October 13, 2008

There appears to be one thing that presidential candidates and journalists can agree upon: that “Main Street vs. Wall Street” is the political and cultural slogan of the day.

Democrats and Republicans can use it for their own ideological purposes, Republicans to demonize liberal elitism and Democrats to inflame class prejudices. For the scribes, it fits nicely into a lead or headline and seems to encapsulate a dynamic that requires too many words to adequately describe.

But please be careful with this phrase. It took Google just .17 of a second to produce more than 14 million links to it.

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the use of these words to represent conflicting cultural affinities:

As a figure of speech contrasted to “Main Street,” the term “Wall Street” can refer to big business interests against those of small business and the working or middle class. It is sometimes used more specifically to refer to research analysts, shareholders and financial institutions such as investment banks. The idea of “Main Street” conjures up images of locally owned businesses and banks. While the phrase “Wall Street” is commonly used interchangeably with the phrase “Corporate America,” it is also sometimes used in contrast to distinguish between the interests, culture, and lifestyles of investment banks and those of Fortune 500 industrial or service corporations.

The entry for “Main Street” describes it as “an extremely popular term during the economic crises in 2008.” Let’s be sure to listen for it in the last presidential debate and during the final days before the election.

So what’s the problem? Let me count them.

1. I, as a citizen and a longtime resident of suburbia, identify with neither Wall Street nor Main Street and thus feel left out.

2. “Wall Street vs. Main Street” has become a reductive frame for writing about the economy. We have helped make Wall Street “the other,” an emblem of greed, and Main Street the emblem of responsible hard work. In truth, lots of folks on Wall Street work hard and responsibly, and a lot of Main Streeters tried to take irresponsible shortcuts during the real estate boom.

Remember, it was Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, who wrote “Main Street,” a novel about the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of small-town America.

3. What about the Side Street? What about Backstreets? What about all the streets and avenues and lanes and terraces and boulevards that don’t correspond to this oversimplified dichotomy?

4. Many, many Americans have a stake in the success of the financial markets, especially through their retirement accounts. But by casting the problem as a war, we force people to take sides, sometimes at the margins, rather than looking for a third or fourth way.

5. Finally, what writer wants to be the 15 millionth to use the phrase? Do you?

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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