America is at a critical crossroads. The economic blows of the past several years have been extremely unsettling. Today, our society is marked by a widely shared perception that something is terribly amiss in our country – socially, politically, and economically.
This perception is accurate. We are encompassed by a range of complex problems. Domestically, they include stagnating or declining wages for middle and working class Americans, the disappearance of manufacturing sector jobs, the twin banes of under and unemployment, the sustainability of key social programs like Medicare, and the growing influence of corporate money and special interests in our political system. Moreover, we are facing these challenges at a time when our public discourse is fundamentally poisoned. As Fred Bauer has observed, today, our nation is marked by almost “pathological” levels of “anxiety, social alienation, partisan cynicism, and civic despair.”
Growing income inequality, and its political consequences, are at the heart of this constellation of problems. For the past three decades, the richest Americans, a group we can define as the top 1% of income earners in the United States, have reaped a disproportionate share of the economic benefits. They have been the primary beneficiaries of the tremendous economic expansion that occurred over this period. According to economist Paul Krugman, they accounted for over 80% of the total increase in income during the 25-year period from 1980 to 2005, and now control roughly 40% of America’s total wealth.
Meanwhile, wages for middle class Americans have remained largely stagnant, and those of blue-collar workers have decreased. This process continues even today. As Steven Greenhouse has reported, a recent study of the nation’s economic recovery concluded that it “has been unusually skewed in favor of corporate profits and against increased wages for workers.”
Inevitably, great concentrations of wealth create great concentrations of political power. Today, we are flirting with the creation of an oligarchic class that will have total control of the media, the economy, and the government. Recent Supreme Court decisions, like Citizens United, which has opened the floodgates for corporate money to influence our elections, merely serve to accelerate this process.
In the early Twentieth Century, America faced a similar situation. It was a time marked by inequalities of wealth and opportunity, and widespread political corruption. In response, the Progressive Movement arose and put in place protections that curbed the worst excesses of oligarchic capitalism and industrialization. The Progressives enacted new business regulations, promoted measures designed to protect workers and consumers, expanded participation in the democratic process, fought the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics, and emphasized environmental stewardship through a range of conservation measures.
Today, America needs a new mass movement for responsible reform, a revitalized Progressive Movement, dedicated to championing the interests of the middle and working classes, maintaining the key pillars of the social contract, curbing the corrupting power of corporate influence in government, and ensuring that economic opportunity remains open to all Americans. Such a revitalized reform movement could mitigate and humanize the worst aspects of globalization and restrict the influence of the super-rich. It could push for a more equitable distribution of burdens and benefits within our society. It could also, by utilizing the federal government’s tax and regulatory power, potentially move America towards a point where more than a privileged few are doing better from year to year. In addition, such a reform movement would address the cancerous poison of cynicism and alienation eating away at the nation’s soul by championing the interests of the vast majority of us instead of protecting the wealth and privileged status of a small elite and the huge corporations they control.
Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most famous leaders of the old Progressives, understood that reform was ultimately in the best interests of the rich industrialists themselves. As he noted “[t]hose who oppose reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism.” Roosevelt’s insight remains relevant today. As Umair Haque has stated, “[i]f it’s the poor and powerless who are made to recapitalize an insolvent global financial system, a great storm is coming.” Whether our super-rich still possess enough of a sense of enlightened self-interest to perceive this and avoid Haque’s “great storm,” remains an open question.