An Unwritten History – (1) The Awakening

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            What you will read about here can be found in a growing number of books and articles, in movies, in internet conversations of thousands of Americans, and in the minds of millions more.  It’s not a traditional history of America.  You won’t read about it in most newspapers, nor will the story be told on most TV networks.  The story may never be fully told in mainstream history books.  But it’s here all around us in bits and pieces, gradually coming into focus.   It’s the story of a major turning point in the history of the United States of America.

          People are waking up to many realities that have been with us for years.  People are connecting the dots, filling in the blanks. Scholars in many areas of specialty are focusing their considerable skills on the task of answering what boils down to one basic question:  “What has gone wrong?”  And more and more, as the fog continues to lift, the history they want to talk about is that of the last thirty years.  

          The period of the last thirty years is becoming staple in recent analysis and discourse.  Ominously, although elements of decline can be identified earlier, the data and analyses are showing that the American way of life began to seriously unravel thirty years ago.  Again and again, the signs are pointing to one salient point in American history, the beginning of the eight-year presidency of a popular American folk hero, Ronald Reagan. 

          A former actor who had become the Governor of California and then President of the United States, Mr. Reagan appeared to be a traditional conservative, but he was unduly influenced, as were many of the rest of us, by some dangerous ideological concepts, and his presidency ended up on the wrong side of history.  What began then was an acceleration in the growth of an American plutocracy, accompanied by aggressive “neo-conservative” foreign and military policies, and an unprecedented expansion of federal debt.  His presidency ushered in a rapid growth of the wealth and power of the very richest Americans, accompanied by an equally rapid decline in the prosperity and influence of all other Americans. 

          The Reagan Revolution has borne some bitter fruit.  Just as repressed populations around the globe are shedding authoritarian rule and yearning for a more democratic way of life, the American democracy they have long admired is now facing serious threats and challenges. 

          Today, a mere thirty years after the election of Ronald Reagan, the American people are in a state of crisis.  Most Americans, including myself, would much prefer to live our lives in peace and tranquility, and of course relative economic security.  More and more, however, ordinarily passive people are becoming alarmed and feel compelled to participate in political activism. 

          I could feel the quiet, almost resigned discomfort in the group of about sixty mostly retired people who gathered recently (2/24/11) at a rally in downtown Albany, New York.  The rally, originally scheduled by a progressive organization as part of a national effort to support job creation in America, had expanded into a protest against draconian federal budget cuts proposed by the Republican majority in Congress, and a statement of solidarity with public sector workers in Wisconsin and other states who are being threatened by Republican governors with the termination of their collective bargaining rights and the demise of their unions.  It was highlighted by a statement of thanks and comments by Congressman Paul Tonko.   

          Thirty years ago, such demonstrations would have been typically regarded as merely expressions of liberal bias, an effort to tip the scales more in favor of labor against capital.  They are still treated that way in the mainstream press, but for the concerned citizens that have become today’s newborn activists,  such issues have become infused with deep concern over a serious new political reality, the growing control by the wealthy elite of most of our institutions and the media and the consquent threat to freedom and democracy.    

          Thus, people from all walks of life, quiet, unemotional people who are not especially comfortable demonstrating, gathered in the cold to express concerns that are more reality-based than ideology-based.  There was nothing radical about their concerns.  The demonstration was in support of traditional American values (like prosperity, fairness, and opportunity) and institutions (like schools, colleges, hospitals, local governments, and labor unions). 

          One man in the group was selling bumper stickers for a dollar, the only bumper sticker for sale on that day.  Reflecting the huge elephant in the room, it simply said: “Tax the Rich.”  This huge elephant – the drastically increasing economic inequality between the wealthy elite and everyone else in America – is overwhelmingly the driving force behind all of the problems of ordinary Americans. 

          In their recent book “Winner-Take-All Politics,” political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (Yale and Berkley, respectively) clearly define the problem and its ramifications: 

          “Of course, the United States is far richer than … oligarchic nations [like Brazil, Mexico, and Russia].  But, contrary to the rhetoric of inequality’s apologists, it has not grown consistently more quickly than other rich democracies that have seen little or no tilt toward winner-take-all.  America’s runaway rewards for the affluent have not unleashed an economic miracle whose rewards have generously filtered down to the poor and middle class.

          “Quite the opposite. Like a raging fever that announces a more serious underlying disease, rising inequality is only the clearest indicator of an economic transformation that has touched virtually every aspect of Americans’ standard of living.  From the erosion of job security to the declining reach of health insurance, from the rising toll of home foreclosures to the growing number of personal bankruptcies, from the stagnation of upward social mobility to the skyrocketing of personal debt, the American economy that has delivered so much to the fortunate has worked much less well for most Americans.  And this has been true not just over the past three years or thirteen years, but over the past thirty years.  Winner-take-all has become the defining feature of American economic life.” [1]    

          More and more lately, the word “greed” has entered our thoughts and conversations.  The spirit of community and cooperation that I believe is basically inherent in human nature has been undermined by forces that take advantage of us, individually and collectively.  Individually, in our struggles to preserve the fruits of our labors and simply take care of ourselves and our families, our generous impulses have been stifled.  Collectively, and this is painful to face, we have descended into class warfare, with the wealthiest few pitted against everyone else.  Ultimately, this is a struggle between democracy and plutocracy.  Here is how Hacker and Pierson summarize their take on the problem:

           “The truths that we find share little in common with the familiar nostrums about the natural course of the American economy.  Yet, in some respects, they offer an even more disturbing assessment.  They strip away the aura of economic destiny surrounding runaway inequality.  But they replace the certainty of a false economic diagnosis with discomforting conclusions – along with a new set of puzzles – about how, and for whom, American politics works.

          “The puzzles are all around us.  How can hedge-fund managers who are pulling down billions sometimes pay a lower tax rate than do their secretaries?  And why, in an era of increased economic uncertainty, is it so hard for their secretaries to form or join a union?  How have corporate managers – who, along with Wall Street bigwigs, make up more than half of the top 0.1 percent – ascended from pay levels twenty to thirty times that of a typical worker to levels two to three hundred times as great?  And why, over a generation in which most Americans have experienced modest economic gains, have politicians slashed taxes on the rich even as the riches of the rich have exploded?” [2]

          In short, what Hacker and Pierson are saying is that there is plenty of wealth to go around, and no need for so much decline and poverty among the American people.  And the “false economic diagnosis” suggesting otherwise distracts us from addressing an urgent question:

          How are they doing this to us?

 JMH – 2/26/11


[1] Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, “Winner-Take-All Politics, How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class,” Simon & Schuster, NY 2010, p. 4.  

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[2] Id. at 5.

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