To whom was President Obama speaking this week in his ground-breaking speech in Osawatomie, Kansas? I believe he was speaking directly to the Concerned Majority. At this moment in our nation's history, the vast majority of Americans are concerned. They are concerned about the dysfunction of their government, the shakiness of the economy, and the uncertainty of the future. They are concerned about jobs, education, medical care, and retirement. They are concerned perhaps most of all about their children. They are right to be concerned.
What the president was telling the majority of the American people was that he understands and shares their concerns and that government -- their government -- has a responsibility to take those concerns seriously.
He was telling them what they already know: that their government does not take their concerns seriously. As reflected in opinion poll after opinion poll, the American people hold Congress in disdain. They know that too many members of Congress are not interested in their concerns. They know that too many members of Congress are driven, not by the needs of the Concerned Majority, but by the demands of powerful corporations and the very wealthy. Of course, politicians have always been responsive to those who support their campaigns. But thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions invalidating campaign finance laws and runaway lobbying on behalf of the ultra-rich and their business interests, a small cohort of rich and powerful individuals and corporations now shape the American political system on a broad range of critical issues.
This is no accident. We now have an extraordinary maldistribution of wealth in the United States. It exceeds that of almost every other advanced nation in the world. The richest 1% of Americans today control 40% of our nation's wealth. This is a degree of concentrated power and privilege not seen in the United States since before the Great Depression.
This state of affairs corrodes our national spirit; undermines our capacity to revitalize our economy, create jobs, improve our educational system, and reduce our national debt; and corrupts our democracy. Moreover, this state of affairs came to pass in no small part because of the ever-increasing clout of the wealthy Americans, as we have seen our top tax rate for the highest earners decline from 90% under President Eisenhower, to 70% under President Nixon, to 50% under President Reagan, to 35% under President Bush. No wonder the majority of Americans are concerned.
We now face an age-old issue: for whom is our government? As Aristotle recognized more than 2,000 years ago, "where the possession of political power is due to the possession of economic wealth... that is oligarchy, and when the unpropertied class have power, that is democracy." Or as Louis Brandeis explained almost a century ago, "We can have a democratic society or we can have great concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both." And as Franklin Roosevelt reminded the nation under circumstances not so different from today, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
What we need now in America is not a culture of political obstruction, not a culture of unrestrained greed, but a culture of shared responsibility. In Osawatomie, Kansas, that is what President Obama told Americans. He told them that it is time for them to take back their nation, that it is time for them to tell those who obstruct and obfuscate and filibuster and rant that "enough is enough." He reminded us that the very idea of America is about shared responsibility rather than rampant self-interest, and that it is time for the Concerned Majority to act decisively on their concerns.
This piece was initially published in the Chicago Tribune on December 11.