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Extreme wealth and income inequality are a threat to democracy.
The Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court declared that unlimited political spending is a type of protected free speech. By this logic corporations are now people and can use their near-limitless resources to undermine democracy by subverting the will of the American people. Gangster capitalists such as the Koch Brothers -- who also do not believe in basic principles of democracy -- are enforcing a true tyranny of the minority through their donations to candidates, their funding interest groups and lobbyists and their endowment of entire university departments and professors to produce "scholarship" that support their agenda.
Beyond public policy, wealth and income inequality is impacting the American people in other immediate and personal ways as well. By one recent report, 43 percent of Americans cannot afford basic necessities. Wages are stagnant and declining when adjusted for inflation. An entire generation of young people is not saving for future retirement because they anticipate working forever and also do not have any disposable income.
What led to these outcomes and what can be done to remedy them? Could these systemic failings have other cause as well? I recently spoke about these topics and others with Steven Brill, the bestselling author of such books as "America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System" and "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools."
In his provocative new book "Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall – and Those Fighting to Reverse It," Brill argues that the post-World War II expansion of American meritocracy actually created a new type of oligarchy, one whose members are better equipped to protect the gains and power of their own group to the disadvantage of others not in their class.
In this conversation Brill and I discuss this boomerang effect, the structural factors which created the political conditions necessary for a right-wing authoritarian such as Donald Trump to win the White House and how America's political leaders should embrace a politics that serves the interests of all people, not just affluent elites who have separated themselves from the day-to-day struggles and needs of most Americans. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Donald Trump's victory and this current political crisis were decades in the making. This moment is a reflection of serious institutional and structural problems in American society. How do you make sense of it all?
During the 1960s I was part of a generation that benefited from the expansion of American meritocracy. I was one of the first group of students to be admitted to Yale when it was opened up to Jews, admissions was made need-blind, people started getting financial aid and Yale transformed from being just the old boys' network to something a bit more meritocratic and open. The beneficiaries of that in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990’s would become the lawyers who created and engineered corporate takeovers and ways to fight unions in the South, as well as how to lobby so that regulations would not be passed. That generation also became the bankers who created casino capitalism.
The election of Trump is a kind of revolt against the meritocracy. Consider this: Hillary Clinton is the epitome of the meritocracy. She’s first-generation money. She went to Wellesley and Yale Law School. She’s always prepared. She never shoots from the hip, she seems cool and calculating but always does her homework. Now compare her to Trump. He is a guy who was born with money, went bankrupt six times, always shoots from the hip, takes pride in never, ever being prepared, and is the ultimate freeloader and not a product of the meritocracy.
But the people who were fed up with what this new meritocracy produced said, “What the hell -- let Trump have a shot.”
Trump won every single category of white voters. It wasn’t some cartoon caricature of the "white working class" that the mainstream media likes to paint about the rubes out there in the hinterlands. That narrative about white "economic anxiety" is easier to report on and write about than it is to dig into the real systemic and structural problems in American society.
Anyone running on a Republican ballot is going to have locked in a certain percentage of white upper-class votes. What I think really gets lost in the narrative is that the people who’ve been screwed in this country are the middle class and the poor. But Trump, like George Wallace, was able to turn the middle class against the poor. For example, by saying, "All the problems you’re having are the result of these poor people" -- in his case, immigrants -- "who are getting advantages that you don’t get." But in reality the middle class and others who are not rich have been screwed over too.