Major Changes in the Offing Gerry O’Shea
The Greek word peripeteia doesn’t have a clear equivalent in English. For the ancient Greeks it conveyed a major cultural turning point, a time when the body politic pivots from one set of standards or beliefs to something very different.
We may be at such a time in American politics. Our whole system of governance is so out of kilter that large numbers of people seem ready for major systemic changes, unlike anything since FDR and the New Deal in the 1930’s.
Consider the following indicators of Americans’ serious unhappiness with the status quo.
In a recent poll, 44% of voters aged 18 to 21 expressed a preference for a socialist system in America with 42% opting for a continuation of capitalism. Such results would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago at the turn of the new century.
These numbers seem to be validated by support for Senator Bernie Sanders, the lone socialist candidate seeking the Democratic nomination. Despite a heart attack in the fall, which many commentators felt would effectively take the 77-yr old out of the race, he has accumulated a massive treasury in small donations from millions of Americans, far more than the other Democratic candidates, and his poll numbers in the early primaries suggest that his popular support is surging.
The establishment wisdom suggests that a card-carrying socialist with, what are deemed by many commentators, far-left political stances on most issues, would be taken apart by a Trump campaign pointing to Sanders as the contemporary version of Lenin waiting to nationalize big companies and eliminate god from public discourse.
This conventional thinking has real merit but the idea that the socialist label is the death knell for any national campaign in America does not allow for the sea change that may well be happening around the country.
Many blue-collar workers believed Donald Trump’s pitch about the elite in Washington, represented in his rhetoric by the Clintons, cushioning their own financial interests, and showing no understanding or respect for the struggles faced by the families of so-called ordinary workers.
By comparison, Candidate Trump promised repeatedly to end the power of the bloated establishment, to drain the Washington swamp. How did that work out?
When Trump assumed the presidency in January 2017, the top 1% of Americans owned 70% of the wealth, and the bottom 90% controlled just 27% of the country’s GDP. The federal minimum wage had fallen by a third in the previous 50 years while worker productivity had risen by 150%.
That situation of deep inequality in the country has worsened in the Trump report card because of his financial and budgetary policies which directed even more tax breaks to the millionaire class and to big corporations. In a recent important study by the Financial Times only 37% of Americans said that they are better off now than they were when the present incumbent came into office.
We remember Oliver Goldsmith’s dire warning four hundred years ago “Ill fares the land to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates and men decay.”
What about the strong economy, low unemployment and so on? There is some truth in these assertions of progress, but more people working in low-paying jobs is not necessarily a boost for employees because wage rates have only registered minimal improvements.
The stock market is booming but only 20% of Americans own stocks and have good reason to celebrate the burgeoning Dow Jones Average. By comparison, 40% of citizens can’t pay an unexpected bill for a few hundred dollars.
America remains the richest country in the world, but people live longer in all the other Western countries, from Italy to Australia to Switzerland, with longevity in the United States barely surpassing Cuba.
The final punch in the inequality statistics is felt when people realize that because of the favorable changes in the laws governing estate taxes – remember the phony cries from the Right about taxing the dead – over the next few decades an estimated 68 trillion dollars will be passed on by baby boomers to their heirs. And so a new generation of super-wealthy people will emerge living off the gains of millionaires and billionaires from an earlier era – definitely not the way that a conservative capitalist system is supposed to work.
There are two other issues bubbling up in the country that will have a major impact especially among young voters next November: global warming and immigration.
Glaciers are melting; seas are rising; heat waves and droughts are lasting longer. An area the size of Ireland has been engulfed in flames in Australia – and the worst months are still ahead there.
President Trump and his government deny the scientific consensus about impending environmental disaster, guaranteed to happen without an unprecedented mobilization of world leaders planning urgently to counter the threat. Instead, shamefully, America continues to promote fossil fuel developments, even encouraging opening new coal pits.
Many young people are embarrassed that their government has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord while declaring publicly that global warming is, in a recent declaration from the White House, a lot of foolishness.
The plight of immigrants has resonated across age groups. The image of children maintained in cages on the southern border cries out for enlightened legislation. Hispanics now comprise a slightly larger voting bloc than African-Americans, but traditionally they don’t go to the polls in big numbers. Recent studies suggest that this may change in November because of this emotional issue.
Democrats are encouraged by a professional study that suggests that about 8% more voters are expected to cast a ballot in November than four years ago. Another recent study states that 59% of young people aged 18 to 24, first-time voters in many cases, identify as Democrats while 33% declare their preference for Republican ideas.
These projections do not constitute proof of an impending seismic shift in American politics, but they do strongly suggest serious movement away from politics-as-usual.
The massive and unanticipated victory by Democrats in the mid-term elections, when they won 40 Republican-held seats and easily took over the House, must be viewed as a positive omen for what may be an even-bigger shift to progressive candidates among a wider electorate in November.
Am I saying that Senator Sanders is the Democrats’ best choice for the Party nomination? No, but the nominee better recognize that careful moderate policy proposals will not motivate young voters. To take advantage of the strong current for change, the peripeteia that is brewing, requires thoughtful bold policies that will initiate a new era of fairness and inclusiveness