The Progressive Challenge: Taking on Robber Baron Politics

Robert Borosage

This was delivered as the opening address to the Take Back the American Dream Summit in Washington, D.C., on June 18.

On behalf of the Campaign for America’s Future, I welcome you to this year’s Take Back the American Dream Summit. You are activists and leaders from across the country and across the progressive movement. A stunning line up of speakers and strategy sessions awaits you. We will highlight the organizing to elect progressive candidates who will fight for the 99%. We share strategies on how to drive critical issues in this election season. We’ll focus on how to build the independent citizens movement needed to take back the American dream.

The days will be intense because the stakes are very large. Now this is election season. And I’ve been around long enough to know that just about every election is dubbed the most important of our lifetime. But at stake here is something more than one election.

We are, I suggest to you, only at the beginning of the fierce struggle to define what comes after a thirty year failed conservative era, an era that has left us with extreme inequality, a declining middle class, rising poverty, the worst recession since the Great Depression, and an economy that does not work for working people even when it is growing.

Americans clearly are casting about for change. We saw the elections in 2006 and 2008. Frustration and reaction in 2010. The uprisings of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. The assault on worker and women’s rights and on the right to vote, and the mobilizations to counter them.

And now the brazen billionaires – the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, the super PACs – looking to consolidate complete control of government at all levels.

In this situation, we should be perfectly clear. We are not going to allow Mitt Romney, the modern day Robber Barons and their Tea Party allies to take over Washington.

But we aren’t going to stop there. If we are going to build a new foundation for shared prosperity, we can’t accept mass unemployment as the new normal. Or declining wages and rising insecurity as inevitable. We are not signing onto a “grand bargain” – partisan or bipartisan – that uses the current crisis to savage the vulnerable and to shortchange our future.

We are building a progressive movement that takes on big money politics, confronts the entrenched interests that now endanger our future, and rebuilds the American dream.

Now let me say a few words about each of these.

1. Conservative ideas are the problem, not the solution.

It has been four years since Wall Street’s excesses blew up the economy. The scope of that calamity was far greater than any expected. 9 million jobs lost. The typical family lost a staggering 40% of their wealth – mostly in the value of their homes. Any recovery from this would have been long and difficult. This one has been made worse by two factors.

First there was no healthy economy to recover to. Working families have been losing ground for decades. Over the bush years, most Americans suffered declining income and rising insecurity even when the economy was growing.
We were hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, running up unprecedented trade deficits. Finance was capturing 40% of corporate profits, while inflating the housing bubble. We waged two wars on the national credit card. We were in denial about global warming.

Not only was there no place to recover to, but vital reforms faced fierce resistance.
Republicans set out from day one to obstruct any reforms – pursuing in the midst of the crisis what their Senate leader Mitch McConnell called “the single most important thing we want to achieve” – insuring that Barack Obama remained a one-term president.

When Obama pushed to make even modest reforms vital to our future – on the recovery, health care, financial reform, and new energy — Republican obstruction was relentless.

But far more impressive was the power of the entrenched corporate interests that mobilized to protect their privileges and subsidies. Even when Democrats had majorities in both houses, corporate lobbies succeeded in delaying, diluting, and in some cases defeating reform.

Now the economy is said to be in recovery, but most Americans haven’t felt it. Wages are still declining. Homes still under water. Jobs still scarce. And the worst of the old economy is back.
Gilded age inequality. The top 1% captured fully 93% of the rewards of growth in 2010.
Casino finance. Too big to fail banks are bigger and more concentrated than ever, and back to making big bets, as JPMorgan recently demonstrated losing $3 billion and counting in a reckless trading scheme.

Trade deficits — back up over 1.5 billion a day.

And now we face a struggle over what comes next.

Americans are only learning about Mitt Romney but he is not a mystery. He is of, by and for the 1%. The big money decided to be safe they better pick one of their own. His agenda is a clear commitment to double down on the policies that put us in the hole we are in.

He would give millionaires an average 25% tax cut – on top of the Bush tax cuts.

He calls for eliminating taxes on corporate profits earned abroad, turning the entire world into an offshore tax haven.

He wants to deregulate Wall Street – reopening the casino finance that blew up the economy.

He’d repeal health care reform, end Medicare as we know it, and decimate Medicaid, eliminating health care protection for some 34 million Americans.

He defends subsidies to big oil, while denying the threat posed by global warming.

He wants more money for the military, and less for schools.

He brags that he is the most anti-union candidate in memory

This guy is building a summer home with an elevator for the cars, and says Obama is out of touch.

He paid a tax rate of about 15% on income of some 20 million dollars – and that’s in the tax return he chose to show us. Imagine what he paid in the ones he keeps secret.

No wonder, he says talking about inequality is the “politics of envy,” and should be done only in “quiet rooms.” He’s not worried about the poor because they have a safety net that he promises to shred. He says that America is “inches away from no longer being a free economy.” Say what? Are you kidding?

We aren’t going to let the brazen billionaires elect this guy president. He isn’t offering a remedy. What he is peddling is pure poison for the middle class, for the vulnerable and for the American dream.

