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Democrats Reject Oligarchy or Else

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Robert Reich
Robert Reich
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In the conventional view of American politics, Joe Biden is a moderate while Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are on the left and Donald Trump is on the right.

This conventional view is rubbish. Today's great divide is not between left and right. It's between democracy and oligarchy.

There are no longer "moderates." There's no longer a "center." The most powerful force in American politics today is anti-establishment fury at a rigged system.

Four decades ago, when America had a large and growing middle class, the left wanted stronger social safety nets and more public investment in schools, roads and research. The right sought greater reliance on the free market.

In those days, a general election was like a competition between two hotdog vendors on a long boardwalk extending from left to right. To maximize sales, each had to move to the middle. If one strayed too far left or right, the other would move beside him and take all sales from the rest of the boardwalk.

This older American politics is now obsolete. As wealth and power have moved to the top and the middle class has shrunk, more Americans have joined the ranks of the working class and poor.

Most Americans regardless of whether they were once on the left or right have become politically disempowered and economically insecure. Nowadays it's the boardwalk versus private jets on their way to the Hamptons.

As Rahm Emmanuel, Barack Obama's chief of staff and former mayor of Chicago, told the New York Times: "This is really the crack-up. Usually, fights are Democrats versus Republicans, one end of Pennsylvania versus the other, or the left versus the right. Today's squabbles are internal between the establishment versus the people that are storming the barricades."

In 2016, Trump harnessed many of these frustrations, as did Sanders.

The frustrations today are larger than they were in 2016. Corporate profits are higher, as is CEO pay. Markets are more monopolized. Wealth is more concentrated at the top. Although the official unemployment rate is lower, most peoples' incomes have gone nowhere and they have even less job security.

Meanwhile, Washington has become even swampier. Big corporations, Wall Street and billionaires have flooded it with money and lobbyists. Trump has given out all the tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks and subsidies they have ever wanted. The oligarchy is in charge.

Why hasn't America risen up in protest? Because American democracy was dysfunctional even before Trump ran for president. The moneyed interests had already taken over much of it.

It's hard for people to get very excited about returning to the widening inequalities and growing corruption of the decades before Trump. Which partly explains why Biden is foundering.

At the same time, Trump and his propagandists at Fox News have channeled working-class rage against the establishment into fears of imaginary threats such as immigrants, socialists and a "deep state."

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Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

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