One of the hottest TV shows is Downton Abbey. Set at the turn of the century, it is the story of an upper class English family worried about how to preserve their home and lifestyle. It is written in the spirit of Upstairs/Downstairs. Upstairs are the rich upper classes and downstairs, the working class. In the United States, it would be called 1%/99% and it would capture the same dynamics of class and preserving power and wealth. As Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul struggle to represent the regressive movement and try to gain enough popularity to be the standard bearer, they do so in a nation looking more and more like a British drama written for the BBC.
Americans have been raised on the myth of Horatio Alger. It is a myth which crosses all classes and lines and populations. All you have to do is work hard, play by the rules and anyone can go from rags to riches. They can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and grab a piece of the proverbial pie. Whether it's Lincoln writing his lessons on the back of a shovel or stories about the rise of Rockefeller and Carnegie, Americans have been told they too can access the American dream and rise from working to middle to upper class. This is the primary reason American voters have consistently voted Republican in such large numbers. This myth is so powerful; they are willing to vote against their own enlightened self-interest in the hope one day they will strike it rich. Tax cuts, which don't apply to them, are popular because one day they will be able to take all those breaks the rich have built into the code.
On the campaign trail, Romney, Gingrich et.al. sing from the same hymnal. Obama hates capitalism and wants America to adopt a European socialist model. He wants America to look like Germany, France, Norway or Sweden. This is a reason to throw him out of office. He doesn't believe in American exceptionalism and genuflect at the mention of the American capitalist experiment. He engages in class warfare and demonizes the Brahmins of Wall Street and their acolytes like Mitt Romney. (Sean Hannity quoted me in his first book as an example of a liberal who hates America. He asked me if I believed America was the greatest nation on earth, and when I answered, "...for whom?" He rested his case.)
I don't know how many times I have said publically Horatio Alger is dead. The myth is a lie. For most of our history, economic upward movement was limited at best. By the time we reached the era of Downton Abbey, America's Gilded Age, our nation was awash with men of great wealth and power. (Morgan, Stanford, Vanderbilt... and tens of millions living in abject poverty.) There was a small middle class, a weak central government, no income tax and even less regulation. (Nirvana to today's crop of Republican wannabes) It was the time of poor houses and orphanages, slums and ghettos set in contrast to the mansions of New York, Newport and Nob Hill. The average American worked very hard...worked themselves to death and got little benefit for their efforts.
Horatio was resurrected in the 20th century by the Progressive movement. Starting with Teddy Roosevelt and his busting of trusts and monopolies, support for workers rights, and starting the conservation and environmental movements we benefit from today...through his cousin Franklin who built the firewalls to protect us from Wall Street and made it easier for workers to organize...to Lyndon Johnson whose Great Society lifted an entire population of seniors out of poverty and ended Jim Crow, it became possible to "move on up" as George Jefferson would say. A vibrant middle class served to funnel people out of poverty and to a share of the American dream. (Truman and Eisenhower also contributed through government programs like the G.I. Bill which sent a whole generation to college which would never have gone otherwise, constructed the interstate highway system creating thousands of jobs and building our economy and pushed the desegregation of the military and the modern Civil Rights movement).
In 1960, almost 40% of Americans were unionized, the top tax rate was 90% and the distance between a CEO and his or her employees had not yet become wider than the Grand Canyon as it is today. As recently as 1974, a single worker could provide enough income for his or his family to own a home, a car and send the children to college with the belief they would receive even greater economic benefits. Since 1980, and the election of Ronald Reagan, income disparity in the United States began to increase. Today, we more resemble the Gilded Age than at any time in over 100 years. In a recent column, New York Times writer Paul Krugman sites reporting the paper has done establishing the fact we have less generational economic mobility than many other advanced nations. The chance someone born into a low-income family will end up with high income, or vice versa, was significantly lower in the U.S. than in Canada, Europe or Scandinavia. The gap between the 1% and the 99% is sited as one of the main reasons for the lack of economic mobility. Today, the economic status of your parents is a determining factor in how far up the class ladder you will climb. (Sounds like the England of Downton Abbey doesn't it?)
CNN interviewed seniors in Florida asking them about the issues which mattered most to them in this year's presidential election. At the top of their list was not concern about Medicare or Social Security. They were most concerned about their children and grandchildren and their economic health. They are right to be concerned. For the first time in over 100 years, America is not an upwardly mobile nation economically. The beneficiaries of American capitalism are a smaller and smaller set of the "haves and have mores" to quote George Bush. The primary culprit is the 1% who use their financial resources to dominate the political agenda and debate (with some help from a regressive Supreme Court and its Citizens United decision).
Obama may leave a lot to be desired, but at least he isn't afraid to bring up the facts and denounce national policies which have brought us to this place. (tax cuts, de-regulation of the Roosevelt firewalls, tax policy which values investment income more than earned income) He wants the 1% to pay taxes at least in a 30% tax bracket. (Remember it was 90% in 1960, so they have still seen a 60% cut since then. How much have working Americans seen their taxes cut?) He wants to tax revenue kept outside this country (like Romney's accounts in Switzerland and the Grand Caymans). He wants more money for community colleges to train Americans and to cut federal funds for colleges whose tuition increases exceed inflation. If you create a job in this country, you get a tax break. If you kill a company in order to sell its parts and reap the profits, you pay higher taxes on that investment. Is it enough? No. College needs to be free; which we could do it with the revenue from letting the Bush tax cuts expire. Workers need to be able to organize and bargain over wages and working conditions. Health care has to be available to everyone so employers won't be able to hold health care premiums over the head of workers during negotiations.
I worry every day about the future for my children. They live in a nation where hard work is not rewarded, but moneyed contacts are. (Harvard, Yale or Stanford anyone?) They face huge debts just to get through college while many of their competitors are subsidized by their 1% parents. Children of the 99% look to the future with trepidation and I hate that fact. As Warren Buffet has said more than once, "...there is a class war going on in this country and my class is winning." The election of 2012 is the latest battlefield. If Obama can transform this nation to closer resemble Canada or Scandinavia, shouldn't we be leading the cheers for our children's future? The question this year is do we continue to regress or do we return to the Progressive Era which truly made this country great?