I grew up on the South side of Chicago in the 1940s and 50s. My father and mother raised four children in a house that was less than a 1000 square feet. The stairwell to the second floor was so low that we had to stoop over on the walkup. Later in life, my mother confided in me that when she first saw the house she wept and told my father she "couldn't raise four children in a house that small." My dad consoled her and told her "not to worry, that it was only temporary -- that things were looking up." My dad was a true believer in the American Dream. My mother died in that same house 63 years later.
The breadwinners in our neighborhood worked in the steel mills nearby in East Indiana and in the sprawling Chicago stockyards. They were policeman, fireman, municipal workers, mechanics, house painters and assorted tradesman.
And here's the rub. We all were convinced that we were part of the "great American middle class." It was only when I went to college that I became aware of the term "working class" and that I was a product of it.
Americans have long entertained the idea that we are all middle class, or aspiring middle class. The aspiration itself is a kind of a promissory note that if we get a good education and work hard, we can pass through our initiation phase and become a full fledged member of the middle class; or at least we can sacrifice during our lifetime so that our children can become members of this very special club.
Every generation, until recently, bought into the idea that if not a classless society. America is, nonetheless, an overwhelmingly middle class society, where merit rules, hard work matters and the reward for a lifetime of putting one's nose to the grindstone is the most coveted prize of all -- the realization of the American Dream.
And to be frank, for two centuries the American Dream had legs. Succeeding generations came to America, often destitute but full of hope, and they and their offspring moved on up. As late as the 1960s, we could justifiably boast that we were the most middle class society in the world and millions of Americans could offer demonstrable proof -- their own achievement of the America Dream.
Unfortunately, I have seen the middle class shrink and the American Dream plummet in my lifetime. Today the United States ranks 31 out of 33 OECD nations in income disparity -- that is, the gap between the handful of the very rich at the top and the millions of working poor at the bottom. Only Mexico and Turkey fare worse in disparity of income. And, for the first time, our own US Census tells us that many immigrants are not making it out of poverty and becoming part of the American middle class and will never taste the sweetness of the American Dream.
What has happened to the great American Experiment that was, for so long, considered the gold standard to which millions of people in the world looked for inspiration and guidance?
Arianna Huffington has taken us on a difficult journey -- a kind of collective self-discovery. Her new book, Third World America, is hard to read, not because of the way it's written -- the prose is eloquent and riveting -- but because of what she's telling us. She lays bare the unraveling of the American Dream at the hands of the "special interests" on Wall Street and their friends in high places in the Executive and Legislative branches of government.
The book is really about two intertwined stories: the first is the story of the coup d'état -- the systematic dismantling of the coveted American way of life by the rich and powerful; and the second is the very personal, heart-wrenching stories of some of the millions of families whose lives have been ruined as a result of that coup. By the end, we come to understand that the great numbness hanging over America today resembles a post-traumatic stress disorder, the kind of battle fatigue that soldiers experience after long periods of engagement in war zones -- except this is not a hot war or a cold war but a stealth war executed with ruthless calculation and designed to rob millions of Americans of their birthright. It succeeded.
But now, at least, there is no longer any way to claim we didn't know. Arianna is asking us to quit living in a kind of mass denial about what's happened to our country. As she said, we need to "connect the uncomfortable dots" and the most important connection she makes is the financing of elections by special interests. The bottom line is that our elected officials are, to a great extent, beholden to the corporations that "donate" millions of dollars to their campaigns to ensure that their voice will be heard above all others when it comes to drafting and passing legislation. It's a national disgrace.
President Obama had a moment in which he could have turned America around and put us back on track but he chose not to understand the opportunity presented to him or seize it. When Wall Street was threatened with collapse in the Fall of 2008 and desperately needed the American people to bail them out with hundreds of billions of dollars, the president could have demanded a quid pro quo. That is, in return for the tax payers' bailout of Wall Street, the business community would have to accept the passage of legislation that would end private financing of elections and require that all elections be publically financed as they are in many other democratically elected governments in the world. Wall Street would have had no choice but to capitulate. It didn't happen. In fact, I suspect that no one in Congress even thought about taking such a course of action. Why would they since most of them owe their public careers, in large part, to the generosity bestowed on them by the Wall Street interests that they are supposed to oversee and regulate?
As to the recent bitterly divided 5-4 Supreme Court decision that corporations have a Constitutional right to make contributions to politicians, I suspect that the passage of tough, uncompromising legislation mandating an end to the practice might have led to a different outcome -- or, at the very least, forced an interesting debate between the Court and the public about the relationship between financial and political power and the governance of America.
Unless we end this despicable practice of buying elections, we will continue to witness a free fall of the American Dream, a shriveling of the American Middle Class and an erosion of what was once the greatest social experiment in modern history. Is anyone listening?
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