History advises sympathetic understanding of the misery and suffering which motivated 70 million Americans to vote for someone who professes no respect for American institutions nor fealty to the First Amendment.
Demagogues like Huey Long and Father Coughlin, and radical groups like Debs’ Socialist Party and the Wall Street Putsch, flourished in the throes of the Great Depression.
In America’s prosperous times, groups inimical to our constitutional government gained little traction.
In bad times, wholesale change or magical invocations are felt necessary by large swaths of the population; Trump did best in economically-depressed regions of the country.
Authoritarianism, whether religious or from the right or left, is on the rise here and throughout the world. I’m forced to suspect that the economy, even before COVID, was terrible for the vast majority of people. Yet our stock markets are near all time highs. What gives?
Stock markets, like official unemployment statistics, tell only a bit of the economic story. The stock market reveals how the economy is doing for the already-wealthy, not for the other 95%. Only a small part of Americans own any shares or mutual funds outright; only a slightly-greater percentage own through union or other invested retirement plans.
Notwithstanding a triumphant Dow, the vast majority of our country has seen their quality of financial life diminish greatly over the past several generations. It now commonly takes two working parents to eke out an existence. Rents consume well over the recommended percentage of income, and home ownership is generally out of reach. Since the 1960s, each succeeding American generation has had it worse overall than the preceding.
However low the declared unemployment figures may be, millions are forced into the gig economy, only partially and sporadically employed, often below even the laughable minimum wage, and without benefits. Even full-time work at average jobs won’t pay the bills. The average wealth of most minority groups hovers so close to zero that a doctor’s visit or car repair exceeds all assets. This insecurity goes on for decade after decade, so the deep well of hope becomes exhausted.
Not all Americans are equally afflicted. The same decades have been extraordinarily generous to the top few. We have an historic number of billionaires; even struggling graduate students can hope to become millionaires as professionals or corporate executives. But a school teacher, truck driver, nurse or carpenter contributing to our county can only aspire to remain solvent. This is not political polemics: it’s well-established economic fact.
By 1912, seen by the platforms of Debs’ Socialist Party and Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose (Progressive) Party, it was recognized that when the overwhelming majority of the nation lacks financial security, while a precious few have money beyond belief, radical (non-Constitutional) groups will gain traction. A democratic nation will not endure when political power rewards only those already rewarded. This was stated succinctly in Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 Second Bill of Rights address.
What can be done? It isn’t scapegoating immigrants, or Jews, or the Chinese, or Muslims, or political opponents, or the few thousand terrorists of the world. The misery will continue.
Unavoidably, to alleviate the widespread suffering and establish the conditions for equality in the pursuit of happiness, it is necessary to raise taxes on those who will not suffer after paying the increased taxes. Fund affordable education for all. Achieve full employment, defined as decently-paying, constructive jobs for all who want to work; the current definition allows an official 5% unemployment, which is probably double in actuality, and which is unequally distributed so that the poorest regions and neighborhoods see over 20% out of work.
Subsidize child care, pre-school and before- and after-school programs and meals at school. Build or subsidize sufficient housing to end the housing crisis. Provide universal health care at a cost which discourages no one from seeking needed treatment, and which ends the current hospital-to-bankruptcy paradigm.
Plan for a future when jobs will be different, rather than letting the evolution of our economy randomly slay the unfortunate. End hunger in America: no family wanting to participate in our economy should go hungry so long as there is even one billionaire.
Some call this income or wealth redistribution. Some call it Christian charity. Some call it basic fairness. I see it as trying to achieve the equality of opportunity underlying our country’s principles; a decent life with a sense of hope is what “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence is about.
At the same time, restore the importance of civic values so that hope can flourish. Reject the ethic of “it’s OK if I can get away with it.” Do not worship money. Respect people. Measure the success of our economy by the welfare of our poorest citizens. Elect people who prioritize meeting the needs of the groups and classes whose situation merits attention, rather than donors.
Recommit to the principles of constitutional democracy and equality, of being compassionate and tolerant and inclusive. Recognize the difference between power and strength, between bullying and leadership, between vigorous policy debate and name-calling.
Truly make the United States of America great.
Jed Somit is a resident of Kapa‘a.