We saw in our last post how the intensifying class war in America over the last 30 years has hollowed out the middle class and led to the widest gap between the haves and have nots in our country’s history. In this Second Gilded Age, the right has been winning the war by its promotion of deregulated markets and its attacks on government, thereby sacrificing the public interest to the benefit of the politically elite and the few at the top. In this new landscape, Social Darwinism increasingly prevails—sink or swim, take care of yourself, don’t expect any ‘handouts’.

We now have to wonder what has happened to our sense of fair play, our self-proclaimed egalitarianism that has been part of our character for a long time. We need to ask whether we care anymore for our fellow citizens, and whether we can mount the collective political will to reverse course toward a kinder, gentler society?

Today’s mean-spirited political debate across the wide divide between the Tea Party and progressives stands in sharp contrast to previous times in the last century. Through the leadership of a strong and caring president, FDR brought us Social Security in the 1930s, the 1950s was a time of prosperity widely shared across our society, and the 1960s brought Medicare and Medicaid.

We are now seeing some interesting writing on this subject that helps us to understand how we got here and how we might get past these dark times.

In his classic recent article on the subject, Robert Kuttner, founder and co-editor of The American Prospect and co-founder of the Economic Policy Institute, draws a comparison with the failures of civic institutions of Germany in the late 1800s that prevented a national consensus with later global consequences. As he observes:

“One of our major parties has turned nihilist, giddily toying with default on the nation’s debt, reveling in the dark pleasures of a fiscal Walpurgisnacht. Government itself is the devil… Whether the target is the Environmental Protection Agency, the Dodd-Frank law or the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are out to destroy government’s ability to govern… The administration, trapped in the radical right’s surreal logic, plays by Tea Party rules rather than changing the game… The right’s reckless assault on our public institutions is not just an attack on government. It is a war on America.” (Kuttner, R. The war on America. The American Prospect 22 (8): 3, 2011)

In his new book Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It, Don Peck compares our times today with those in the First Gilded Age in this country in the late 1800s. The gulf between rich and poor was also very wide in those years. The Depression of 1893 led to a run on banks that crippled the financial system, extended families broke apart, communities became more transient, and the social fabric of society was shattered. (Peck, D. Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It. New York. Crown Publishers, 42-5, 2011)

Theodore Marmor, professor emeritus of public policy at Yale and Jerry Mashaw, professor of law, also at Yale, note how the language of our political leaders has changed from the 1930s to today—from “a morally resonant language of people, family and shared social concern to the cold technical idiom of budgetary accounting.” As they further observe:

“ In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other—not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become “entitlements”, a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being.” (Marmor, TR, Mashaw, JL. How do you say ‘economic security’? New York Times, September 23, 2011)

Henry Giroux, author of another new book, Education and the Crisis of Public Values: Challenging the Assault on Teachers, Students and Public Education, sheds further light on how all this has come about:

“As the left slid into organizing around mostly single-issue movements since the 1980s, the right moved in a different direction, mobilizing a range of educational forces and wider cultural apparatus as a way of addressing broader ideas that appealed to a wider public and issues that resonated with their everyday lives. Tax reform, the role of government, the crisis of education, family values and the economy, to name a few issues, were wrenched out of their progressive legacy and inserted into a context defined by the values of the free market, an unbridled notion of freedom and individualism and a growing hatred for the social contract.

…At issue here is the need for a new vocabulary, vision and politics that will unleash new, democratic movements, institutions and a formative culture capable of imagining life and society free of the dictates of endless military wars, boundless material waste, extreme inequality, disposable populations and unfounded human suffering.” (Giroux, HA. Corporate media and Larry Summers team up to gut public education: Beyond education for illiteracy, vulgarity and a culture of cruelty. Truthout, September 27, 2011) So we have some big questions here: who are we today, are we the country that we want to be, do we care about each other anymore, and do we have the collective will to assert ourselves against the bigoted interests of the few?

John Geyman, M.D.
Professor emeritus of Family Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine, and author of Falling Through the Safety Net: Americans Without Health Insurance (Common Courage Press, 2005)

To buy a book from John Geyman, M.D., visit http://www.copernicus-healthcare.org