As progressives gather at the annual Take Back the American Dream Conference today in Washington, they are gearing up for what is a fundamental struggle about America’s future.
Clearly, America’s modern-day economy no longer works for working people. The financial collapse caused by Wall Street’s excesses comes after 30 years in which the few pocketed most of the rewards of growth, while most Americans lost ground.
How do we get out of the box we are in? The Tea Party right, succored by mobilized money, offers one course. Progressives are now organizing around another.
Conservative columnist David Brooks, writingin the New York Times, suggests Republicans are so “extreme” these days because they believe that the “20th century welfare state is in its death throes,” that we are on the cusp of a fiscal and institutional collapse of the welfare state that “threatens the future of American capitalism.” Therefore, Republicans seek radical surgery of the social contract, cutting taxes, privatizing health care and education, reducing the scope of government, and freeing up innovation and small business.
Progressives agree that the current system cannot be sustained. But the problem is not Social Security, our modest pension system; nor Medicare; nor our education funding that does not yet afford the basics to every student.
Rather, the most destructive “welfare” that threatens America’s future is the corporate welfare that results from the predatory power of corporations and the wealthy to use money politics to entrench privileges and subsidies that stand in the way of change.
Consider the major contributors to our deficits and debts. They are not caused by Social Security or spending on the poor. About half of our current deficits come from the economic collapse caused by Wall Street’s wilding. Add to that tax cuts on the wealthy, two wars and a bloated military financed on a credit card, and a broken health care system dominated by insurance and drug company oligopolies that leave us paying twice per capita as other industrial nations with worse results.
Today’s Republicans target the vulnerable while protecting the powerful. As Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker have shown, you can raise a ton of money that way, but you can’t solve the crisis facing America. Romney and his extremist Republicans would deregulate Wall Street; privatize health care; sustain subsidies for Big Oil and Big Pharma; provide multinationals with a global tax haven; lower taxes on the wealthy; and throw more money at the Pentagon, the largest source of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government. That is the road to ruin.
In his first years in the White House, Obama offered moderate reforms on health care, financial reform, and energy. He sought to extricate us from two wars. He made the radical case that the wealthiest Americans should not pay lower taxes than their secretaries. But even with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, he largely had his head handed to him. The entrenched interests managed to delay, dilute, and in some cases defeat even modest reform.
And now, the President and many Democrats seem ready to throw in the towel. They are gearing up for a “grand bargain” that features deep reductions in basic services, largely for the most vulnerable, combined with sweeping cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for, amazingly, lower tax rates and closed loopholes in the tax code. “Shared sacrifice” will ask more from those who have already been losing ground, and do nothing to focus on the entrenched interests that drive our deficits and undermine our economy.
So progressives must challenge the money power that corrupts both parties, the entrenched interests that rig the rules, and have created an economy that works only for the few. Contrary to Republicans and David Brooks, it is not the poor, the “greedy geezers,” students or minorities who are bankrupting America. It is the richest Americans and the entrenched corporate interests that are standing in the way.
The progressive task – which we will explore at the Take Back the American Dream Conference – isn’t only to repel the Republican effort to dismantle the social contract, it is to build an independent movement that can challenge the interests that corrupt both parties, elect progressive champions, and hold politicians accountable. This will take more than one election or one administration. It will take more than simply defeating Romney and taking back the Congress.
America witnessed the current extremes of inequality and corrupted politics at the dawn of industrialization. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, robber barons dominated our economy and our politics. Labor unions were illegal. Politicians were openly bought or rented. It took a populist movement, progressive reformers, left parties and labor strife to curb the power of money and eventually build the broad middle class that made America exceptional.
Over the last 30 years, the extremes of inequality and oligopoly have returned. The middle class is declining. Politics is once more awash with money. And once more, we will need an independent, mobilized people’s movement to put America back on track and rebuild the American dream.