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Peter W. Cookson, Jr.

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The Marie Antoinette Syndrome

Posted: 10/17/11 01:45 PM ET

The Great Wall Street Rebellion is just the tip of a huge submerged social iceberg of revulsion and resistance.

The facts about real America are frightening: the last time we were a more unequal society was during the Age of the Robber Barons: upper-mobility has stopped; our public institutions are in disarray and being disassembled; we are at each other' throats; and our international situation is disastrous -- we are owned by the Chinese.

And where is our public leadership? Like the officers of the Titanic they are dining in first class rather than standing watch on the bridge. Because of their lack of attention and commitment the ship of state is sailing through dangerous uncharted waters, rudderless and listing far to the right. Their internalized self-deception blinds them to the moral, social, and economic consequences of living in our winner-take-all society.

Call this the "Marie Antoinette Syndrome" after the infamous French queen who, when she heard that the poor had no bread, is reported to have said, "Let them eat cake." She was badly out of touch with reality, to put it mildly -- as our leaders are today; they are frozen by fear and bad faith.

Republican leaders, in particular, have embraced a trickle-up theory of prosperity. This crazy logic turns reality on its head and asks us to believe the unbelievable. As the banquet table of the ultra-rich groans with surplus, we must hope for hand-outs and low-paying jobs. Adam Smith is rolling over in his grave; he was a moral philosopher, not a hedge-fund operator.

Many of us live paycheck-to-paycheck (if we have one). In the last two decades the cost of health insurance has risen 182 percent and median debt of middle class families has increased 292 percent. Over 20 percent of us live in poverty. 35,000 children suffer from hunger every day just few blocks from the White House.

Heroic capitalism is fine for the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, but it fails completely as a viable solution to our decline and fragmentation. Instead of being manipulated by the masters of the universe set who are currently running the show we should, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, begin with a "sense of the people." The Founders did not include an escape clause in the social contract and there is no invisible ink in the Declaration of Independence which says only the very rich have a right to pursue happiness.

To recapture a sense of the people we need a grassroots politics and genuine leadership. Instead of top-down control let's take a lesson from the Arab Spring and The Great Wall Street Rebellion and support leaders who represent the 99 percent of us who work for a living. Let's seize the creative moment and go back to a politics that:

1. Begins with the people who live with the problems;
2. Listens to what the community needs;
3. Includes all the stakeholders;
4. Finds low-cost local solutions that can be managed by local people;
5. Uses the power of common interest to create a culture of constant improvement;
6. Links communities together in a constructive national conversation;
7. Ensures that our national values of democratic participation guide foreign policy; and
8. Regains our respect for government as an ally in the struggle for justice.

We need deep healing and real answers to rebuild America. We should be guided by one fundamental question: What are the best policies for creating a healthy society? Rather than start with arcane theories of capital accumulation as the premise of a national conversation, let's begin with grassroots politics and the principles of genuine democracy the Founders risked their lives for -- equality of opportunity and a basic sense of fairness.