In his acceptance speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Senator John Kerry pointed out that the middle class controlled a smaller share of the national economy than at any time since before 1929. He could have run on that issue alone in 2004 and won the presidency but decided instead to refight the Vietnam War. With median household purchasing power declining by $1,500. Annually the situation has not improved.
What has improved, since the last election cycle, is that all of the Democrats and Mike Huckabee have discovered it. Even Mitt Romney, as he visits at last the gutted remains of the Michigan he once knew, has discovered the fearful plight of the old working class as he tries to inject some air into his gasping campaign. This is important not as a partisan issue, nor is it important solely as a class issue, it is an important political issue that speaks to the condition of the very soul of the Republic.
What distinguishes us from the classic banana republic is that advanced democratic societies have a large, vibrant and controlling middle class. This is no accident. Emerging under the crushing oppression of the old feudal order, modern democratic systems arose to challenge the feudal aristocracies not only for political power but to use that power to improve their own condition. The result was both peaceful and violent. Relatively peaceful in England with the Reform acts of 1832, extending the franchise, and violent in America and France with their respective revolutions. The result was, broadly speaking, the same. Political parties made up of the new urban and industrial professionals, labor unions, and Farm groups replaced the old aristocracies and in varying degrees went about the business of constructing—through a sometimes painful century long process—a vibrant and controlling middle class. In America the process had a head start with some 80% of the electorate originally middling ‘yeoman’ farmers who quickly organized behind the aristocratic Jefferson to oppose the monied ‘eastern interests’ represented by Hamilton and the Federalists. To varying degrees American politics, a balance between conflict and consensus, has since been a contest between these two factions with the modern middle class taking it’s form with the New Deal and the monied interests having long since taken refuge in the Republican Party. Democracy then creates the middle class because politics are driven by numbers, Jeremy Bentham’s dictate that the purpose of any society is to provide the most benefit for the most people. Majorities have used their political strength to oppose concentrations of economic power, break up monopolies, regulate economies, redistribute wealth and construct safety nets for the elderly, impoverished and infirm. The middle class had become so controlling that both parties have had to pay homage to it for the privilege of exercising national power. So the Republicans pushed the expansion of the franchise, busted the trusts, began the environmental movement under Teddy Roosevelt, the Democrats under Wilson advanced on that theme then under FDR began the wholesale restructuring of the middle class after the debacle of the 1920’s. Not only has the democracy created a commanding middle class but the middle class has a vested interest in defending democracy. This was a point entirely missed by Her Hitler.
It is important for the Middle class to be strong enough to counter the weight of the extremes of poverty and wealth. If wealth is concentrated in too few hands then it will simply buy power, as is increasingly the case in the United States. If the poor begin to outnumber the middle class and society is bifurcated into two camps, the wealthy few and the impoverished masses, then the democratic experiment is bound to fail, as in the classic example of the banana republic or the French Revolution. The masses vote and elect huge majorities which quickly demand a redistribution of the fruits of society. The wealthy call out the military and the democratic experiment ends in failure. This is why it has been such a long and painful process to establish representative government in so many parts of the world. And this is why our Founding Fathers understood that the most important function of government is to prevent the rise of a new aristocracy. As Arthur Schlesinger points out in his “Age of Jackson” the revolution in America was not simply a question of home rule but who would rule at home.
Benjamin Franklin, so the legend goes, was stopped on the street as deliberations ended on the new Constitution: A woman walked up to him and asked “What kind of government are we to have Mr. Franklin?”
“A republic if you can keep it”, replied the old inventor.
If we can keep it….the founders knew this was an historical experiment, they knew their creation was a fragile one and many did not expect the republic to outlive them. As Schlesinger points out many not only distrusted the Eastern Mercantile interests but understood from their reading of history that a true republic must be born of a large and controlling class of middling station. And so in their reading of history the great undoing of the early experiments in Greece and Rome was not slavery but empire, and the consequent concentrations of economic power into fewer hands. The Lees and Henry’s of Virginia, not to mention Jefferson, understood the need for a middle class not only to create but be nurtured by a democratic process that would, as Bentham would so eloquently state a century later, bring the most benefits to the most people: A middle class by definition. This had the singular advantage of creating an umpire strong enough to mediate between the extremes of wealth and poverty, to create opportunity with as little oppression and exploitation as decent society will allow. They were quite explicit about this: Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers that one of the most important reasons for adopting the proposed constitution is to regulate the economy. Writing in Federalist No. 22 of the defects rendering the Articles of Confederation “altogether unfit for the administration of the affairs of the union”, Hamilton continued, “The want of a power to regulate commerce is by all parties allowed to be of the number…It is indeed evident, on the most superficial view, that there is no object, either as it respects trade or finance, that more strongly demands a federal superintendence…”, something entirely overlooked by the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society as they foist their reactionary vision of freedom to mask their agenda of exploitation.
Last week CSPAN televised a forum at the University of Oklahoma featuring, among others, the likes of Mayor Bloomberg of New York, Former Senator John Danforth of Missouri, Gary Hart and former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia. The topic was political discourse with the general consensus being that partisan politics have poisoned the well making it difficult to govern in the United States. I have much respect for the members of this panel but I must respectfully say that they have it precisely wrong.
