A fundamental war has been waged in this nation since its founding, between progressive forces pushing us forward and regressive forces pulling us backward.
We are going to battle once again.
Progressives believe in openness, equal opportunity, and tolerance. Progressives assume we’re all in it together: We all benefit from public investments in schools and health care and infrastructure. And we all do better with strong safety nets, reasonable constraints on Wall Street and big business, and a truly progressive tax system. Progressives worry when the rich and privileged become powerful enough to undermine democracy.
Regressives take the opposite positions.
Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and the other tribunes of today’s Republican right aren’t really conservatives. Their goal isn’t to conserve what we have. It’s to take us backwards.
They’d like to return to the 1920s — before Social Security, unemployment insurance, labor laws, the minimum wage, Medicare and Medicaid, worker safety laws, the Environmental Protection Act, the Glass-Steagall Act, the Securities and Exchange Act, and the Voting Rights Act.
In the 1920s Wall Street was unfettered, the rich grew far richer and everyone else went deep into debt, and the nation closed its doors to immigrants.
Rather than conserve the economy, these regressives want to resurrect the classical economics of the 1920s — the view that economic downturns are best addressed by doing nothing until the “rot” is purged out of the system (as Andrew Mellon, Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Secretary, so decorously put it).
In truth, if they had their way we’d be back in the late nineteenth century — before the federal income tax, antitrust laws, the pure food and drug act, and the Federal Reserve. A time when robber barons — railroad, financial, and oil titans — ran the country. A time of wrenching squalor for the many and mind-numbing wealth for the few.
Listen carefully to today’s Republican right and you hear the same Social Darwinism Americans were fed more than a century ago to justify the brazen inequality of the Gilded Age: Survival of the fittest. Don’t help the poor or unemployed or anyone who’s fallen on bad times, they say, because this only encourages laziness. America will be strong only if we reward the rich and punish the needy.
The regressive right has slowly consolidated power over the last three decades as income and wealth have concentrated at the top. In the late 1970s the richest 1 percent of Americans received 9 percent of total income and held 18 percent of the nation’s wealth; by 2007, they had more than 23 percent of total income and 35 percent of America’s wealth. CEOs of the 1970s were paid 40 times the average worker’s wage; now CEOs receive 300 times the typical workers’ wage.
This concentration of income and wealth has generated the political heft to deregulate Wall Street and halve top tax rates. It has bankrolled the so-called Tea Party movement, and captured the House of Representatives and many state governments. Through a sequence of presidential appointments it has also overtaken the Supreme Court.
Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Roberts (and, all too often, Kennedy) claim they’re conservative jurists. But they’re judicial activists bent on overturning seventy-five years of jurisprudence by resurrecting states’ rights, treating the 2nd Amendment as if America still relied on local militias, narrowing the Commerce Clause, and calling money speech and corporations people.
Yet the great arc of American history reveals an unmistakable pattern. Whenever privilege and power conspire to pull us backward, the nation eventually rallies and moves forward. Sometimes it takes an economic shock like the bursting of a giant speculative bubble; sometimes we just reach a tipping point where the frustrations of average Americans turn into action.
Look at the Progressive reforms between 1900 and 1916; the New Deal of the 1930s; the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s; the widening opportunities for women, minorities, people with disabilities, and gays; and the environmental reforms of the 1970s.
In each of these eras, regressive forces reignited the progressive ideals on which America is built. The result was fundamental reform.
Perhaps this is what’s beginning to happen again across America.