Thousands rally to defend worker rights in Wisconsin, then nearly a million force a referendum in Ohio to repeal a similar assault. Tens of thousands fill congressional town meetings to demand "Jobs, not Cuts" in August. Over 100,000 join in vetting provisions for a Contract for the American Dream. Nonviolent protestors occupy Wall Street, and stay restrained despite police provocation, and now demonstrations are spreading to financial districts in cities across the country. The press isn’t looking, but there’s a movement building of citizens challenging the gridlocked debate in Washington.
What Washington can’t seem to understand is the scope of the crisis that Americans face. It isn’t just the 25 million people in need of full time work. We have fewer payroll jobs now than we had in 2000 but 30 million more people. Wages and household incomes are falling. Barely half of employees get health insurance at work, and those that do pay ever more out of pocket before the insurance kicks in. One in eight homes is in foreclosure or in arrears; one in four is under water. A staggering $12 trillion in wealth that people thought they had – much of it in their homes – has been lost. Only half of employees have any kind of retirement plan at work, and now Social Security and Medicare are under attack.
The middle class is getting crushed. And this isn’t an accident; it is a defeat. It is the result of conservative ideas and corporate interests that have dominated our politics for over thirty years. They launched an attack on labor, lowered the floor under the poorest Americans, and raised the roof for the rich. The money that was supposed to trickle down instead congealed at the top. The richest 1% captured all of the growth of the last decade, while the bottom 90% lost ground. They had a wilding, inflated a bubble that eventually burst, and the economy went over a cliff.
Confidence in Washington is at its lowest levels ever – and it is easy to see why. The buzzwords of the debate increasingly strike most Americans as lunacy.
Who will pay to clean up the mess that Wall Street’s excesses created? Mainstream punditry babbles about a “grand bargain” and “shared sacrifice,” trading cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – dubbed “entitlements” – for tax reform that lowers tax rates but raises revenues by closing loopholes. This gains credibility from the opposition of Republicans, bound by pledges never to raise taxes on anyone for the rest of time. But the vast majority of Americans – including the majority of tea party supporters – want Medicare and Social Security protected, not cut. They can’t figure out why the sacrifices should be shared when the rewards were not shared. Or why they should be asked to help clean up the mess left from a party they weren’t invited to
Or consider response of Republicans to the president’s tax proposals – “class warfare.” Class warfare because the president suggests that no billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than middle class taxpayers? Class warfare? No, the real class warfare comes from the CEOs with multimillion dollar personal incentives to cook the books, ship good jobs abroad, or plunder pensions to reap their bonuses. There’s been class warfare, all right, and as Warren Buffett wrote, his class has been winning.
The American dream was built on a broad middle class, grounded on the promise that with hard work, you could build a family, have a good job that would afford health care, retirement security, a home, a better education for your kids. The great challenge was to open the door to that dream to those who had been locked out – minorities under segregation, women suffering from discrimination, new immigrants.
Now that dream is disappearing with the middle class. Americans have been demanding change. In 2008, as the economy cratered, we elected a president with a mandate for change, Democratic majorities in both houses, and the most progressive Speaker of the House in our history. Yet the president’s reforms – pre-compromised for the most part – were diluted, delayed, and disemboweled. The entrenched corporate interests, spending billions to array legions of lobbyists, protected their privileges and subsidies.
Voters responded by punishing Democrats. Yet the Tea Party Republicans who were defenders of Medicare and scourges of Wall Street on the campaign trail sought to gut Medicare and reopen Wall Street’s casino once in office.
That reality discourages many. But only a small d democratic movement can challenge the current big money, special interest politics that dominate Washington. And in the end, working Americans have no choice but to build a movement to make this country work for working people once more.
In Washington, this week, over a thousand activists will gather to help plan the next stage for that movement. We’ll discuss plans to demand Jobs, not Cuts out of the Congress, with pressure culminating in a national day of action on November 17. We’ll plan ways to build on Occupy Wall Street’s demands that Wall Street pay us back. We’ll look to run American Dream candidates in races across the country, and to challenge legislators in both parties that vote for their contributors and not their constituents.
Right now, the American dream is endangered. America has become, Citibank analysts wrote, a “plutonomy,” made of the rich and the rest – and only the rich count. But that’s not what makes America exceptional. And that is not what most Americans find acceptable. Washington is about to find out that we are not going to give up the dream without a fight.