyoming’s governor said he trusted the energy companies. Legislators assumed he was right. They can’t imagine their friends and associates who head these companies would fudge on their tax bills.
Yet elected representatives don’t trust working people who apply for unemployment compensation. They want the state to drug test them. Ellison was right. Elected officials hear only those who communicate on “higher frequencies.”
If you listened to the legislature’s debate on Medicaid expansion, you’d agree. Few members of the legislature know an uninsured person or the fear they feel when they or their children become ill. They get elected to the legislature believing they are there to protect people like them, those who operate on the higher frequencies. After all, those are the people with whom they share their lives. They do business with one another, vote the same, play golf together, belong to the same clubs and churches. They share the same stereotypes of the people they don’t know.
It’s a safe bet most legislators have no personal relationship with any of the uninsured Wyoming people who could have had health insurance if the legislature had expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Like the character in Ellison’s book, the working poor in Wyoming face a variety of ill-informed expectations and notions about how they live.
Some legislators assume, for example, that unemployed people and those applying for benefits like food stamps are using drugs and making bad choices. Why else would they single them out? Why only low income folks. Rich people and their corporations get government benefits, lots of them. Why trust them but not the poor?
Those who live on the “higher frequencies” can afford to make political statements with the lives of those on the “lower frequencies.” They and the people with whom they share their lives have the luxury to believe in myths. They don’t really know the poor or how they live, but they do know the prejudices about the poor shared among their close knit business, social and political groupings. It’s easy to disdain unions when the only people you know are those who have been taken to task by one.
As a result, it was easy for them to deny health insurance to the uninsured, deprive workers of safe working places and the right to organize and to use Medicaid and food stamps to subsidize employers who pay low wages. They don’t mind that doing so cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars that could have been saved by representing the working poor rather than the members of their cliques.
The working poor have become Wyoming’s invisible people. The politicians can get elected without their votes and keep their jobs without speaking for them. That’s what they call an oligarchy. It’s not, however, a democracy.