In The Wake Of McCutcheon, Can Democracy Tame Capital?
If we look to American history for guidance on whether democracy can rally, the lessons are not clear. For the first three centuries of European settlement of the United States, the opportunities offered by the expanding frontier relieved the pressure for economic justice. But as the frontier closed, the political pressure for policies to rein in corporate concentration and provide basic labor rights intensified. The result was the landmark legislation enacted in the Progressive era, from income and inheritance taxes to child labor laws to trust-busting. But that didn’t stop the huge rise in income inequality that led up to the stock market crash of 1929.
The New Deal provides more positive evidence that if it gets bad enough for enough people, the political system will respond dramatically: regulating finance, establishing labor standards and the right to organize, providing for social insurance, government job creation. Still, it took a world war for the political system to make the all-out investment in jobs and conditions for growth that built the great post-World War II middle-class.
So where does that leave us in 2014, after 40 years of slowly stagnating wages and gradual but relentless shrinking of middle-class reality and hopes? My first boss, Ralph Nader, wrote that “pessimism has no survival value” and 39 years after he hired me I continue to follow that advice. I can see many positive signs that we can successfully organize the political will for progressive policies to create an America that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few.
Most encouraging are new movements, by low-wage workers and by people demanding we stop killing the planet. I’m encouraged by the Millennial generation’s belief in community and embracing of diversity. And by the rising American electorate of women and communities of color who share with Millennials a belief in collective action to care for our loved ones and our communities. I’m lifted by the election of a growing number of economic progressives to local and state leadership and most recently to Congress. All of these groups share a deep concern about the state of our democracy, reminding us as well that with a switch of just one vote, the Supreme Court can reverse the disastrous Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, as well as the damage done by striking down key parts of the Voting Rights Act.
Can the powerful forces Piketty describes by turned back by a resurgent democracy? Two thousand years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” The stakes in the 21st century are still that great. Don’t mourn: organize.
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.
Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
AFP Photo/Karen Bleier