Zoomers: Last Chance for the American Dream?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was pulling no punches in calling out her six Republican colleagues on the Supreme Court in the student loan case, Biden v Nebraska.

None of the Republican states suing would have lost a penny had Biden’s student loan forgiveness program gone forward; there was no injured party and therefore no standing to even be before the Court.

“[T]he Court,” she wrote, “by deciding this case, exercises authority it does not have. It violates the Constitution.”

Additionally, the law being debated (the HEROES Act) specifically gave the administration the power — it’s literally spelled out in the statute — to forgive student debt. Which is why Kagan called out the radical Republicans for rewriting a law authored by Congress and signed by a president, a power that is not found anywhere in the Constitution.

“That is no proper role for a court,” Kagan wrote. “And it is a danger to a democratic order.”

But six Republicans on the Court blew up the program anyway, replacing the power and authority of the United States Senate, House of Representatives, and the President with their own.

So, why would Republican state Attorneys General bring such a lawsuit to try to deny millions of students in their own states debt relief? Why would six Republicans on the Supreme Court go along with such a stupid thing?

Particularly when our 30-year experiment with the G.I. Bill shows that for every $1 the federal government invests in college-educating young people, we as a nation get back $7 in tax revenue and economic benefit (as I noted at length here on July 3rd)?

Similarly, why would Republicans fight tooth and nail to filibuster passage of the PRO Act (legislation that gives workers the right to easily form or join a union) that had already passed the House? If a corporation is organized money, why do they believe it’s wrong for workers to have a small bit of power by organizing themselves and protecting their labor?

Why, when the rights of queer Americans were before the Supreme Court, would a Republican majority allow companies to violate Colorado’s public accommodation laws and openly discriminate against them? What was so important to the Republicans on the Court that it would provoke a decision so vicious that Justice Sotomayor was moved to write:

“Today, the Court, for the first time in its history, grants a business open to the public a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class. … This is heartbreaking. Sadly, it is also familiar. When the civil rights and women’s rights movements sought equality in public life, some public establishments refused. Some even claimed, based on sincere religious beliefs, constitutional rights to discriminate. The brave Justices who once sat on this Court decisively rejected those claims.”

Why are Republicans in state after state working so hard to deny citizens the right to vote?

Why are they outlawing abortion, forcing women out of the workplace and into situations where, without a husband to support them and their child, they may end up destitute and homeless?

Why are they targeting birth control next?

Why do Republicans work so hard to destroy public education?

Republican politicians in both Arizona and Florida have instituted statewide voucher programs which, history shows, gut and ghettoize public schools for all but the upper middle class and wealthy children whose parents have the money to match the vouchers with tuition payments. Why would they do this? And why are they exclusively attacking public school teachers and public librarians?

Why, in the affirmative action case where students were merely asking for enforcement of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14thAmendment, would the Republicans on the Court strike down race-based considerations that are minor compared to those given to “legacy” students of mostly-white wealthy alumni?

The decision was so brutal it prompted Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to write:

“[I]t would be deeply unfortunate if the equal protection clause actually demanded this perverse, ahistorical, and counterproductive outcome. …

“To impose this result in that clause’s name when it requires no such thing, and to thereby obstruct our collective progress toward the full realization of the clause’s promise, is truly a tragedy for us all.”

There’s clearly a strategy at work here — from Republican actions at the state and local level all the way up through Congress and onto the Supreme Court — but what is it?

It’s way too facile, too easy, to simply say they enjoy hurting other Americans, although that’s the clear outcome of their action.

While these and other policies are broadly supported by conservative billionaires, outside of the unionization angle there’s really little financial incentive for them. So what’s driving this nationwide, across-the-board effort to strip everybody except people of great wealth from what little power and assets they still have?

Why have Republicans nationwide been working so hard at this project since 1980?

Conservatives issue a warning

It turns out there’s a real backstory here, one that explains it all. Most older conservatives can tell you about it, although they almost never discuss it in public. And, because it’s considered “history,” our national media never discusses it.

It all started in the decades after World War II.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought America out of the Republican Great Depression with a plethora of programs in the 1930s designed specifically to enrich and financially stabilize working class people: those policies were then carried on by presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and even expanded by Lyndon Johnson.

They included Social Security, the minimum wage, the right to unionize, Medicare and Medicaid, the 40-hour work week, federal support for home mortgages, anti-discrimination laws, massive support for public education, the construction of highways, airports, and new hospitals, and top tax brackets that maxed out at 91 percent on the morbidly rich and 50 percent on the most profitable corporations.

