“War on the middle class is war on the republic itself”
---The Quotations of Chairman Joe
The term “Banana Republic” became part of our political lexicon in the twentieth century. It has quite a specific meaning. The nomenclature emerged from several and repeated failed experiments in representative government originating in Latin America where the United States, in an effort to gain legitimacy for its hemispheric hegemony, engaged in repeated attempts to impose its form of government on its neighbors to the South. The result, with rare exceptions, was throughout the last century largely disappointing. There were furtive attempts at establishing Republican forms of government throughout central and South America usually ending in the overthrow of these governments by indigenous forces or, as in the case of Haiti, Brazil, Guatemala, Chile, the Dominican Republic, at the instigation of the United States itself. What became clear, from these experiments in social engineering, was that the establishment of representative government in countries with severe maldistributions of wealth proved to be problematic. A pattern began to emerge. The landless and impoverished masses given the vote would in due course elect an assembly that would move to redistribute wealth. The moneyed interests, screaming communist plot, would then call out the military and, either on their own or painting the populist movements as pawns of the “international communist conspiracy”, excite the ever virulent strain of paranoia that lurks just beneath the surface in the United States to enlist American aid and gain legitimacy for the ensuing repression. Let’s be clear about this. In Nicaragua the entire country was but a plantation for the Samoza family. In Venezuela the top 10% owned nearly 90% of the country. Other countries, like Mexico, presented a democratic tradition in which the PRI, which took power with the revolution in 1910, held sway for over 80 years. Many of the noble experiments quickly degenerated into one-party rule or outright dictatorships. Again what would happen is that the people would gain voice through the various parliaments and would move to redistribute land and/or wealth. Wealth would first seek to buy back power and, failing to effect a favorable outcome, call out the military bringing a swift end to the “democratic” experiment. In those countries wherein the military proved insufficient or reticent to crush its own people, the elites would then turn to the United States to destabilize, help overthrow, or simply send in the marines. Here in this political Petri dish the conditions necessary for the establishment of stable representative government came fully into relief. These experiments in making the entire hemisphere over in our own image demonstrated a political principle our forefathers understood: that representative government can only be established in a society wherein there is an equitable distribution of wealth. If the gulf between the have’s and have not’s is too wide the foundations of the republic will not hold. As Lincoln would say in a different context nearly a century later “a house divided against itself cannot stand”.
What distinguishes us from the classic Banana Republic is that advanced democratic societies are characterized by a large, vibrant and controlling middle class. This is no accident. It is necessary for the Middle Class to be strong enough to counter the weight of the extremes of poverty and wealth whose interests stand diametrically opposite one another. If wealth is concentrated in too few hands then it will simply buy power, as is becoming more evident in each election cycle. If the poor begin to outnumber the Middle Class and society becomes bifurcated into two camps—the wealthy few and the impoverished many—then the democratic experiment is bound to fail as in the classic example of the Banana Republic wherein wealth wins; or the French Revolution where wealth loses. Without a strong and pervasive middle class to act as a referee, to stand as a “middle ground” for which the polar opposites must compete, then there is no “buffer” there is no compromise.
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 have we, 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 Arthur Schlesinger points out in his “Age of Jackson” 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. So in the 19th Century Jefferson’s yeoman farmer became the Bulwark of the Republic so to speak.
Lets be clear about this. The middle class is not a product of great wealth, it is not something handed down to us from above as a manifestation of philanthropy or even enlightened self-interest. The middle class has always been the creation of political will. The idea that the wealthy will, out of some exaggerated sense of “noblesse Oblige” or out of their own economic interests, create and defend a social middle class is laughable on it’s face. Nothing in the history of man demonstrates this. In fact the moneyed interests have forever been found kicking and screaming and standing foursquare against everything from banning child labor, unionization, the eight-hour work day, the forty hour work week, the minimum wage, social security, health care, civil rights (read about the “anti-abolition riots” in New York City in the 1830’s and the business community’s support of the rioters) environmental and consumer protections, to name but a few articles of reactionary litany.
Let’s get back to this: the middle class is a product of political will. If the last three decades demonstrate anything it is that with the reduction of taxes and the growing share of the national economic pie taken by the wealthiest Americans almost none of that money has found it’s way into the middle class. In fact, left to their own proclivities, the wealthy have done what they always do…pocket the money. In the last decade they have commandeered two thirds of the tax cuts and fully three quarters of the wealth produced by the increases in worker productivity. Nothing is “trickling down” to the next social rung as evidenced by the stagnation of incomes, and the absolute decline in purchasing power of those of ‘middling means”.
The middle class in America was and is a creation of political will. Whether it was through the outright rejection of the attempt to transplant European aristocracy to the new world during the colonial period, the expansion westward as a way of insuring the survival of the yeoman farmer, the institution of income and estate taxes early in the last century, the breaking up of trusts and other economic combinations, the passing of education, and home mortgage programs in the postwar era, to laws making it easier for workers to organize (until Reagan that is), to minimum wage, unemployment and worker’s compensation insurance, to Medicare and Medicaid these were political acts taken by the people’s representatives assembled. As a case in point: before the passage of Social Security being old was almost synonymous with being poor. In fact as late as the early 1960’s over 30 percent of the elderly lived in poverty. With the passage of Medicare and Medicaid and other such programs that level has been reduced to nearly 10%.
The passage of this legislation and the institution of these programs not only served to create a ‘fairer’ distribution of wealth but served the more important function of shoring up the modern American Middle Class and, by extension, the foundation of the republic itself.
I have not been understood. The middle class is itself a creation of political will designed to give stability to the republic. Without a middle class, in a representative society, one has contention, strife, war, revolution or repression. Only an all-powerful middle can insure against the extremes and for that reason war on the middle class is war on the republic itself.
In November last year, the center gave way. The ship of state was ripped loose of it’s moorings and cast to sea piloted by a ship of fools. Losing over 60 seats in the house to the modern “No-Nothing” party, the Speaker’s gavel was handed over to John Boner of Ohio who, upon taking the dais, announced that the first act of the new Congress will be the repeal of the Health Care law. Obama, with the opposition in control of committees, investigations and spending, will now be forced to do what Clinton had done, become the buffer between his own party and the newly re-emergent troglodytes. “Triangulation” it was called then; a strategy of positioning the President in the middle in which he becomes not an advocate of his agenda but an architect of a series of miserable compromises. The promise of ‘transcendence’ becomes the reality of ‘triangulation’. The last time we found ourselves in this position, we witnessed so-called ‘welfare reform’, trade agreements that savaged manufacturing jobs, cuts in social spending, the further dismantling of New Deal banking regulations, and the continued decline of the share of national wealth controlled by the Middle Class. If recent history is any example, it means the resumption of the war on the middle class and, by extension, the Republic itself.