Blake Fleetwood Opinion Original

Democrats Are Ignoring the Death Blow to the Middle Class

By Blake Fleetwood / Original to ScheerPost

Inflation is not the source of the nation’s crisis; neither is the “Threat to Democracy” the Democrats feature as their key election issue.

Inflation is real, but it is just the coup de grace, the death blow, to an already mortally wounded and largely obliterated majority middle class. 

Second, the “Threat to Democracy”  issue is just another pretext that obfuscates a more fundamental threat to democracy: the American middle class has been abandoned and is struggling like never before.

Over the last 40 years, a nefarious elected elite of Democrats and Republicans has rigged the system so that the majority of Americans have been cheated out of the American Dream. 

“STOP THE STEAL” is but another election canard that is being used by Republicans to rouse the masses with lurid tales of electoral fraud. In 2016 Donald Trump cleverly hijacked an underlying anger and twisted it. But the swindle, the real steal, is how the top one percent has ripped off a staggering $54 trillion from the bottom 90% during the last four decades.

This $54 trillion steal represents the demise of prosperity for middle class Americans — upward mobility, owning a house, getting an education, affording a healthy life — which has been systematically annihilated for the middle and lower classes. 

Since 1979, the income of the majority of Americans — the 68% without a college degree — has been falling, while the very rich have become richer. The share of Americans earning more money than their parents has plummeted.

The staggering $54 trillion figure, which has created a yawning divide between the elite one percent and everyone else, comes from a study by the highly respected, non-partisan Rand Corp.

They found that if the income distribution in the three decades from 1945 to 1974 — a glorious period of prosperity — had remained constant over the next four decades, the annual income of the bottom 90% would have been $2.5 trillion higher in just the year 2018, according to a Rand report by Carter C. Price and Katheryn Edwards.

This means that the average median income worker, now making about $54,000 per year, would be making $74,000 a year if the income distribution rate had remained constant in the years since 1974. This figure is far more than our current 8% inflation rate.

Four decades ago, the median male worker needed 30 weeks of income to afford a house, a car, health care and education, according to Oren Cass, executive director of the conservative think tank American Compass.

Today the average worker needs 53 weeks of income a year to afford just these necessities, let alone others that a family needs.

America’s public spending on health care, housing, and education, has been miserly. To reach the level of Canadian or European basic living standards, America needs to more than double its level of spending. As a result, Americans are much sicker, less educated, poorer and more unhappy than citizens of most other industrialized countries. 

No wonder so many enraged Americans are feeling like an oppressed majority. No wonder the idea of  “Make America Great Again” has such appeal to both the left and right — especially the 62% without a college degree.

The U.S. created trillions of dollars worth of wealth prosperity powered by capitalism, technological advances, globalization, and automation. 

No surprise that little or none of this windfall went to the middle or lower classes.

According to Federal Reserve reports, from 1989 to 2019, the liquid financial assets of households in the top 10% gained 291% ($29 trillion) while the wealth of the bottom 50% rose by less than 1% ($172 billion).

These great riches — and our democracy — have been hijacked by what can only be called a political and economic oligarchy, which has not allowed this enormous newly created wealth to be shared with the majority.

Most of the world scoffs at the idea that America is a true democracy. The U.S. ranks 25th (The Economist Intelligence Unit) out of all counties in fulfilling democratic ideals. The Economist calls the United States a “flawed democracy“ mostly because of the influence of money in our elections, the undemocratic Senate and Electoral College, which elects our presidents. Other European scholars have called the U.S. “A Deficient Democracy.”

This economic stagnation for the majority started in 1980  and led to an irrevocable cycle of mounting inequality that has increased under Democratic Presidents Clinton, Obama and Bidenand under Republican Presidents Reagan, Bush father and son and Trump.

How did we allow this to happen? 

