Our current political situation is unprecedented. The vast majority of Americans keep falling behind economically because of changes in society’s ground rules, while the rich get even richer — yet this situation doesn’t translate into a winning politics.
If anything, the right keeps gaining and the wealthy keep pulling away. How can this possibly be?
Let me suggest seven reasons:
Reason One. The Discrediting of Politics Itself. The Republican Party has devised a strategy of hamstringing government and making any remediation impossible.
Instead of the voters punishing Republicans, the result is cynicism and passivity, so the Republican strategy is vindicated and rewarded.
The media plays into this pattern by adopting a misleading narrative that makes the gridlock in Washington roughly the equal fault of both parties — with lazy phrases such as “Washington is broken,” or “politics is broken,” or “partisan bickering.” (Do a Google search of those clichés. It will make you sick.)
Eminent political scientists such as Jacob Hacker (Off-Center) and Thomas E. Mann and co-author Norman Ornstein, a self-described Republican (It’s Even Worse Than It Looks) have thoroughly debunked the premise of symmetrical blame. It’s Republicans who are the blockers. But these scholars and their evidence fail to alter the media storyline, and the damage has been done.
The very people who have given up on politics, and on Democrats as stewards of a social compact that helps regular working people, are precisely those regular working people — who see the Dream getting away from them and government not helping.
Reason Two. Compromised Democrats. But the Democrats are hardly blameless. Instead of seizing on the collapse of 2008 as a disgrace for laissez-faire economics, deregulation, Wall Street and the Republican Party, Barack Obama tried to make nice with the GOP, refrained from cleaning out the big banks that caused the mess, and drank the Kool-Aid of budget balance.
The result: working people frustrated with economic backsliding had no party that really championed their interests. The fateful year 2008 may have been the worst missed moment for revolutionary reform in the history of the Republic — and depending on who gets the Democratic nomination next time and what she does with it, 2016 could rival 2008 as a lost opportunity.
Republicans made big gains in the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014. Skeptical or cynical voters on the Democratic side (young people, poor people, African Americans, single women) are less likely to vote in off-years, while the rightwing base stays ferociously engaged. The more that potentially Democratic voters are disaffected, the more the Right can block any progress on inequality.
Reason Three. The Reign of Politicized Courts and Big Money. The Supreme Court’s usual majority has become an opportunistic subsidiary of the Republican Party. Two key decisions, reflecting outrageous misreading of both the Constitution and the abuses of recent history, undermined citizenship and entrenched the rule of big money.
In the Citizens United case of 2010,the Court majority gave unlimited license to big personal and corporate money. And in the Shelby County v. Holder decision of 2013, the Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, declaring open season for a new era of voter suppression.
As a consequence, the potential role of invigorated democracy as the antidote to concentrated wealth has been weakened. Economic inequality translates into inequality of political influence.
Reason Four. The Collapse of Equalizing Institutions. During the postwar boom, America actually became more equal. The bottom quarter gained more income share than the top quarter. This was no historical or technological accident. Shared prosperity was built on government activism promoting opportunity, strong unions providing decent wages even for the less educated, enforcement of other labor laws, debt-free public higher education, well-regulated financial institutions, a genuinely progressive income tax, and a trading system that did not promote outsourcing.
Politics — not technology — caused the evisceration of these instruments. Politics could take back a fairer America.
Reason Five. Bewildering Changes in How Jobs Are Structured. In the past couple of decades, regular payroll jobs with career prospects have increasingly been displaced by an economy of short-term gigs, contract work, and crappy payroll jobs without decent pay and benefits, or even regular hours. This shift often gets blamed on technology or education, but that’s malarkey.
With a different political balance of forces, regular employees could not be disguised as contract workers; corporate executives could face felony convictions for wage theft; the right to unionize would be enforced; the windfall profits of the “share economy” would actually be shared with workers; large corporations like McDonalds could not pretend that the wages and working conditions in its franchises were somebody else’s problem — and full employment would give workers more bargaining power generally.
Reason Six. The Internalization of a Generation’s Plight. Compared to my age cohort, Millennials are the screwed generation. The dream of homeownership has been undercut; good jobs with career prospects are in short supply; young adults begin economic life saddled with student debt; the pension system has been blown up; and if you want to have kids, society doesn’t do anything to help the work-family straddle.
You’d expect young adults to be in the streets, but here the cynicism about politics blends with a natural inclination to make a virtue of necessity. Maybe I’ll never own a home but I have to move around a lot anyway. I have all I need on my iPad, which means I’m less materialistic than my parents. And hey, I don’t get to be a millionaire like the people who created Uber, but maybe I’ll be an Uber driver, which is cool. Not to mention airbnb.
On the other hand, the political leader who called for a one-time write off of all past student debt might still rally a lot of Millennials. In the distribution of income and opportunity, a lot of questions that are actually political have been personalized and internalized. The assumption that we are all on our own is deeply political. But that can be changed.
Reason Seven. The Absence of a Movement. In the face of all these assaults on the working and middle class, there are many movements but no Movement. The Occupy movement, which gave us the phrase, “The One Percent,” was too hung up on its own procedural purity to create a broad movement for economic justice.
Looking out at the plethora of local and national groups pursuing greater economic equality, one sees mainly idealism and fragmentation.
Some of it is caused by that dread phrase, 501 c 3. Well-meaning foundations fall in love with the charismatic activist leader de jour, seem intent on creating yet another grass roots group or coalition, and then that group needs to differentiate itself from rivals and dance to the foundation’s tune. (This is a column for another day.)
The remedies that would restore economic opportunity and security to ordinary Americans are far outside mainstream political conversation, and will not become mainstream until forced onto the agenda by a genuine mass movement. Sometimes that movement gets lucky and finds a rendezvous with a sympathetic national leader.
This has occurred before — in the Roosevelt Revolution of the 1930s and the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s. But without a potent movement on the ground, mainstream electoral politics is likely to remain stuck with remedies too weak either to rouse public imagination and participation, or to provide more than token relief for today’s extreme inequality.
This vicious circle — really a downward spiral about depressed expectations and diminished participation — can be reversed, as it has been reversed at moments in the American past. As that noted political consultant Joe Hill put it, as they were taking him to the gallows, “Don’t mourn, organize.”