The vitriol that now courses through the veins of American politics has been a long time in the making and whose origins can be traced to the opening statement of Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Taking his place at the podium to address a national audience as he accepted his party’s nomination for president of the United States, Goldwater’s screed ended with:
“Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”.
The house came down as the throng that had booed and hooted Nelson Rockefeller from the stage rose as one to cheer their new champion as he prepared to make war on the national consensus that was the New Deal. Goldwater had stormed the ramparts and taken the party. He had driven the eastern establishment, represented now by Rockefeller who, as Eisenhower and Nixon before him, had accepted the tenets of the New Deal and in their 8 years in power so no reason to lower capital gains taxes of 80% and upper income taxes in the high 90’s. Nor had they tried to tamper with Social Security, privatize the TVA as Wilke would have done, or break the unions. The Cons went down to historical defeat at the hands of the arch-liberal Lyndon Johnson and all was well with the world.
But they had given birth to vermin. Stink tanks arose housing those who would lie sleepless at night masturbating to visions of taking America back into the 19th century, and recreating the working conditions of the Chicago slaughter houses. Foremost among them were William F. Buckley whose national socialist review became a mouthpiece for the new religion. Then there was Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics. These curmudgeons fought for a decade and a half to gain entrance to the corridors of power but were blocked by the likes of Richard Nixon, perhaps America’s last liberal president. Finally, in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, the surtax and the stagflation, the country was introduced to a new element into the political arena, given legitimacy by a peanut farmer from Georgia, the religious right. Vaulting Carter into the presidency, Jimmy managed in four short years to alienate both his religious conservative base and the liberal wing of the party---for inflation, as noted earlier, is a cruel mistress. The result was that what would become the “Christian Coalition” bolted the Democratic Party and crossed the isle to become the foot soldiers in Ronald Reagan’s assault on the ramparts of the old guard. The rest, as they say, is history. Suddenly the Cons found they had an army at their disposal and could now match the democrats in the field. And so talking the talk of compassion, promising an eternal ‘morning in America’, the Reaganaughts marshaled their army to do battle against the old New Deal. The problem was that to do battle with the New Deal is to do battle with the middle class. To wage war on the New Deal is to wage war on the middle class. To wage war on the New Deal is, in the absence of another middle class Magna Carta, to wage war on the Republic itself.
And so it has been. Beginning with the war against organized labor, the Cons and their Larvae the Neo-cons have destroyed the bargaining position of the middle class in the marketplace. Moreover they have systematically dismantled the “countervailing power”, to use economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s term, of Labor to Corporate America. In the partisan war between the parties the Conservatives have waged a relentless war against the economic foundation of the New Deal not only reducing union membership to levels not seen since before the Wagoner Act was passed but making it imperative that the Democrats, in order to compete, seek funding from the same lobbyists and interests as the Republican Party.
This has produced, on the Democratic side, a complete disconnect between rhetoric and reality. While posturing rhetorically as the tribune of the people the Democrats have substantively offered up agenda’s and enacted legislation that can be characterized at best as “Bush-Lite”. In fact in the 1970’s, even before Reagan, it was the Democrats who championed deregulation and taxed unemployment benefits. But such bi-partisan consensus, born of the near Dictatorship of Capital, cannot mask the growing destruction of the old American Consensus that lies underneath and increasingly clamors to be heard manifesting itself in the tactics of ‘cut and burn’ that has been our politics in recent decades. In fact it has become increasingly important for the elites—representing now only the wealth—to use ever draconian measures to keep their hold on power. Reagan had to negotiate with the Iranians to hold the hostages until after the election. Bush used Willy Horton and the race card, tried to drive wedges into every fissure at the base of the republic to win temporary political advantage. ‘Ol Two-Cows” had to savage several war heroes and commit the outright theft of two national elections to get and hold power. And now, like any respectable banana republic we now have foreign observers monitoring our elections. It remains to be seen what outrages await us as this election cycle proceeds. Already Dennis Kucinich is questioning the ballot in New Hampshire, pointing out that Hillary won on electronic voting machines, Obama on the paper and mechanical ballots. Harbinger of things to come?
As our language becomes more strident you can hear the indignation from Fox Noise and the Neo-Con spin machine about fear mongering and ‘class war’, conveniently overlooking the fact that the wealthy have been waging war on us for three decades now. But the Liberals are not yet waging war on the rich. No one in the race has called for anything like socialized medicine or even a return to the tax codes of Harry Truman or even Dick Nixon. Still the rhetoric is heating up and will, in the succeeding election cycles, become white hot as the middle class goes the way of the pterodactyl. It cannot be otherwise. For the truth is that it is not the rhetoric that creates the class divisions but class divisions that give voice to the rhetoric. The panel had it precisely on its head. One does not heal class divisions by toning down the rhetoric; one turns down the rhetoric by healing class divisions. Read any speech By FDR referring to the “malefactors of wealth’ or his diatribes against bankers and Wall Street. But FDR healed the nation. In this context the panel at Oklahoma and Barack’s campaign ring hollow. If Barach is to be the transformational figure he portends, he must confront with righteous indignation as Martin, FDR and Lincoln did before him. He must introduce, like Bobby, the ‘other America’ and take his campaign and the cameras to the Mississippi Delta and the slums of New York, to the rural poor and the Indian reservations; foremost he must show the country what it already knows and walk, with the press in tow, the boarded up main streets of America. And he must do it in ways that inspire.