The tale of America coming out of the Great Depression and not only surviving but actually transforming itself into an economic giant is the stuff of legend.
But the part that gives me goose bumps is what we did with all that wealth: over several generations, our country built the greatest middle class the world had ever known. We built it ourselves, using our own hard work and the tools of government to open up more opportunities for millions of people. We used it all, tax policy, investments in public education, new infrastructure, support for research, rules that protected consumers and investors, antitrust laws, to promote and expand our middle class.
The spectacular, shoot-off-the-fireworks fact is that we succeeded. Income growth was widespread, and the people who did most of the work, the 90 percent of America, also got most of the gains. In the 1960s and 1970s, I was one of the lucky beneficiaries of everything America was building, and to this day, I am grateful to the bottom of my soul.
But now, in a new century and a different time, that great middle class is on the ropes. All across the country, people are worried—worried and angry.
They are angry because they bust their tails and their income barely budges. Angry because their budget is stretched to the breaking point by housing and health care. Angry because the cost of sending their kid to day care or college is out of sight. People are angry because trade deals seem to be building jobs and opportunities for workers in other parts of the world, while leaving abandoned factories here at home. Angry because young people are getting destroyed by student loans, working people are deep in debt, and seniors can’t make their Social Security checks cover their basic living expenses. Angry because we can’t even count on the fundamentals, roads, bridges, safe water, reliable power, from our government.
Angry because we’re afraid that our children’s chances for a better life won’t be as good as our own. People are angry, and they are right to be angry. Because this hard-won, ruggedly built, infinitely precious democracy of ours has been hijacked.
Today this country works great for those at the top. It works great for every corporation rich enough to hire an army of lobbyists and lawyers. It works great for every billionaire who pays taxes at lower rates than the hired help. It works great for everyone with the money to buy favors in Washington. Government works great for them, but for everyone else, this country is no longer working very well.
This is the most dangerous kind of corruption. No, it’s not old-school bribery with envelopes full of cash. This much smoother, slicker, and better-dressed form of corruption is perverting our government and making sure that day after day, decision after decision, the rich and powerful are always taken care of. This corruption is turning government into a tool of those who have already gathered wealth and influence. This corruption is hollowing out America’s middle class and tearing down our democracy.
In 2016, into this tangle of worry and anger, came a showman who made big promises. A man who swore he would drain the swamp, then surrounded himself with the lobbyists and billionaires who run the swamp and feed off government favors. A man who talked the talk of populism but offered the very worst of trickle-down economics. A man who said he knew how the corrupt system worked because he had worked it for himself many times. A man who vowed to make America great again and followed up with attacks on immigrants, minorities, and women. A man who was always on the hunt for his next big con.
In the months ahead, it would become clear that this man was even more divisive and dishonest than his presidential campaign revealed.
Plenty of people were eager to describe the special appeal of Donald Trump and explain all the reasons why he won. But we need more than an explanation of just one election; we also need to understand how and why our country has gone so thoroughly wrong.
We need a plan to put us back on track, and then we need to get to work and make it happen. We need to live our values, to be the kind of nation that invests in opportunity, not just for some of us, but for all of us. We need to take our democracy back from those who would pervert it for their own benefit. We need to build the America of our best dreams.
If ever there was a time to fight, this is it.
From her new book:
This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save Working People