I did some traveling in June and July. We stopped in Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, and Utah. I encountered many people who were conservative voters who had voted for the President. I was surprised by the wrinkled noses; the shoulder shrugs the expressions of dismay over his demeanor in office. “I thought he’d behave differently”, said one friend. Most still gave some approval to his political agenda.
I have been telling people that Trump is not the problem. He is like a carbuncle; a staph infection in a body that erupts through the skin and is highly contagious. He is the governmental consequence of a serious divide within the United States, but his personality and behavior are not the cause of the underlying dysfunction. So, what happened?
One overriding cause is that we citizens of the right, left and center politically took our democracy for granted. Too satisfied with the trajectory of our own life or too distracted by overcoming its challenges, we forgot that ours is a government of the people. We let the political class rule.
Much of the social change since the WWll has made people resentful, but I want to point out two things that have had a massive impact on our individual sense of wellbeing. The first is the anti-tax movement started by Prop 13 in California in 1978, and the second is the great recession starting in the summer of 2008. Although 30 years apart, both have had a devastating impact on the middle class.
As it spread across the United States, the anti-tax movement decreased state revenue. It imposed a majority vote to increase any type of tax. It took the power of the State Legislatures away from counties and municipalities. It justified other tax cuts, many of which only benefited those with upper incomes. For the middle class, it decreased school funding at all levels and drove the tuition increases that have outpaced inflation by double digits. The quality of California K-12 and Community Colleges led the nation before Prop 13. Getting an education at a state-funded school used to be affordable for anyone, and entry into living wage jobs was never questioned.
Those who managed to gain good jobs did well during the 80’s & 90’s. The stock market surged ahead, with only the tech bubble and 9/11 downturns which were soon recouped. The early baby boomers prepared to retire on solid investments and their magically inflating home equity. Those who were falling behind (see education funding in the paragraph above) were increasingly chastised for being lazy and unwilling to put in the effort. The bad guy became the shift of jobs overseas, but that seemed only to require retraining (again, above paragraph).
Then came the Great Recession. The middle class was thrown under the bus. Just restoring the consumer wealth which was lost has taken a decade. People lost houses. 401K retirement accounts, urged on workers to replace company pension plans, lost value. Loans were suddenly in default and steady jobs were lost. The Republican administration was in a hard spot. They could let banks fail, their CEO’s face financial and civil penalties, or they could prevent what would surely become a worldwide depression. They chose a course which forced no one in the factor market to figuratively enter the poor house. Most emerged to invest again with only somewhat reduced wealth.
The thing is, it’s too simplistic to blame the wealthy or even to just say tax them and redistribute their wealth. Every eligible voter in America is to blame for not paying attention and correcting harmful public policy when we could, let alone passing it in the first place. More importantly, those of us whose life went on during and after the recession with only minor economic problems were not paying attention to those with economic insecurity. We kept voting for the same people who were part of the Wall
Street-Washington swinging door. The politicians failed to pay attention to the needs of all Americans. They sold scapegoats and focus group answers. Scapegoating widened divides, the electorate became willing to bet on disruption and voted the lesser of two evils, Trump.
We can do better. We can pledge to elect public servants who will spend their time finding practical solutions to real problems. We can save our democracy.