Successful politics is a matter of persuading Americans that “we” are on their side. That can’t be done if “we” assert facts that contradict the realities of their daily lives.
For most persuadable Americans, the realities are stagnant wages, job insecurity, meager assets, troubling debt, and all-too-often depression, addiction and ill health. Life seems to be sinking, like a swimmer pulled down by the undertow.
To them, the present claims of a strong economy are simply unreal. The stock market is booming, but they don’t own any significant investments. The unemployment rate is low, but it doesn’t affect their own jobs. Somebody else is making money. Somebody else is living the American Dream. Not them.
The failure to understand and empathize with the economics of the average American family was the progressives’ greatest preventable mistake in 2016. Many of us were so busy talking about President Obama’s economic successes that we stopped listening to the reality of economic misery.
Over the past four decades, while the U.S. economy has produced tremendous wealth, almost all of the increased profits have gone into the pockets of business owners and investors and nearly none into the pockets of average workers. Specifically, from 1980 to 2018, while the U.S. economy tripled Productivity, average workers received virtually no increase in wages (both calculations adjusted for inflation). Working Americans have every reason to be angry.
Since they’ve had no extra money, most Americans have accumulated very little in savings or assets. Specifically, from 1989 to 2013, while the top 10 percent of families increased their wealth by more than 50 percent, the bottom 75 percent increased not at all. More than half of families have less than $100,000 in assets, and that is overwhelmingly tied up in home equity. About one-third of families have less than $20,000. There’s just no money for them to retire. So working Americans have every reason to be scared.
Conservatives have understood the misery and have been engaged in a long campaign to assign blame. It’s immigrants they say, driving down your wages. It’s people of color they say, taking your money for welfare benefits. This is the oldest political tactic in the history of humanity: blaming “others” in order to distract the masses from the fact that it is the rich and powerful who are victimizing them (both in the U.S. and around the world).
The most important thing is to understand that economic distress didn’t just happen. It wasn’t “the economy” or “the free market” or “globalism” or “computerization.” Average Americans have not been pulled down by immigrants or people of color. Those Americans were pushed down by the rich and powerful who ran a well-planned and well-financed offensive to change laws, regulations and business norms. They rigged the system.
Right-wing leader Grover Norquist famously declared, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
But in fact, what the right wingers have done is shrink and drown the American Dream.