Since 2016 we have been deluged with a variety of empirical studies that should give us some sense of the political and economic realities of life in the United States. The data makes clear what progressive strategies should be as well, at least over the next two years.

First, time after time, reputable economists, think tanks, and international financial institutions have demonstrated that globally and nationally, income and wealth have become more and more unequal. Capital accumulation over the last thirty years has dramatically shifted to the top 200 multinational corporations and banks.

Second, the shift of wealth and income has been coupled with stagnant wages and income in the United States. While the numbers of people around the world living in abject poverty have declined, still more than two billion people live below modest estimates of a livable wage. In the United States, United Way sponsored studies show that one-third to 45 percent of households in American states live below a livable wage. At every data point the wealth, wages, and income of people of color and women are substantially less than that of white workers.

Third, the combination of growing inequality in wealth and income in the United States is correlated with government programs--such as military spending, tax cuts, and support for private prisons, and charter schools for example--that benefit the rich minority at the expense of the poor and marginalized. Studies suggest that in most societies, including in the United States, political elites are sponsored and supported by or constitute representatives of the wealthy minority. Political scientists have demonstrated that politicians act in the interests of their economic class and their financial supporters, not their constituencies.

Fourth, as wealth and power is concentrated, investments in the public sector in the United States, have declined as a percentage of total government expenditures. The visible indicators of this include crumbling infrastructure such as roads and bridges, pollution of air and water, inadequate and non-affordable housing for the many, and declining public institutions such as schools, health care facilities, libraries, parks, and centers providing increasingly needed social services. The old and the young, minorities, women, the disabled and others with a lesser political voice suffer most.

Fifth, the dominant economic class, political elites, and prominent intellectuals at universities and think tanks have developed a theory of market fundamentalism to justify the decline in public institutions. The key policy outcome of their approach is referred to as “privatization.” It is characterized by a shift from programs based on a “mixed economy,” a combination of programs supporting both a public and private sector, to so-called “free markets” popularized during the Reagan Revolution. It was Reagan who said: “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.” 

Every administration since the Reagan years (recognizing of course that elements of this agenda have always been part of United States government policy) has moved the nation’s economic policy toward the full realization of the privatization of every government activity except military expenditures. At the federal and state levels institutions and programs have been privatized, government regulations have been eliminated, politicians through tax cuts have reduced the obligations of the rich and powerful to society. The very idea of a public sphere has been challenged and narrowed. 

This policy agenda within the United States has paralleled policies worldwide referred to as “neoliberalism.” The ubiquity of neoliberal policies has suggested to some that neoliberalism now constitutes the latest stage of capitalism.  And neoliberalism which has fully engulfed the industrial, capitalist countries was initiated in the 1970s by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreements on Trade and Tariffs or GATT (later World Trade Organization). Virtually every country in the Global South, the former Socialist Bloc countries, the industrial capitalist countries, and Social Democracies have been affected by this neoliberal policy environment.

Sixth, poll after poll has indicated that the majority Americans reject part or all of the neoliberal agenda. They want the rich to pay some share of the costs of government. They support the right of workers to form unions. They support living wages. They want single payer health care, free college tuition, the continuation of public schools, access to water free of cancer causing agents, fresh air, accessible housing, and reduced cost transportation systems. And they are angry about most of the political leaders who, on the whole, oppose  these  policies.  And while the history of white supremacy and patriarchy have been used to distort the vision of many, most people would prioritize the policies above to supporting candidates who advocate the denial of rights to everybody.

Finally, in the context of the historic shift from welfare state capitalism to neoliberal capitalism, masses of eligible voters in the United States continue to vote “no” by refusing to participate in elections. Voter participation in 2016 was below 2012 and 2008, particularly in states critical to the Democratic Party candidate for president. Similarly, low voter turnout (of course, coupled with new voter suppression laws and the insertion of huge increases in money from the super-rich) in state and local elections since 2010 have led to draconian shifts in the policies of most of the 50 states. 

What does this mean for progressives? 

Progressives need to organize around and campaign for economic justice.

Progressives need to make it clear that as the old IWW slogan suggests, “An Injury to One is an Injury to All.” There can be no justice if racist, white supremacist, homophobic, and patriarchal policies continue, dividing the one big working class.

Progressives need to campaign around economic justice and not get sidetracked by relevant but secondary issues: computer hacking, sexual dalliances, and psychoanalyzing political leaders. 

In addition, progressives must doggedly work for economic justice in ways to challenge old, worn-out, and historically inaccurate “theories” about “human nature,” “free markets,” the evils of public institutions, rugged individualism, and American exceptionalism.

Another world is possible but it has to be fought for.

by Harry Targ