So we are going to work to re-elect the president and focus on taking back the House.

2. We have to curb the entrenched corporate interests that are strangling our future.

But that is not enough. We face a bigger battle for America’s future.

Conservative columnist David Brooks argues that republicans are so extreme because they fear that America’s welfare state is no longer sustainable, and is now a threat to the country’s fiscal and economic future.

Well. We agree that this country can’t continue on the old path. But Romney and the right, Brooks and the billionaires, have it wrong. It is not poor people who rig the rules and pocket millions in subsidies and privileges. It is not the elderly who have blown up the economy. It is not the young who pay for the revolving door of lobbyists and officials.

If we are to build the basis for sustainable growth, it is not enough to put Obama back in the White House, and Nancy Pelosi back in the speaker’s chair. We must take on crony capitalism, the entrenched interests and big money that corrupt politicians in both parties, fleece taxpayers, rig the rules and rake off millions in subsidies, tax dodges, and insider deals.

Look at the sources of our current deficits and debt. ½ of our current deficit comes from the economic collapse caused when Wall Street blew up the economy. Then comes the Bush’s top end tax cuts and tax loopholes that have the wealthiest Americans paying lower taxes than their secretaries and some major corporations paying nothing at all. And then the continued costs of a bloated Pentagon and two wars.

Turn to the scary long-term debt projections – and these are almost entirely a question of soaring and unaffordable costs of a broken health care system. This system is deformed by powerful health insurance, hospital and drug company complexes that hike costs so that Americans pay twice per capita what other industrial countries pay, with worse results in basic health measures

To rebuild America, to revive the American dream, we have to take on the powerful who profit from these arrangements, not the vulnerable who suffer under them.

3. The first test: The Grand Bargain, a k a The Big Heist

This is not a question for one president, one election, or one administration.
But right after this election we will face an early test around what is called the grand bargain.
In December, we face an utterly unnecessary fiscal train wreck. Automatic cuts in military and domestic spending from the last debt ceiling deal kick in. The payroll tax cut and extended unemployment benefits expire. Expiration of the bush tax cuts. If all this happens, it is a recipe for recession.

This self-inflicted crisis is being used as an excuse for a turn to austerity. It’s time to get our books in order, we’re told. Shared sacrifice is needed. Everything on the table.

Elite opinion is congealing around a grand bargain that features cuts in domestic programs. And offers a trade: cuts in Medicare and Social Security in exchange for tax reform that lowers the rates but closes loopholes to raise more revenue.

Well, this grand bargain might better be known as the big heist

This means:
Accepting mass unemployment as a new normal. That we should stop worrying about generating jobs and focus instead on getting our books in order.

It means that middle class Americans and the vulnerable will get stuck with much of the bill for the mess that Wall Street created.

And finally, the deal largely ignores the sources of our current woes. The wealthy will still not pay their fair share of taxes. Wall Street will still be free to blow up the economy. The insurance and drug companies will still drive up health care costs. The military will still police the world, inevitably enmeshing us in more wars we cannot afford. And we will continue to starve the investments vital to our future.

So we must organize now. To oppose the big heist and demand a real deal. What does that include?

Good jobs first. The best deficit reduction measure is to put people to work. We must demand jobs before austerity.

Second, we have to curb the predatory interests that prey on the public purse, and bust the American dream. To get our books in order, we have to get our politics in order.

4. It takes a movement.

This won’t be easy. We’ll have to build independent capacity to elect people’s champions – and to hold them accountable.

We’ll need to make the big money toxic, even as we work to overturn Citizen’s United and get big money out of politics.

We’ll need direct action to expose and challenge the interests that standing the way.

It is a forbidding task, against great odds. It is the great challenge of democracy. Can the people curb the rapaciousness of big money?

But we’ve been in this situation before. At the end of the 19th century, the robber barons built oligopolies in major industries. Politicians were routinely bribed, bought or rented. Labor unions were outlawed. The money power dominated our politics.

But populist movements, left parties, progressive reformers, labor uprisings challenged that seemingly unassailable power. It took decades of struggle, but eventually that people’s movement won. The most brazen corruption curbed; inequality reduced. And a broad middle class was built.

Now we are back to extreme inequality and Robber Baron money politics. Once more we face a fierce struggle if the many are to overcome the few.

And over these last months we’ve begun. In Wisconsin. In Ohio. In Occupy – a movement that spread across the nation and the world. We’ve seen growing efforts to defend homeowners from foreclosure, and to hold banks accountable.. We’ve seen shareholders challenging obscene CEO pay.

These are but the first stirrings. We’ll see setbacks like the recall in Wisconsin. We must continue to build. Serious about taking power. Serious about rebuilding America. Fierce in opposition to the return of robber baron politics. Not be satisfied with defense of what is.

Yes. Defeat Romney and right. Push to take back the house. But keep on building. Build a movement that can take back the American dream. That is our subject this week. And our task over the coming months and years.

We know it won’t be easy. But we know it can be done.

Si se puede. Yes we can.

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