These policies literally built the American middle class, the first in the modern world. Prior to the “big government” interventions of these five presidents, most Americans were dirt poor and the country was ruled by a corrupt corporate oligarchy.

As recently as 1900, for example, women couldn’t vote, senators were appointed by the wealthiest power brokers in the states, and poverty stalked America. I heard stories of that time growing up: it was the year before both my mother’s parents were born.

As the President’s Council of Economic Advisors noted in their 2000 Annual Report:

“To appreciate how far we have come, it is instructive to look back on what American life was like in 1900. At the turn of the century, fewer than 10 percent of homes had electricity, and fewer than 2 percent of people had telephones. An automobile was a luxury that only the very wealthy could afford.

“Many women still sewed their own clothes and gave birth at home. Because chlorination had not yet been introduced and water filtration was rare, typhoid fever, spread by contaminated water, was a common affliction. One in 10 children died in infancy. Average life expectancy in the United States was a mere 47 years.

“Fewer than 14 percent of Americans graduated from high school. … Widowhood was far more common than divorce. The average household had close to five members, and a fifth of all households had seven or more. …

“Average income per capita, in 1999 dollars, was about $4,200. … The typical workweek in manufacturing was about 50 hours, 20 percent longer than the average today.”

But after World War II, as FDR’s, Truman’s and Eisenhower’s programs really took hold, the middle class began to grow like never before in American history. Cities and suburbs boomed, and even rural areas became wealthier as farming technology improved by leaps and bounds.

It looked like the best of times, like it could last forever, like it would finally fulfill the Declaration’s goal of “the pursuit of Happiness” for well over half our country.

But Republicans were worried about all this middle-class prosperity and what it would mean for the country.

Russell Kirk published his 1951 book The Conservative Mind, arguing that without clearly defined “classes and power structures” — essentially without the morbidly rich in complete control — society would devolve into chaos.

The middle class growing as rapidly as it was, Kirk and his colleagues warned, was a threat to the social and thus political stability of America. It threatened the American experiment, because middle class people just didn’t have the class sensibilities, the upbringing, the education to handle the kind of wealth they were being handed by all those good union jobs and the social safety net that backed them up.

If not stopped, Kirk and his acolytes warned, disaster was imminent. Not just disaster for rich people: disaster for all Americans.

Socialism, communism, social unrest, political chaos, the rise of demagogic politicians who would be embraced by the ignorant masses: these were all things Kirk believed would naturally come out of the rapid enrichment of a class of Americans who had just a generation earlier been mostly dirt poor.

He and his followers essentially predicted in the early 1950s that if college students, women, working people, and people of color ever got even close to social and political power at the same level as that generation’s educated white men, all hell would break loose.

Throughout the 1950s, Kirk only developed a small following: the most prominent of his proponents were William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater.

Most Republicans, though, considered him a crackpot. After all, things seemed stable and happy as the middle class relentlessly continue to grow. The biggest controversy was whether TV cameras should show Elvis’ hips on the Ed Sullivan show.

But then came the 1960s and, forgive the expression, the sh*t hit the proverbial fan.

The birth-control pill was legalized in 1961 and by 1965 was in widespread use; sexual liberation and the women’s movement swept the land.

In 1964, President Johnson told the country one of our warships had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam and we were going to war: later that year he instituted the first draft since WWII.

Psychology professor Dr. Timothy Leary introduced America to LSD and in June of 1964 Ken Kesey began his acid-fueled Merry Pranksters bus trip across America to spread the word. An acolyte of Leary’s, Keith St. Clair, came to MSU in 1966 and gave me my first LSD experience in the local Methodist church; it was spreading across the nation like wildfire, along with the Maharishi’s and Beatles’ meditation.

Tom Hayden’s 1962 Port Huron Statement had energized the Students for a Democratic Society, first dedicated to racial and social justice; by 1965, the year before I joined, the movement had become the tip of the antiwar movement’s spear.

President Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963; Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4, 1968; JFK’s brother Robert, a candidate for president that year, was killed two months later on June 6, 1968.

America was on fire. Young men were burning draft cards, women were burning bras, and Black people, horrified by King’s murder and the ongoing brutality of white police against unarmed African Americans, lit America’s cities afire.

Suddenly, Russell Kirk didn’t look like a crackpot anymore. He looked more like a prophet.

Republicans get to work

The wise elders of the GOP — the morbidly rich — and Kirk’s and Buckley’s conservatives who’d been warning for decades that the New Deal would end in disaster needed a plan.

