I cast my first vote in a presidential election for Ronald Reagan. This fall I’m campaigning for Bernie Sanders.
Voting for Reagan made sense. I was a white, male adolescent (from the Minneapolis suburbs) ratifying a worldview that was white, male, and adolescent. I was young enough to not have faced much of the world’s complexity yet. A faith in individual effort combined with a determination to confront the Soviets felt like a perfect antidote to the “malaise” of the Jimmy Carter years. Carter was for the weak, and I was strong. In my own life, personal initiative almost always produced great results. My family, teachers, Lutheran church and community gave me lots of affirmation and encouragement. Life seemed fair, and it seemed proper that the world would belong to those of us who displayed discipline and who worked to achieve great things. Reagan, avuncular and sunny, promised a country in which someone like me could thrive.
But then began a long personal political evolution. Moving from the warm embrace of progressive Minnesota, I enrolled in New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, where the reactionary Dartmouth Review (sponsored by William F. Buckley, Jr.) poisoned the campus climate by demonizing minorities and gays, and by seeming to stand up for apartheid in South Africa. The egalitarian and tolerant ethos I’d grown up in was replaced by one that disparaged those who were different and heaped privilege on those who already were privileged. The majority of my classmates were wealthier (many much, much wealthier) than me, and scores of them had been given a break in the admissions process because their fathers (and maybe their grandfathers, too) had attended Dartmouth. I remember being snubbed in one informal dorm room conversation after it came to light that my high school was a public one. The pure meritocracy that I’d imagined the USA represented (and that Reagan promised) didn’t exist here. There were social stratifications and divisive customs that I had never encountered during my previous years spent out on the edge of the prairie.
Soon enough, the Iran-Contra affair came to light and appalled me. How could public servants think to subvert Constitutional government, which should be sacrosanct? Suddenly, Reagan and his team seemed less than honorable. I felt like my trust in the administration and belief in its rhetoric had been gravely misplaced.
It was also during this time that I went to study in Mexico, which was in the throes of its debt crisis. The middle class was being pummeled. The poor on the outskirts of Mexico City lived in calamitous conditions. Smog from the country’s cars and factories blotted out the sun and choked the populace. Capitalism and industrialization, which I had credited with producing Minnesota’s sky-high standard of living, were shown to have serious drawbacks. The world’s economic system, I saw, ultimately made no guarantees to anyone.
In addition, there was the matter of the gargantuan national debt. Reagan, the avowed fiscal conservative, had created deficits that were absolutely alarming and threatened to swamp my generation’s ability to live decently. Indeed, my college class’s commencement speaker averred that we would be the first downwardly-mobile generation in American history. That was a sobering way to be launched into young adulthood.
So, I had moved beyond Reagan. And at the same time I learned facts about my beloved Minnesota that were ugly: for example, infant mortality among whites in my state was just about the lowest in the nation, while for African-Americans it was practically the highest. In Minneapolis, I saw black men my age being harassed by the police in ways that I never had to endure. Contrary to what I had been encouraged to believe growing up, not everyone in my home state had access to its material bounty and opportunities for advancement. I began to see socioeconomic polarization not only as unfair but also as a threat to the viability of the nation. It was impossible to have a meritocracy in these conditions.
Of course, over the last two decades, this polarization has only worsened, to the point where it is now grotesque. The bulk of the US population enjoys a standard of living today that is no higher than in 1980. Indeed, some strata of the country now actually face a life expectancy that is in decline! Meanwhile, the ultra-rich have opened up a chasm between themselves and the merely rich – the 1% – who themselves have catapulted ahead of everyone else. In my suburban Washington, DC neighborhood a big Porsche dealership sits just a few blocks from a massive Goodwill store. A modest home now costs half a million dollars. And a simple liberal arts degree from Dartmouth now costs over a quarter of a million dollars. Professional training beyond that basic qualification often costs at least that much again. In the current economy only the wealthy are able to equip their kids for success; that is a recipe for social sclerosis. Moreover, many of those doing the best in this environment engage in rent-seeking activities or – paradoxically – spend their time trading in the market for public debt, which (due to prior tax cuts for the wealthy) once again has grown massive.
It is surreal. It is clear that nowadays Americans serve capital, not vice versa. We used to have a country that prided itself, especially between 1945 and 1973, on rising living standards and more disposable income for all. Our leaders assured us that while the Soviet system was a dead end, ours would continue to deliver the goods. But for most the American system has become a dead end, too. Social mobility here is lower than in Scandinavia. Our economy continues to bleed millions of manufacturing jobs. Many white collar professions, such as working as an individual attorney, pay less than ever. Wal-Mart and now Amazon continue to hollow out local economies. There is a lot of creative destruction going on, but unfortunately millions of Americans experience only the destruction part.
It is time to reverse these trends. And Bernie Sanders’ proposals offer an opportunity to do just that. Making the cost of attending a public university affordable again would mean that the children of the middle- and working-classes have a chance again to experience upward mobility. Raising the minimum wage would mean that even the most humble work again pays enough to make it worthwhile, and should help to shore up all middle class salaries as well. A program of investing billions of additional dollars in infrastructure would create jobs in a still-slack labor market, produce wonderful new public goods, and revitalize the entire national economy. Providing universal health insurance to all residents would improve the lives of millions of individuals, while also making for a healthier workforce and reducing asphyxiating red tape. Entrepreneurs and innovators would be free to pursue their projects without having to tether themselves to an organization merely because they need insurance; economic dynamism would increase. It is time that we Americans voted ourselves the nice things that we deserve.
But can the nation afford them? Yes. It is just a matter of priorities. A country able to spill three trillion dollars onto the sands of Iraq and into the valleys of Afghanistan is certainly wealthy. The money is there. It is just a matter of harnessing it for a useful common purpose. In a country where public funds are available to build palatial sports facilities, where a baseball catcher can be paid $23 million/year, where thousands travel on private jets, where billionaire hedge fund managers pay only 15% effective income tax, the resources exist. It is only a question of mobilizing them for useful ends. A country of such massive wealth ought to be delivering a better standard of living to all its citizens. It is high time that the national economy become a means to a better life and not an end in itself. We ought to have a meritocracy in which the young and energetic can participate, along with a strong social safety net for those who can’t.
It is my hope that Americans have had enough of the ethos – ushered in by Reagan – that glorifies the individual and his singular pursuit of lucre. I see the Porsches purchased at that aforementioned dealership all over Washington, DC, sitting in traffic that is gridlocked. Can their occupants really feel satisfied with their opulent purchases when the public realm is so dysfunctional? It is time for a common project, one where we all see the benefits of the great national wealth.
I am aware that many on the Left abjure Bernie Sanders, condemning the entire American political system as corrupt and participation in it as futile. But Sanders, for me, really is Reagan’s logical heir. He is the counterweight to so much that has gone awry in the USA over the last few decades. He represents a chance, at least, for the political system to repair itself without putting us all through further economic grotesqueries. Over the next few months, it is time for all of us to give Sanders our support. Then, after we see what happens, we can decide what to do next.