To judge how far America has regressed since Richard Nixon took office in 1969, we need only look at the story of national reform since 1890. Since that moment — the height of the Gilded Age, when a tiny elite controlled the economy, dictated its politics, arrogated to itself its wealth and crushed all resistance to its dominion — there have been, broadly speaking, three major movements to expand democracy, rein in corporate power and offer the social safety net that other industrial countries would provide their populations. These movements were Progressivism in the pre-World War I period, the New Deal in the 1930s and the New Left of the 1960s. They accomplished a good deal, if not enough to realize Lincoln’s prescription for a government of, by and for the people. Today, their accomplishments are largely in ruins.
The alarming growth of monopoly in the American economy produced a wave of legislative and executive action from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 to the trust-busting administration of Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s. Since capitalism tends not to cause free markets but monopolistic consolidation — a phenomenon abundantly observed in all capitalist societies — continual vigilance was necessary to forestall industrial and financial combination — giant corporations and giant banks. Relaxed controls in the post-World War I period brought about the Great Depression of the 1930s, essentially a crisis of credit that paralyzed the world economy for a decade. Beginning in the 1970s and taking off with the merger mania period of the 1980s, such controls were relaxed again, with a similar result: the crash of 2008, and the severe international depression that resulted. Today, monopoly is again the order of the day, abetted by governments whose policies are essentially in corporate hands. So great has the concentration of corporate wealth become that cities and local governments, no longer with an adequate tax base to provide essential services, come begging to entities like Amazon for capital — at a price that beggars them further.
Progressivism climaxed with three major reforms: the institution of a graduated income tax under the 16th Amendment the direct election of U.S. Senators, and women’s suffrage. The graduated income tax peaked in the 1950s, with notional rates of up to 90 percent for the very wealthy. This should in theory have led to a redistribution of income appropriated by monopoly to the general public (in other words, a return of the fruits of its own labor), but after 70 years the concentration of income remained where it had been prior to graduated taxation. From that point, in the Reagan era, taxes on the rich and on corporate earnings have steeply declined. The result is that income inequality is now at its highest level in more than a century, if not higher than it has ever been. By no coincidence, poverty levels have increased, and the middle class has been eviscerated.
The direct election of Senators, meanwhile, has not led to any meaningful democratization of the Upper House, since half its membership is selected by less than a fifth of the population. Nor has women’s suffrage addressed the major problem with our elections: the deliberate distortion of Congressional districts by gerrymandering, and the exclusion of minorities by various strategies of voter suppression, abetted now by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The catastrophic effects of the Great Depression led to the beginnings of a social safety net, buttressed by the full recognition of unions. That net has been frayed to the point of collapse for many. Unions have all but vanished from the private sector, leaving the vast majority of American workers without a voice. While all other major Western nations have long since implemented national health care systems, we remain at the mercy of industrialized, for-profit medicine, which Medicare props up at taxpayer expense. Unregulated pensions have been systematically underfunded for decades, leaving older Americans to face penury. Toward the end of his presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt admitted that America had only made a start toward social justice. We haven’t gone forward since then, but mostly turned back.
The New Left reiterated much of the earlier critique of American capitalism, and expanded it to embrace the American empire that had emerged after World War II. Under Lyndon Johnson, the New Deal seemed to get a second wind. Racial strife and the Vietnam War discredited him, and the Great Regression began. The consequences are all around us: broken cities, vast stretches of which seem to belong to the Third World; a collapsing infrastructure buffeted by climate havoc; the systematic undermining of public education and the growth of a student debtor class; a declining life expectancy, with vast divergences between social classes (in Philadelphia, the upper eighties for its richest neighborhoods, and the mid-’60s for its poorest); general insecurity and rising levels of despair. And if one measures poverty not by a paycheck but by personal resources, nearly half of America qualifies as poor, since that is the number without the personal resources to meet an immediate emergency of only a few hundred dollars.
And, oh yes, we have a president who wants to make the Great Regression a total one, and is dead set on undermining every norm of decency, civility and respect for the rule of law that makes democracy possible.
So, what are we to do about all this?
The very modest reforms proposed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are at least a start, though in most respects they are only a return to where we were or should have been long before. In the long run, however, we need a new, post-capitalist society based not on greed and exploitation but a vision of our common humanity and a commitment to keep the shrinking lifeboat we call Earth a place habitable for future generations — and for this one, too. You can call this socialism or anything you like, but it has to start from the recognition that you can’t make a society that asks for the best in us but systematically rewards the worst.
I spoke of the long run. But if we don’t get started on it soon, it will be a frighteningly short one.