Tobacco lawyer Lewis Powell put together his infamous Memo outlining a way to guarantee the “survival of what we call the free enterprise system” in 1971; President Richard Nixon put him on the Supreme Court in 1972; he authored the Bellotti decision — that overturned the 1907 Tillman Act and thus let billionaires and corporations pour virtually unlimited amounts of “free speech” money into politics — in 1978.

Nixon’s “War on Drugs” designed to get the antiwar hippies and “uppity” Blacks under control was spreading across America like rot on an orange; prison populations were exploding, as the days of peace and love turned into heroin, meth, and violence. Hell’s Angels and the murders at Altamont in 1969 signaled the end of the era.

Thus, by the 1970s, the die was cast. The middle class had to go. FDR’s “Great Experiment,” Republicans believed, was over and it was up to them to put the country back together again.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president and sworn into office on January 20, 1981, about two-thirds of Americans were solidly in the middle class.

And it was explicitly his job to cut that middle class down to size to save America from herself.

First, he went after the main source of working-class wealth, which coincidentally funded the Democratic Party: unions. Roughly one in three American workers was a union member, and two-thirds of Americans had the equivalent of a union job because unions set local wage and benefit floors.

One of Reagan’s first actions was to destroy one of only three unions that had supported his presidency, the PATCO group of unionized air traffic controllers.

Shifting that middle class wealth working people had accumulated since the 1940s into the money bins of the elite classes who knew how to properly run a country — after all, Reagan’s men would tell you, they’d been doing it for thousands of years — he cut the top income tax bracket down to 27 percent and drilled so many loopholes in the tax code that today the average American billionaire pays 3.4 percent in income taxes.

He raised taxes on average working people 18 times, ended the deductibility of credit card interest used exclusively by the middle class, and cut Social Security by raising the retirement age to 67 and making its benefits taxable.

Reagan thus kicked off a $50 trillion transfer of wealth from the homes and savings accounts of the middle class to the top one percent, a theft that continues to this day. So far just this year, America’s billionaires have added an additional $852 billion to their personal wealth, and much of that was extracted from America’s working class people.

When Reagan started, two-thirds of Americans were unionized or had the equivalent of a union job. Today, because of Reagan’s policies, only about 10 percent of Americans in the private economy are union members.

Eight years ago, in 2015, National Public Radio commemorated the success of Reagan’s efforts with the headline:

“The Tipping Point: Most Americans No Longer Are Middle Class.”

Next, Reagan went after students, cutting federal aid to education by over 25 percent, setting in motion the ongoing destruction of public schools, and creating what is today over $2 trillion in student debt — an obscenity unknown in any other developed country in the world.

Republicans since Reagan have continued his war on working people.

The NAFTA agreement he and GHW Bush negotiated and Clinton signed (along with the GATT and the WTO) have since shipped over 60,000 factories — an estimated 15 million good-paying union jobs — overseas.

George W. Bush initiated a private takeover of Medicare with the Medicare “Advantage” scam that has now trapped half of America’s retired people into plans where insurance companies routinely deny coverage, tests, treatments, and reimbursements. (Real Medicare can’t do that by law and doesn’t put itself between you and your doctor.)

He gave China “Most Favored Nation” trading status, accelerating our nation’s dependence on that dictatorship for pretty much every item you can find in a Walmart or on Amazon. We now can’t build a fighter jet or missile without parts from China, although the real goal was to pit American workers against cheap labor overseas to drive down wages.

Bush’s tax cuts for billionaires and the two wars he lied us into added another $8 trillion (so far) to the US debt, providing Republicans with an ongoing excuse to demand further cuts to social programs benefiting what’s left of the middle class.

And, of course, Trump tripled down on the whole GOP agenda, between his tax cuts, trade policies, gutting federal regulatory agencies that protect workers and the environment, and pitting the two-thirds of Americans who can no longer withstand the shock of an unexpected $400 medical or car repair bill against each other.

“It’s the Black and Brown people out to get you,” he regularly implies in his rants and statements to his mostly all-white audiences; Ron DeSantis adds, “It’s the gays, too!”

He put three ideologues on the Supreme Court who’ve succeeded in kneecapping millions of American women’s ability to participate in the workplace and stand up to men and employers because they’re going to have to stay home and care for babies they didn’t want or expect.

