America has gotten off of the right track, and properly at that. It is no longer the democracy lauded by de Tocqueville as a balance of freedom and equality, nor is it Winthrop’s legendary “shining city upon a hill.” Instead it is a place in which political polarization has reached a historical scale and the food supply of every seventh household is uncertain.
Downturn by Division
The U.S. economy remains bedridden, while the unemployment rate grew to 9.2 percent in June. Nearly half of the unemployed were without a job for at least six months — a historical value that was not reached even during the Great Depression in the 1930s. While the middle class has melted by roughly 10 percent since 1969, poverty has never been as widespread since empirical data collection began. And the meteoric growth of income for the upper 10 percent — and in particular the upper 1 percent — is without parallel since the economic boom in America at the end of the 19th century.
These days we are tragically experiencing the restaging of the mistakes of 1937, when the U.S. government tried to cut itself out of the fishnet of the crisis through cutbacks, and as a result just accelerated the recession. The ostensibly “democratic” president today has adapted the logic of conservative Republicans, who see the debts and government deficit as the cause of the economic decline — and not high unemployment and a lack of consumption. Spending cuts in the middle of a cooled-off economy mean abandoning 75 years of Keynesian doctrine and a repetition of the tragic mistakes of 1937.
There Is No Left in the U.S.
That the “where” and “how” of spending cuts are being debated in Washington is in no way just an episodic victory of the rising tea party, but rather the logical continuation of a 30-year ongoing drift of the American political system to the right. To understand America’s pathology, one must be aware that the Cold War extinguished the entire left half of the political spectrum. Far left in the U.S. is what is considered the middle right in most countries.
Yet Reagan’s term in the ‘80s was even more important for the growing force of adhesion on the right, as evidenced by his attacks on collective labor law and the liberalization of economic policy. The position of the unions was undermined to such an extent that union density in America is lower than in every other advanced industrial nation. The actual wages of the workers are stagnated at the level of the ‘70s in spite of a substantial increase in productivity.
The result of this trend: Both parties let big business fill their campaign chests and have internalized the mantra: “no new taxes.” The tax rate for businesses and the rich is at a historically low level; the ratio of tax yield to GDP amounts to only 16 percent. Added to that are approximately $4 trillion in debts for foreign wars and lost tax revenue due to the current recession.
The Dream Is Dead
While the Republicans have been at war with labor unions and social programs for the middle class since day one, the tea party movement is using their affected concern for the budget deficit to unabashedly pave the way for the end of social security for retirees, unemployment insurance, health insurance and Medicaid for the poor. The goal is a leaner government — even if the middle class is exploited and the economy is ruined.
The most recent developments are, however, only the manifestation of a deeper malaise that encases the American psyche: The perceived loss of the legendary upward mobility, the opportunity to advance from dishwasher to millionaire and the clouding of the once unflagging optimistic view of the future. These sorts of developments suggest that the rest of the world will soon no longer be able to view America as the stronghold of freedom, opportunity for advancement, and justice. The feisty political activism of American citizens in the ‘60s and ‘70s that Gil Scott-Heron described in his hymn “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is slumbering or dead. More fitting today is his melancholy sequel “Winter in America.”