During my six years in the San Francisco Bay Area I have not only worked in the nonprofit world but also in the service industry. In multiple jobs, I have catered meals, cleaned offices, and done dishes for tech and finance executives who have hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in personal net worth. One thing that many of these people have in common is that they live in Atherton, California, in the second richest zip code in the country where home values sometimes surpass $30 million.
Last Tuesday, millions of Californians went to the polls to cast their votes for the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. The Los Angeles Times has put together a map of how every single precinct in the state voted.
Some of the wealthiest parts of Atherton are represented by the following two precincts, each outlined in black in the photo below.
As you can see, voters in each of these precincts overwhelmingly supported Mike Bloomberg and Joe Biden.
Throughout the Bay Area, one can find incredible wealth in close proximity to entrenched poverty. Walk 12 blocks from the northeast boundary of Atherton and you will arrive in another precinct, this one in East Palo Alto (see photo below). A few years ago, before the city began gentrifying, the federal poverty rate here was 22% and when adjusted for California's cost of living it was nearly triple that. Today, huge pockets of poverty still remain. Life expectancy is 19 years lower than it is in Atherton.
The results of this precinct were also quite different. 57.4% of voters chose Bernie Sanders. Other precincts in the city recorded similar results. In some, Sanders surpassed 60%, nearly doubling his statewide average.
I believe that there are two key lessons we can learn from these contrasting results.
1. Atherton's corporate executives voted primarily to further their own class interests and most Democratic politicians are far from immune to their influence.
How do I know? Again, I’ve worked for some of them. I recently bussed tables at an Atherton gala for the Political Action Committee of a major tech company. Many were talking about their fears of a Bernie Sanders presidency (not fears that he would lose to Trump, but fears that he could win). I’ve served business leaders who spoke to me about their worries of unionization in their companies and their confidence that California Democrats would remain loyal to big money donors and never close corporate tax loopholes. I have cleaned offices where framed selfies with Nancy Pelosi hung from the walls.
The ultra-rich of Atherton and elsewhere primarily threw their support to viable candidates who either personally share their class interests (Michael Bloomebrg) or take their money and do their bidding (At a fundraiser last year, Joe Biden told a group of Wall Street donors, “I need you very badly,” and assured them that under his presidency, “No one’s standard of living will change. Nothing will fundamentally change.”).
2. Those of us who are middle class must become class conscious and understand our shared interest with the poorest in our society.
Past newsletters of mine have described the ways that white supremacy stratifies the 99% and weakens our collective power by dividing us into a racial hierarchy. The solidarity of the 99% is also broken when those of us who identify as middle class don’t see the many shared needs we have with the poor. Our university educations can lead us to unconsciously identify more with the wealthy than with the working class. We often don’t realize how billionaire-owned media companies condition us to support the class interests of the rich and to view the Democratic party as uncorrupted by money. Many watch MSNBC for hours a day and internalize fears that Sanders’ agenda is too radical or that he won't be able to beat Trump (both of which are analytically and statistically untrue) without realizing that the channel's executives are among the largest donors to the Biden campaign.
Though many poor and low wealth people are systematically pushed away from the polls, residents of East Palo Alto still demonstrated deep awareness of the need for the agenda Senator Sanders offers. Chronic economic instability makes clear the importance of universal health care that is free at the point of service, a public jobs guarantee, 10 million units of affordable housing, national rent control, tuition free public college, and expanded social security.
Yet they are not the only ones who desperately need such a safety net. Almost all of us do. We live in an era with the highest level of economic inequality that this country has seen in 100 years. And as costs of healthcare, higher education and housing skyrocket while wages remain flat, the middle class itself hangs on by a thread.
Those of us with middle class backgrounds are far more likely to fall into poverty or homelessness than we are to reap a fortune. We are far more likely to never be able to retire, fall into medical bankruptcy, lose a home to foreclosure, than we are to enter into the 1%.
We are far closer to life in East Palo Alto than we are to life in the mansions of Atherton.
And the courage of communities like those in East Palo Alto to place their faith in Sanders—communities that would be most endangered by a second Trump term—should be reason enough for us to join them.
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