The six Republicans on that Court, meanwhile, continue to drag America down the path Russell Kirk and Lewis Powell set for us, bringing back legal discrimination, empowering employers, supporting cuts to education and ending student loan relief, and making it easier for Republican governors to throw voters in Blue cities off the voting rolls, stick them in eight-hour lines, or otherwise make it hard to vote in the months leading up to elections.

Thus, today’s wreckage of the once-great American middle class litters this country’s economic, political, and physical landscape.

If Kirk’s analysis and predictions had been right, you’d think Republicans could today declare “mission accomplished.” They’ve succeeded in gutting the middle class they thought was so dangerous.

For example, when my Boomer generation was the same average age as the Millennial generation is today, back in 1990, our generation held 21.3% of the nation’s wealth. Louise and I shared in that wealth; although we were still in our 30s, in 1990 we owned a profitable small business (our fourth) and a nice home in suburban Atlanta.

That was, in fact, the “American dream.” It was normal then.

My dad (born 1928), who worked in a tool-and-die shop, was able to buy a house, a new car every two years, and take a two-week vacation every year because the middle class in America before Reagan had a pretty damn good life. He retired in the 1990s with a full pension that let him and my mom travel the world.

Millennials today, in contrast, are about the same number of people as Boomers were in 1990 but hold only 4.6% of the nation’s wealth and, if they’re the same age I was in 1990, they’re most likely struggling to own a home, are deeply in debt, and find it nearly impossible to start a small business.

Yes, you read that right. Boomers in their 30s owned 21.3 of the nation’s wealth; Millennials in their 30s today own 4.6% of the nation’s wealth.

And the story for Zoomers is pretty much the same. As a Bank of America research report noted:

“Like the financial crisis in 2008 to 2009 for millennials, Covid will challenge and impede Gen Z’s career and earning potential.”

Similarly, a Stanford University study that looked at Zoomers shows the consequence of 40 years of Republican policies keeping the economy soft:

“[C]ollege graduates who start their working lives during a recession earn less for at least 10 to 15 years than those who graduate during periods of prosperity.”

But the women’s movement, the antiwar movement, the hippies and psychedelic 60s, and the civil rights movement weren’t the dangers to America that Kirk, Goldwater, Reagan, and Buckley believed: instead, they were each moments of inflection and growth toward a more egalitarian and caring nation, just like today’s embrace of multiracialism and gay marriage.

Nonetheless, Republicans are still at it because the project of taking back 80 years of wealth from the middle class on behalf of America’s billionaires has taken on a life of its own.

It’s not, as I asked at the open of this article, that they’re evil (although some clearly are): it’s that Reaganism and then Trump’s subsequent embrace of naked fascism unleashed forces that they can’t control. Kevin McCarthy is essentially helpless, even if he was inclined to do what’s best for the country (and, of course, he isn’t).

Since five Republicans on the Supreme Court legalized political bribery in Bellotti and Citizens United — and thus legalized the handouts they themselves have been receiving from billionaires for decades — it’s going to take major and radical action to stop and then reverse the Reagan Revolution.

Rightwing billionaires are now pouring literally billions of often untraceable dollars into every election cycle to keep the gravy train on track, and that dark money goes to the GOP at a 9:1 ratio.

Much of it is coming from the fossil fuel industry and petro-billionaires, dedicated to supporting Republicans who will block any efforts to stop climate change. The momentum is still theirs and, in many ways, growing.

Biden has tried and done a lot: united Republican opposition, however, along with sellouts like Sinema and Manchin, have defeated many of his efforts.

Still, I have a lot of hope.

So, what do we do?

An entire generation is coming up now — the Zoomers — who see clearly what’s going on, even though they haven’t lived through it. And those of us Boomers who saw every moment of it and understood what was going on (I was born the year Kirk published The Conservative Mind) are increasingly waking up and returning to their political activist 1960s roots.

They may be the Raging Grannies, but they’re getting more and more involved in electoral politics and get-out-the-vote efforts.

The climate crisis is opening the eyes of people who’ve been believing GOP lies about fossil fuels and carbon pollution for decades.

The criminalization of abortion has energized women in a way I don’t think we’ve seen since the 1960s.

Healthcare and Big Pharma ripoffs are pissing Americans off in ways guaranteed to produce a blowback.

Electoral dynamics are changing all across the nation. The Fourth Turning is upon us, says Neil Howe.

If we can just get out enough votes to retake the House, hold the Senate and the White House, and get a few more states to flip like Michigan and Wisconsin have done, there’s considerable hope for the future of this nation.

The Zoomers may be able to lead a rebirth of the American Dream. If enough of us get involved.

Tag, you’re it.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.