The American Left Awakens: As The Middle Class Goes, So Goes The Political Middle
It could be said that a democracy’s chosen economic model lives and dies by the prosperity of the majority. A thriving middle class has been the key stabilizing factor in American politics for generations. As such, systematic change in the United States has traditionally come slowly and incrementally.
But after a decade of zero job growth, while millions more Americans have continued to enter the labor market, they have witnessed unemployment rates rise and become fixed at levels rarely seen before. They have watched their wages drop, their cost of living rise (due in large part to high energy prices, high education costs, and runaway health care costs), and correspondingly, their quality of life erode.
The middle class is gradually disappearing from the U.S. landscape, and the ‘American dream’ is transforming into a fiction in the minds of millions.
This dream is based on an implicit agreement between the establishment and the masses, and is crucial for America’s brand of hyper-Capitalism to remain a viable economic model. It goes something like this:
If Americans work hard, and invest in a decent education, at worst they should expect a comfortable middle class existence, with prospects for future upward mobility based on merit and perseverance.
As long as this dream is deemed achievable in the minds of the majority, the political status-quo remains all-but a certainty. But the moment people stop believing it, the calls for serious systematic change begin to bubble up to the surface. And this is when the political middle dissipates.
Many economists hold that the dream actually vanished many years ago, but the establishment extended exorbitant lines of credit to Americans, which allowed them to enjoy a mirage of prosperity. In other words, a once prosperous nation on the decline became transformed into a debtor nation. But in doing so, the ‘American dream’ lived on in the minds of millions.
All it took was the massive financial meltdown of 2008, brought on by years of deregulation in the financial and mortgage industries, to pull the curtain wide open on the American dream. The collapse of the U.S. banking industry — which exposed a band of corrupted, highly-leveraged casinos masquerading as banks — rudely awakened Americans to their true state of affairs.
Twelve trillion dollars in ‘perceived’ wealth, mostly in home values, vanished into thin air. Many of those lucky enough to remain employed, found themselves under water with their mortgages. No longer able to sustain their middle class lifestyles with easy credit, consumer spending continued to dry up, and the economy spiraled even further into the doldrums.
The rationale George W. Bush and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson used to sell the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to the American public was that if taxpayers bailed out these banks, they would in turn ‘loosen’ the credit markets by lending again to businesses and consumers, which would help to stimulate investment and demand.
Instead, the banks did just about everything, BUT resume lending. Having received amazing terms from the government, they invested in no-risk, interest-bearing Treasuries — to profit off the spreads and transaction fees. They paid themselves billions of dollars in the form of bonuses. In addition, these ‘Too Big to Fail’ banks used taxpayer money to buy-out struggling competitor banks, thereby growing even bigger.
Neither TARP, nor the $16 trillion in secret Fed loans to banks (both here and abroad), loosened the credit markets. Nor did they help millions of struggling Americans to stay in their bank-foreclosed homes. What the bail-outs accomplished was to send a powerful message to Wall Street: as long as these institutions remained ‘Too Big To Fail’ they could continue to take obscene risks, because the government could be counted on to cover their losses.
The effort was branded by most to be a colossal failure — a massive transfer of wealth from the ninety-nine percent to the one percent.
As the status-quo became untenable, many Americans began to abandon the political middle — once a seemingly ‘mainstream’ place to be — and split towards each end of the political spectrum.
Exiled from government, Republicans recast themselves as Tea Partiers — an ‘AstroTurfed movement’ that blamed ‘government’ for all the country’s woes. In particular, they blamed the new Democratic-controlled government, who’d been elected to clean up their mess. These right-wingers embraced pure unadulterated corporatocracy as the solution to problems created, ironically enough, by deregulated banks and corporations.
Democratic constituents felt relieved, having ushered Barack Obama into the White House on a populist progressive ‘CHANGE’ platform, along with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. The Left continued to place its faith in democracy — i.e. the ‘ballot box’ — as the appropriate venue for delivering change.
But once sworn in, Obama’s call for ‘Change’ insidiously shifted to a new call for ‘Bipartisanship’. He proceeded to prioritize ‘harmony’ between two diametrically-opposed parties over championing the progressive promises that got him elected.
Of course, this new ‘priority’ was merely a cover for appeasing the entrenched corporate interests. His largely-symbolic legislative victories were so watered down and corporate-friendly that they were routinely castigated by the Left. His advisers would complain bitterly how no one outside the White House would give Obama his due-credit for his ‘achievements’.
He governed like a pre-Tea Party Republican as he broke promise after promise. He proposed cuts to social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He pushed the Bush-signed, NAFTA-like (job-exporting) trade deals which Congressional Democrats had defeated years before, and he even pressured Congressional Democrats to extend Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%. In doing so, he grossly underestimated the populist angst that had swept him into office.
Obama’s duplicity led many of his once-energized supporters to conclude that America’s entire political process was something of a sham — that they’d once again been had.
And so they gave up waiting around for the Democratic Party to walk their talk, and took to the streets themselves in masses. On September 17, Occupy Wall Street began peacefully protesting in downtown Manhattan, and it has since spread like a forest fire into a nation-wide movement.
This huge, non-partisan, populist ground-swell blasts the Washington establishment for systematically exploiting and subjugating ninety-nine percent of Americans to appease the wealthy and powerful one-percent. The protesters demand an end to the corrupt and insidious relationship between government and corporations which perverts the very fabric of democracy.
“My biggest fear was that the Obama presidency was going to lead this generation of young people into political cynicism and political apathy,” Klein says. “But instead, they are going to where the power is. They are realizing the change is not coming in Washington because politicians are so controlled by corporate interest, and that that is the fundamental crisis in this country.”
It would appear the power-elite’s greed, corruption, and hubris has finally awakened a sleeping populist giant in the American people. And the longer the Democratic Party continues to promote policies right of center, the more those left-of-center will continue to detach from the party and the entire democratic process.
A new Washington Post/Bloomberg News Poll reveals that 44% of Democrats don’t believe the economy would get any worse should President Obama lose in 2012 to a Republican. Blue Texan from Firedoglake sums up this startling revelation:
“Let that sink in for a minute. The economy will be the number one issue in 2012 — and nearly half of the President’s own party doesn’t think it matters if he’s re-elected.”
Clearly, today’s definition of the political middle — which is where Obama loyalists contend he governs — has come to represent the painful and untenable status-quo to traditional Democratic supporters.