The Message Progressives Should Send to Voters

We’re living through a slow-motion societal collapse. We all feel it. The stress of working grueling hours and not making ends meet; the indignity of living in a society where, even in the middle of a pandemic, you can’t get decent healthcare without paying absurd amounts of money; the absurdity of a world where 100 people have $3.8 trillion while millions go hungry and most Americans couldn’t dredge up $400 in savings in an emergency; the wildfires in the West; the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s horrifically inept response…all of these are signs of a society gone horribly awry. Our political system is captured by the rich: it represents the few, not the many. We’re facing political, economic, environmental, and public health crises, the results of monstrous inequalities which must be confronted head-on.

Today’s quadruple crises have been a long time coming. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Republicans began dismantling protections against unfettered markets and destroying the federal government from the inside, claiming that freedom meant the freedom to go bankrupt, that a big government was a bad government, and that pulling oneself up by the bootstraps was a viable life strategy. Billionaires, Wall Street, and large corporations laughed their way to the bank, literally. They hid their taxes in offshore havens in the Caymans. Swarms of lobbyists flew to DC to secure subsidies for their pet projects.

Everyone else paid the price: workers’ rights were stripped, workers’ salaries dropped, corporations cut jobs, factories in the Midwest and Rust Belt closed, small businesses closed, and controls on Wall Street speculation were lifted. When enormous corporations came asking for special treatment, there was money. When it was time for expensive wars, there was always money. When it came to social spending on infrastructure, education, Medicare, Social Security, and other programs that actually help ordinary people, somehow there was never enough money. When it became clear that global warming was a direct threat to human life on Earth, Exxon and other fossil fuel companies suppressed the evidence. Nothing was done to launch a large-scale societal response to global warming when we could have cut emissions easily, because global warming threatened fossil fuel polluters’ bottom lines. Pro-corporate Democrats and Republicans were both guilty in this desecration of our public life.

Then, the 2008 crash happened. Predictably, when Wall Street asked for a bailout, there was money. But ordinary people were never bailed out: many were kicked out of their homes and lost everything. Justice was never served. When the coronavirus crisis hit, corporations collected government money hand over fist—trillions of dollars in total. Individuals got measly $1,200 stimulus checks for the entire duration of a crisis that’s still ongoing. Meanwhile, billionaires have increased their fortunes by almost a trillion dollars since March.

How have Republicans, pro-corporate Democrats, and Trump gotten away with it? Distractions. Over the past four years, Trump has given us all a master class in scapegoating and creating diversions. The Republicans exploited the war on drugs and racism to pit people against each other. The Democrats and Republicans competed to see who could be tougher on crime and jail more people of color. The Republicans used disastrous, ruinously expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to get people to forget the handouts they were giving to their cronies. They beat the “they’ll take your guns away” drum incessantly to avoid addressing gigantic corporate tax cuts. And Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump built a monstrous immigration system that imprisons enormous numbers of people. Obama wasn’t overtly xenophobic, but Bush and Trump blamed immigrants for American-born workers’ economic woes.

Elites wring their hands about the collapse of civility and pretend that returning to the politics of comity and bipartisanship will magically solve our problems. They’re correct that civility has taken a hit: our political culture has become increasingly cutthroat. Our tempers are hot. We’re all on edge. But why is that? Inequality and its social effects. Inequality causes incivility: feelings of unfairness, injustice, resentment, and stress make people uncivil; they are what divide and polarize us. When people are overwhelmed, and anxious, burdened by their private worries and tired by heavy workloads, they have less mental space to be gracious and extend patience to their fellow citizens. They’re less receptive to new ideas, and they’re more susceptible to prejudices, which are the psychic equivalent of comfort food. People don’t act in a vacuum: our behavior is shaped and manipulated, molded by social media, political parties, mainstream media, and the billionaires who control them all. Capitalists benefit from a status quo where we’re at each other’s throats, because it distracts from the root of the problem: billionaires like Donald Trump who take their already bloated fortunes and swell them even further on the backs of the poor and working class.

Our crisis today isn’t fundamentally one of character. It won’t be solved with platitudes about love and kindness. Politics is not a dinner party. People like Mitch McConnell and congressional Republicans—collaborators who were complicit in Donald Trump’s regime; people who consistently peddle policies that the vast majority of Americans reject and represent the most soulless, shameful, shamelessly profit-hungry aspects of our society, people only a corporation could love deserve ceaseless opposition. So too do hypocritical, Wall Street-sympathizing congressional Democrats like Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer. Establishment Democrats have failed you. The entire Republican Party has failed you. The tremendous hypocrite Donald Trump failed you bigly—all of his cheap rhetoric about forgotten men and women was nothing but an applause line. His only metric for success was the stock market, a market that only half of the country is even invested in. His only major economic “accomplishment” was a massive handout to the rich (himself included) in the form of tax cuts. He did absolutely nothing for workers or the poor.

We deserve far better than this. The only way we’re going to get it is by mobilizing outside of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Joe Biden isn’t your friend. Establishment Democrats may talk a good game about helping ordinary people, but they’re not your friends either. And the Republicans certainly aren’t your friends: they care only about CEOs and Wall Street. We can eventually pass the agenda that large majorities of the American people want—Medicare for All, expanded Social Security, a $15 minimum wage, a Green New Deal, a federal jobs guarantee, campaign finance reform and ending Citizens United, and more—but we will need to have a Congress and a president that are willing to turn the people’s will into a reality. In the meantime, Republicans and corporate Democrats are to blame for the gridlock in Washington. Republicans are happy with an impasse: they want you to blame the Left so that you vote Republican in 2022 and 2024 out of frustration. Nothing would be more counterproductive. Going back and forth between two unsatisfactory options won’t get us anywhere. The road forward is a people’s movement which restores our democracy, transforming our political system so we finally have choices truly worth voting for.

Scott Remer has published in venues such as In These Times, Africa Is a Country, Common Dreams, OpenDemocracy, Philosophy Now, Philosophical Salon, and International Affairs.