This election season, it has been hard not to talk about politics in situations where one normally avoids it. Recently, I was at an “appreciation dinner” for donors and volunteers. At my table, we pretty much avoided talking about the individual candidates, but one of the guests could not resist asking, “Why is our country so polarized this election year?”
There are lots of reasons, of course, but I see three things—three major fault lines where American solidarity has begun to crumble, opening the way for strange politics.
One of the fault lines is generational. Over the past few years, Baby Boomers have begun to move past their leadership roles and into retirement. At the same time, Millennials have arisen as the largest segment of today’s population, ready to take responsibility as the Baby Boomers move out. It promises to be a messy hand-off of power and responsibility between generations. Millennial democrats were drawn to Senator Bernie Sanders not for his age, but for his ideas—the progressive vision that has faded in the Democratic Party as Congress has become dominated by conservative Republicans. As the election nears, both major party candidates are early Boomers, born in the 1940s—the oldest candidates for President ever—and unable to communicate a vision that will attract Millennials; thus, many of them are considering a protest vote for Gary Johnson, another Boomer, born in 1953. The 2020 election should give Millennials their first opportunity to put their own candidate forward; meanwhile, the generation gap gapes open, with none of the candidates really making a coherent case to the emerging majority age group.
A second fault line is class. Over the past decade, we have seen the progressive isolation of the American working class—who I will define as men and women who work in manual labor and skilled industrial jobs that do not require college degrees. This group of Americans has had a difficult time in the United States since the Great Recession of 2007-08. For years, leading up to the economic downturn, the working class had been largely ignored by both Democrats and Republicans. We saw the power of labor unions begin to fail. We saw government increasingly under the sway of big corporations and moneyed interests, including the Supreme Court’s decision that business interests can fund political campaigns as if they were individual citizens. At the same time, we saw the rise of a new, global information economy that has shaken old assumptions about work and community. Historically, the Democratic party had been the party of organized labor. Historically, the Republican Party was the party of small business, including farmers. However, by 2007, those constituencies often felt abandoned.
A third fault line is race and culture. In 2008—at the height of the recession—we elected our first African-American President. The working class, already struggling and having increasingly to compete with newer immigrants from Asia and Latin America, now felt abandoned. The Republican Party determined to totally isolate President Obama. The “Tea Party” arm within the GOP got started. Legislative paralysis set in, and the working class, with no one backing them, paid the price.
Someone recently noted that, this year, the political dividing line is not between the right and the left. Instead, the divisions cut across these economic, class, and racial fault lines. The challenge for everyone—in and out of government—is to avoid an earthquake. In 2017, the new President, the new Congress, and the States will need to set aside the “do nothing” tactics of the last eight years and work together to address the issues facing working Americans. And, they will need to do so in a way that avoids the traps set by corporate interests—Second Amendment scares, for instance—and that engages working class Americans in decisions about how best to meet today’s challenges. For instance, while working people do need some federal support, they have also made it clear that they want to protect their individual freedoms. Finding the balance will require open discussion, increased understanding, and compromise. It is time to work together.
Several issues stand out as potential winners in this environment:
· Tax Reform – Very clearly, our tax system is unbalanced in favor of very wealthy citizens. Reducing income taxes—state and federal—for working class citizens makes sense at two levels. First, it leaves them with more net in their paychecks. Second, it begins to recognize the importance of workers in creating a positive, productive dynamic in the new economy.
· Wage Reform – We need a minimum wage that allows full-time front-line workers to make a living from their work. This is fundamental in a democracy.
· Free Higher Education – Democrats have proposed making some level of higher education free to students. This is a natural extension of free elementary and secondary education—a product of the industrial revolution—that recognizes the need for a more educated frontline workforce. I have elsewhere proposed that we complement this by promoting a year of public service, so that young people make a contribution to their community—and learn about the nature of work—as part of their common educational experience. Regardless, if the nation needs a better educated frontline workforce in order to compete globally, we need to ensure that young workers have access to education.
These are examples of initiatives that would empower the working class and help them regain their footing in the new global information society. It may be one of the most important domestic issues for the new President.