By Alyssa Battistoni
Over the past few years, it's become an article of faith among progressives that we're living through a second Gilded Age -- you know, an era in which great fortunes accrue to powerful business leaders and institutions and the nation's wealth is concentrated at the very top. In the past few months, as Republicans have proposed budgets that would cut taxes still further on the backs of the middle and working class, progressives have hammered away at the statistics -- like that the top 1 percent of Americans hold 34.6 percent of the nation's wealth; the bottom 90 percent, just 26.9 percent.
But the growth in inequality and decline of the middle and working class, though exacerbated by Bush administration economic policies, isn't a recent phenomenon -- it's been in progress for decades. Which begs the question: why on earth did it take so long for the Left to take notice? How did we end up with inequality reaching levels not seen since before the Depression without waging anything approximating a real fight against it? Surely the trends of decreasing social mobility and increasing social stratification in the supposed "land of opportunity" call for serious resistance -- where has it been? As thoroughly reprehensible as the Right's slavishness to wealth and power is, the fact that it took a financial meltdown for economic justice to even begin to replace welfare reform on the political agenda suggests progressives need to do a bit of navel-gazing.
By now it should come as no surprise that most Democratic politicians are more responsive to the interests of more affluent voters than to the working class, even if they're nominally better than Republicans with regard to middle-class interests. But the fact of the matter is that it's not just Democratic politicians who are operating from a position of privilege, but the broader progressive leadership. Perhaps this isn't surprising either, but for a party purporting to defend the economic interests of the working and middle class -- to say nothing of the poor (as per usual) -- it's a fatal weakness. By and large, the people who work at progressive think tanks, media outlets and policy centers are well-compensated -- some extravagantly so -- and staggeringly well-educated; they have solid health-care benefits and 401(k)s. As genuinely as they may care about social justice, their caring is largely based on principle rather than self-interest.
Indeed, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels has shown that voting based on social values has increased among middle-class and affluent white voters -- making "What's the matter with Manhattan?" a more appropriate question than "What's the matter with Kansas?" The answer is, of course, nothing. There's no reason people should vote based on economics rather than social issues, or vice versa. And yet the distinction does matter when it comes to questions of economic justice -- it's harder to let wage stagnation slide when it's a fact of life rather than a line on a graph.
While the makeup of the progressive leadership is a symptom of the decline of the working class rather than its root cause, it's a symptom that perpetuates the disease. Built around often-competing values of technocratic policymaking and social equality, progressives have typically sought the latter via redistribution in the form of taxes and "smart" policy measures rather than trying to make the economic model itself more equitable. We're starting to see the limitations of a technocratic approach to building an essentially charitable welfare state, but by now we've already ceded so much ground that any attempt to bring the conversation back to the structure of the economy itself is labeled as crazy socialist nonsense.
Indeed, for progressive writers and policymakers to focus on economic justice as opposed to "issues" like education or health care is to run the risk of being seen as an unreconstructed lefty obsessed with class, a decidedly unfashionable position these days. A case in point may be Van Jones, who was always bringing class and economic justice into the national conversation, but got dropped like a rock when his history of radical activism came under scrutiny. Safer by far to be a clever wonk -- knowledgeable, witty, able to deploy charts and statistics on whatever topic dominates the news cycle any given day.
But while that work is important and many progressives do it exceedingly well, it doesn't extend very far beyond the circle of educated, relatively well-off, wonky types who can access and engage with it. That is, it's not going to result in a progressive movement with the power to fight back against the efforts of corporations and the wealthy to make the structure of the economy ever more favorable to their interests.
And to be sure, any attempt to truly tackle the injustice of our current economic system will require movement building and organizing. The political power of the wealthy is immense, and the waning of union power has left little in the way of institutions that can defend the interests of the nonrich. But advocacy from the comfortable position of the liberal establishment on behalf of the working class isn't going to get the job done; the push needs to come from the people whose lives are directly affected. Indeed, the reason things like career pressures, blogosphere culture, and pet policies of the progressive middle class matter at all is that the Democrats no longer have a working-class base with the power to push for economic justice.
It's not exactly news that the demise of unions is a major factor in the decline of the middle and working class, nor that what remains of organized labor is ill-suited to launching a truly transformative campaign. As former SEIU executive Stephen Lerner writes,
Unions with hundreds of millions in assets and collective bargaining
agreements covering millions of workers won’t risk their treasuries
and contracts by engaging in large-scale sit-ins, occupations and
nonviolent civil disobedience that inevitably must overcome court
injunctions and political pressure in order to succeed. The same is
true for many progressive and civil rights groups that receive
significant funding from corporations. Electorally focused groups have
worked too hard to risk losing political access.
These aren’t criticisms. They are a reality. Groups that were built
for traditional electoral politics, lobbying and collective bargaining
can’t turn themselves -- nor should they -- into instruments of direct
action challenging the status quo.
Yet thus far, progressives by and large haven't done the serious work of building new organizations and institutions to replace unions in protecting the interests of poor and working-class Americans in their stead, nor to support groups that can challenge the status quo.
But it's not too late to build a real movement against neoliberal cuts and in favor of a more just and equitable economy. Recent events offer a vision of a possible new direction: the most exciting activism the Left has seen in decades didn't take place on the Mall or Capitol Hill, but rather, in places -- Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio -- where drastic anti-union proposals spurred thousands of citizens to come together over issues of mutual concern.
The recession is making people from different backgrounds and walks of life realize that the challenges they face are structurally similar; that not only blue- but white-collar jobs have been degraded and outsourced, and in fields from administration to academia the jobs that remain are increasingly insecure, contingent, and contractual. The looseness and spontaneity of these reactions speaks to a growing energy without an effective outlet, suggesting that progressives need to think about how to better support grassroots organizing, encourage experimentation with new forms of organizing, and create a connected but independent network of diverse organizations and campaigns chipping away at the powers that be.
I sometimes suspect that some progressives see President Obama's decision to leave community organizing for Harvard Law as validation of policy and legal approaches to tackling injustice over movement-building. But Obama's career trajectory is actually a case in point for why the Left can't be led primarily by progressives with middle-class backgrounds and elite educations, even if they're genuinely concerned with social justice. Organizing is hard work, and it takes a long time. It can't be done by people who have the option of leaving for greener pastures; it has to be done by people who are embedded within and committed to the communities they're organizing for the long run.
Because one thing is for sure: a movement consisting of middle-class supporters with a vague commitment to social justice will not succeed in addressing the root causes of its decline on its own, and it will certainly not succeed in addressing -- or perhaps even in identifying -- the issues that plague the poor and working class. As Vivien Labaton and Gara Lamarche of the Atlantic Philanthropies argue in the American Prospect, "Too often, debates unfold without the voices of those most affected informing them. To win the message wars and, more important, to make the strongest case possible for change, we need to put those voices front and center."
Figuring out how to do this -- how to expand leadership and build a new type of movement that can not only lend power to progressive politics but help form and shape it -- is perhaps the most important challenge facing the American Left today.
Alyssa Battistoni is a writer and graduate student in geography and environment at Oxford University. This article originally appeared on AlterNet.org