Historical memory can fade over time. Born in 1942, I’ve watched it happen.
We lost sight of the cruelty of fascism and authoritarian rule and how indispensable free democratic societies are to world peace and well being. Over the ensuing decades awareness of WWII slipped from our consciousness. Congress grew incapable of serious deliberation and unable to respond to the real needs of voters, instead whipping into hysterical frenzy over inane culture war issues, possibly most pathetically illustrated by Ted Cruz holding aloft a child’s book that teaches inclusivity and scolding a baffled Ketanji Brown Jackson at her confirmation hearings.
And the middle class became cynical, even flirting with the idea that strong controlling leadership was better suited to governing in the 21st century. That notion peaked with the election of Trump, who scorned democracies and openly admired and emulated authoritarian rulers like Kim Jong-un and especially Vladimir Putin.
But Putin’s war with Ukraine has shocked the world and laid bare the evil callousness of dictatorial rule. At the same time, it has united western nations and rekindled an appreciation and respect for democracy.
Witnessing the unprovoked and horrific invasion of Ukraine has brought us together in a way that is reminiscent of the unity brought forth by the events of 9/11. Unfortunately, however, we the people are still divided. The Tucker Carlsons of the right continue to incite culture wars, sow distrust in the American government, and work to undermine democracy. And far too many Republicans still stand with Trump, supporting his delusional claim of a fraudulent election, even as he describes Putin’s attack on Ukraine as “genius.”
I vote Democratic now but have fond memories of a progressive Republican party and still admire great patriotic leaders like Dirkson, Dole, Hatfield, and McCain. And I believe that today’s Republican conservative right, especially the Christian Nationalists, pose a greater threat from within to our democracy than Putin’s Russia–although his GRU feeds and enables that threat from within. Should Trump or one of his protégés regain power, it could very well end the 250-year American experiment.
Americans remain disillusioned and dissatisfied with Congress. A recent poll shows an overall approval of Congress at only 18%. At the same time, the approval by Democrats is greater (26%) than Republicans (9%) and Independents (17%). It is abysmally low across the board.
The hardworking middle class feels betrayed by the government, and it’s understandable. Good paying jobs moved offshore, and our manufacturing centers rusted and decayed. Businesses can be held accountable to some degree, but business executives believe that first obligation is to increase shareholder value, which moving production abroad promised to do.
On the other hand, the government’s first obligation is to protect its citizens. In this case, that meant protecting their jobs, and it failed. The economic impact on the middle class was devastating, and other countries like Germany fared much better.
American workers lost more than jobs. The ability to provide for one’s family is a source of pride and fulfillment. Unemployment benefits cannot compensate for the loss of self-respect and the sense of hopelessness and depression that accompany a job loss, which is also at the heart of the opioid crisis.
Unemployment is quite low now, but the inequality has risen.
Over the last 50 years, wealth has steadily shifted from the middle class to the affluent. This shift is due, in part, to a tax system that favors the wealthy. While the rich can somehow rationalize the idea that investment income should be taxed less than manual labor income, those living paycheck-to-paycheck see the unfairness of the disparity. With dozens of loopholes, many wealthy people and corporations pay little or no tax, as Donald Trump’s tax returns have shown.
The expectation that every generation would be better off than its predecessor is no longer valid. Real wages have been stagnant since the 1970s and it is little wonder that a demagogue would appeal to hardworking Americans. To restore confidence in American democracy, Congress will have to show that it cares.
With Putin’s war liberal democracy will again be seen as the best protection of national and civil liberties. But American democracy must once again produce outcomes that benefit the middle class. Republicans will not rise to the task. They will continue to focus on divisive culture wars, for which polls say they are on the wrong side. Moreover, with the right’s ambivalence toward Ukraine and the United Nations, they appear weak, even anti-American.
So progressives have an opportunity, in fact an obligation, to do things truly important to voters, and not special interests. That Democrats will rise to the task is not at all certain.
The tough issues, the things that do matter, like wage stagnation and an unjust tax code, are conveniently forgotten and Congress avoids confronting special interests… and self interest.
A strong, ethical, and inspirational leader could change things. It has happened before in times of crisis. An informed electorate–not a gaslit rabble–is the heart of our democracy when it’s been its best.