The easy answer is political corruption — the illegitimate use of public power to secretly benefit a private interest. Unfortunately, this corruption is ostensibly “legal,” especially since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Power is abused within the confines of the law — as those with power often have the ability to make laws for their own benefit. World Bank economist Daniel Kaufmann labeled this “State Capture.” 

A recent poll by the nonpartisan University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics found that a majority of Americans agree that the government is “corrupt and rigged against everyday people like me.” Staunch Republicans agreed by 73%. Over two-thirds of Independents agreed, while Democrats were evenly split.Half of Americans in the poll said that they “more and more feel like a stranger in [their] own country.” 

The majority of Americans are in harmony on the major issues: Medicare for all (69%), more taxes on the rich (80%), free college (58%), take money out of politics (78%), legal abortion (62%), climate crisis (75%), minimum wage increase (62%), paid family leave (70%), legal marijuana (91%), support for unions (71%), Equal Rights Amendment for women (78%), ending mass incarceration (71%), free pre-K+(71%), stopping voter suppression (71%), and more gun control (70%). 

But on these important issues, our politicians have not been able to deliver what the majority wants. According to a landmark study published in 2014, the preferences of the typical American have no influence at all on legislation emerging from Congress.

Naturally the American majority believes the whole system is rigged against them: the courts, elections, the economy, Big Pharma, the health care system, the media, all of it. They believe that the system is controlled by a corporatocracy of greedy, corrupt, malicious, wealthy elites who prey on the disenfranchised. They believe that this has resulted in a twisting of our democratic institutions in favor of the wealthy. Our system has indeed lost its political legitimacy for many Americans. 

But this alienated majority can’t figure out exactly how this exploitation thrives. They want to blame someone, anyone, for the losses they are feeling: Immigrants, Blacks, Hispanics, Socialists, Liberals, Democrats, coastal elites. Not surprisingly people in the rustbelt Midwest are more distrustful than any other part of the country.

It is no surprise that more than a third of Americans, including 61% of Republicans, still believe that the 2020 election was “stolen.” And in a sense, they are right. Elections have been rigged for a long time by staggering amounts of money and corporate lobbyists. Members of Congress—  Republican and Democrat—are being openly bribed day-in-and-day out in the form of campaign contributions. In the 2020 election cycle the “dark money” bribes amounted to more than a billion dollars. And this torrent of “dark money,” props up a system that enriches a small elite and ignores the needs of the poor and middle class. 

The result is a pernicious money poisoning  — by Washington swamp creatures, lobbyists, who feed the political beasts that prop up the status quo for the wealthy — which has turned democracy on its head for a large disenfranchised majority.

Ohio Senate candidate Tim Ryan has been warning his fellow Democrats that the embrace of automation, free trade and globalization would cost them. Ryan lobbied Democrats for years to prioritize domestic manufacturing and re-training which would minimize some of the damage.  But he was largely ignored. 

Democracy and free market capitalism cannot survive such inequality. According to John F. Kennedy, who borrowed from Thomas Jefferson, “Widespread poverty and concentrated wealth cannot long endure side by side in a democracy.” 

Every commanding civilization believes, in hubris, that it is the last and best stage of human development and that it will endure forever. This is a fantasy. Advanced societies collapse with bewildering speed: the Mongols, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Mayans, the Incas, the British, the Spanish and the Soviet Communists.

Our democratic, free market system, lasting a mere 300 years, is a blip in human history, an anomaly. No government can survive if it does not deliver “the goods” to the majority of its people. Most people don’t really care all that much about the niceties of political ideology — they care about what’s in it for them. They want their fair share.

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Blake Fleetwood
Blake Fleetwood

Blake Fleetwood was formerly a reporter on the staff of The New York Times and has written for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Village Voice, Atlantic, and the Washington Monthly on a number of issues. He was born in Santiago, Chile and moved to New York City at the age of four. He graduated from Bard College and did graduate work in political science and comparative politics at Columbia University. He has also taught politics at New York University.

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