Theodore Roosevelt called the robber barons of his era “malefactors of great wealth.” Franklin Roosevelt inveighed against “economic royalists.” Bernie Sanders takes on “the millionaire and billionaire class.”
Hillary Clinton spoke about “an economy that works for everyone.” Hmmm.
Sure, it’s a tidy reminder that for generations Democratic presidents’ economic polices have not just been more more effective, but that growth is also broadly shared. Yet the soapiness of the phrase reveals reveals two of the larger problems Democrats face in this new era of Trumpian treachery.
First, it misses the depth of the inequality that has been created, perhaps intentionally, by an embrace of conservative economics that began with the massive tax breaks for the rich and rollback of protections ushered in by Ronald Reagan. Along with its twin crisis of climate change, economic inequality is the greatest public policy challenge of now. And it has already proved to be perhaps the greatest, and only, existential threat we face in that it already helped elect a race-baiting demagogue with an allergy to a free press and democracy in general.
Consider this atrocity: As the top 1 percent saw their incomes rise 198 percent from 1978 to 2015, the bottom half’s incomes actually declined by 1 percent.
For much of this century, income inequality has been worse in America than it was in pre-revolutionary 18th century France— even when you factor in the proliferation of electronics and other conveniences often enabled by slave wages and child labor abroad.
And what is Trump’s GOP response to this gutting of the middle class? He plans what will likely be the the most massive transfer of wealth to the richest in human history.
It begins with tax cuts for the rich, their kids and their corporations. It includes a goal of erasing Obamacare, the single most effective anti-inequality program of the century, while giving still more tax breaks to the rich as poor workers are cast off their insurance. That would be bad enough, but their plans for Medicaid would uninsure millions more, including many of America’s most vulnerable seniors and disabled people.
Those efforts to rob the poor to pay the rich are obvious. It’s much harder to put numbers on how Trump’s GOP is shifting the cost of pollution from polluters to the people, or how our economy will be starved by the privatization of everything from roads to schools.
You could argue that there would be some sanity to this mass cruelty if it represented effort to eliminate the deficit and begin rolling back the debt — but Trump’s GOP is planning the opposite.
All indications suggest that every possible magic asterisk in the GOP’s bag of ripoffs will be used to make sure they can explode the deficit. And even this maneuver has a nefarious goal with huge payoffs for the rich. If Trump ever cedes power, the GOP will then use that yawning pile of debt to demand cuts to Medicare and Social Security — the only remnants of our safety net after Paul Ryan fully executes his plan to block-grant food stamps, which would justify huge cuts and allow states to spend the money on inanities like online abstinence education instead of things like, say, food.
Yes, we want an economy that works for everyone — and the phrase implies that Republicans only want an economy that works for the richest .01 percent. But it doesn’t scream it.
This leads us to the second problem with “an economy that works for everyone.”
Now I don’t say this to indict Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote by 3 million and only lost in three states by a percentage less than .01. It’s pretty clear she would likely have won it all if not for an unprecedented act of “Comey ex machina.”
But we must acknowledge that Democrats have not met either the economic or political challenges of this moment. Even a resounding Clinton win would have likely left the House in GOP hands, which is bullshit considering how few are rewarded and how many are abused by conservative policies.
We are a progressive nation.
If every American voted, Democrats would likely win nearly every election. Instead, we’ve let the GOP use the dark arts of voter suppression and gerrymandering to limit the electorate to exactly the voters the GOP needs. And, in an effort to win over both funders and aggrieved Republicans, we’ve used a language of inclusion that is drastically out of step with the horrid corruption of both our economy and the opponents we must defeat.
Face it: Trump was damn good at demonizing Clinton for imagined crimes, offenses for which is far more likely to be guilty. And he was also better at naming his opponents than her. He ranted against “elites” and “draining the swamp” often on his private jet, while preparing to hire a cabinet that’s richer (and less qualified) than the bottom one-third of America.
The campaign was waged almost entirely on his terms, which he repeated like Rainman. By arguing that he wanted to make America “great” he was arguing that his opponents wanted the opposite, over and over and over again.
Yes,Democrats would have won in 2016 if they could have gotten 80,000 Democrats to show up in certain polling places, or swayed just a fraction of third-party voters in three states. Polls and models suggesting an almost certain Trump loss probably gave both of these groups just enough confidence not to pull that lever for Clinton.
But we cannot afford to play on the margins any more.
We should take a lesson from Trump’s GOP, which won bigly by appealing directly to its base with full-throated partisan rhetoric. America needs an uprising from the left that is large enough to wipe away the damage conservative selfishness has done to our nation and planet. And it can’t start soon enough.
“Democrats can win back the House in 2018 if the newly-engaged people who are flooding protests and town-hall meetings around the nation feel inspired enough by Democrats to march to the polls,” wrote Adam Green and Stephanie Taylor, Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “But the people in the streets want to vote for heroes. And heroes fight villains.”
This starts with naming the scourge we face. We could go with Bernie’s “the millionaire and billionaire class” but it might limit the argument to economics in a way that doesn’t work to our advantage. So I suggest “the exploiters.”
It ties together the polluters who want us to pay for brutalizing of our enviroment, the oligarchs who avoid taxes while calling for deportation of those who’d love to pay them, the ideologues who cut health care for women to serve their antiquated agenda and leave a state like Texas with the highest maternity mortality rate in developed world.
I admit it doesn’t have that Roosevelt ring yet. But if you’ve got something better, you may be the hero we need.