As this fellow at Washington's Blog points out, economic inequality is higher in the United States than in Egypt, Tunisia, or Yemen. This is another fact that would probably be very surprising to most Americans.
The author at WB asks the question: “Why are Egyptians rioting while Americans are so complacent?”
It’s a good question and two reasons are given as possible explanations. First he points out that relatively speaking, Americans are (or have been) some of the wealthiest people in the world, with an abundance of luxuries and comforts. Second, and in my opinion more important, he references a study showing that Americans consistently underestimate the amount of inequality in their own country.
Both of these observations are relevant but I’d offer a third factor that explains American complacency. It’s important to understand that the unrest in Egypt isn’t solely the result of economic inequality. Equally as important, if not more so, is that the Egyptian people have no voice in their own political system. Without a legitimate democratic process there is no effective way for the Egyptian population to address their grievances against the government. That is the significant difference between Egyptian society and American society.
As Americans we operate under the assumption that we the people determine who our leaders will be and that our elected officials are accountable to us, and are therefore obligated to do our will. On the surface this appears to be the case. Elections are held every two and four years and the candidate(s) with the most votes win. For presidential elections this isn’t technically correct due to our peculiar institution of the Electoral College, but we can ignore that for purposes of this discussion.
I would argue that this appearance of political self-determination goes a long way towards explaining why Americans happily tolerate inequality that surpasses that of Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.
What’s overlooked in the American political process, and the reason I use the word ‘appearance’ in the statement above, is that any political candidate running for high office in America stands no realistic chance of winning unless they are endorsed by America’s corporate elite. Votes are important but money is more important. Almost without exception, the candidate who raises the most money wins the election. Obama received more corporate largesse than McCain. George W. Bush received more than Al Gore. Without financial backing from corporate giants in the finance, pharmaceutical, insurance, energy, and military industrial sectors, it is not possible to be a viable candidate in American national politics.
It’s why candidates like Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul, and Ralph Nader were not taken seriously by the media and political establishment when they ran for president. And it’s why an allegedly liberal president with a democratic senate and house majority pass a law that requires every American to purchase health insurance from a private health insurance corporation and why,even after “reform”, it is illegal for Medicare to negotiate drug prices or re-import American drugs from other countries whose governments are not held captive by our pharmaceutical industry.
Unfortunately perception is usually more powerful than reality. And despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary, American voters still accept the notion that their government is beholden to the people, not the moneyed interests who allow candidates to reach office in the first place.
There are obviously other factors to consider but I’d argue that it’s this misperception about political power in America that best explains why extreme economic inequality causes riots in countries like Egypt, but gets little to no attention in the US.