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Democrats and the crisis of inequality

Democrats have differing views on how to address our deepening and often extreme inequality. I have chosen to discuss the debate within the party since the Republicans show no inclination to deal with this crisis.

The Democratic National Committee establishment (the Clinton-Obama-Biden wing of the party) has promoted a form of “identity politics” that is allegedly designed to help people of color and women who are not fairly represented in the upper range of the economic hierarchy. This reform has moved some from each group toward the 1%, but it has not changed the huge inequality that leaves the super-rich untouched and the lower half remaining poor.

Scholar-activist Adolph Reed Jr. also criticizes this reform, claiming that it would mean our society was just if the 1% control financial wealth as long as people of color and women get their fair share of the top ranks. Ending our economic disparities, therefore, “without addressing the deeper structures that generate, reproduce and intensify economic inequality in general would leave large majorities” within these groups “poorly off and economically insecure” (Nonsite.org, Winter 2018) — along with huge numbers of poor and working-class whites.

Such a reform would change the gender and racial makeup of the 400 U.S. billionaires on the Forbes Magazine list to include 200 women and 100 people of color. But Michaels argues that eliminating this kind of “horizontal inequality” actually justifies “individual inequality.” As I discussed in an August opinion piece, the class divide is so vast that the three richest persons on the Forbes list have as much net wealth as the bottom half of the country, yet 40% of U.S. adults cannot come up with $400 in cash in an emergency.

The establishment DNC Democrats do not wish to end this ever-deepening class divide; they merely want to move around gender and race chairs on the Titanic. This is the best they can do; therefore, they are working overtime — as they did in 2016 — to deny Bernie Sanders the party’s nomination.

As opposed to establishment Democrats’ proposals, the Sanders wing of the party proposes wealth tax and health care policies to alleviate — but not end — a profoundly unjust economic system that features billionaires on one hand, and homeless on the other — with the 400 billionaires awash in funds while so many Americans struggle, a reality poignantly captured by the miners’ lament in the song “Sixteen Tons” (“another day older and deeper in debt.”) The Sanders New Deal-style reform might actually move us toward that mythical middle-class society we learned about in school — one that has never existed in American history.

Our deep inequality also produces early death for the poor. As reported in the Harper’s Index (Sept 2019), nearly 16,000 poor people died between 2013-2017 because some states refused to expand Medicaid. Apparently, the DNC reformers can live with this horrible injustice as long as such deaths reflect a fair representation by gender and race. But this leaves intact an unequal system that insures that thousands die each year from the lack of health care, and millions suffer from grinding poverty.

We should not be shocked that the rich live very well while thousands of Americans die from lack of health care; disdain for the lower classes is as American as apple pie. Compared to resistance against economic injustice during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, there’s been little outrage during what historian Steve Fraser calls the “Age of Acquiescence.” This country once “rumbled to the thunder of mass strikes, moral outrage, and political revolution, mayhem on the city streets and in the countryside. There was then a Great Noise. There is now, in our time a Great Silence.”

The class warfare of the rich and powerful against the middle and lower classes will continue and inequality will deepen unless Americans return to the militant resistance of our past. Such a resurrection of protest, however, must reject the Democratic Party establishment. It is not a vehicle for genuine change but the graveyard of progressive movements.

John Marciano lives in Talent, and is a long-time union activist.