An Introductory Article Summary: While I hope the long opinion piece that follows will be of interest to OpEdNews readers, its content is perhaps more directly relevant to progressive candidates for president or congress, their campaign supporters, and progressive activist groups and supporters that are involved in promoting progressive legislation and organizing a progressive people's movement.
My purpose in this paper is to suggest what I believe may be a helpful approach progressives can take to gain a fair hearing from people outside the progressive choir for their ideas on how to combat America's extreme income inequality. I propose that two groups in particular, alienated non-voters and struggling conservatives, though not natural allies, may represent for progressives a very large pool of critically needed, and potentially winnable, volunteer and voter support. The winning will not be easy, of course, because of profound differences in the way conservatives and progressives perceive their connections with the world. To emphasize the challenge involved in closing the gap, I develop a long profile of the prototypical conservative mindset that shows it to be fundamentally at odds with its progressive counterpart. On the political front, however, I find a common denominator between the two groups based on their mutual resistance to what many are calling "crony capitalism." Both see the government's overriding attention to the interests of international corporations, at the expense of ordinary people, as a major factor in creating the country's economic inequality and extreme gaps in wealth and income.
Based on that common ground, and the sheer need many millions of working Americans have for a government that will actually operate and legislate in their behalf, I propose that progressives seek the support of non-voters and struggling conservatives in two principal ways: by committing themselves to the positive vision of building American community--a positioning that would separate them from any association with the current governing model; and by emphasizing a legislative criterion that is highly important to those for whom "rugged individualism" remains a driving virtue. I point out that progressive programs designed to narrow income inequality and relieve the financial hardship faced by millions of working families will not simply provide welfare, but be aimed at expanding opportunity for gainful personal initiative. Despite the necessary role of government in creating, funding and implementing progressive programs, they would be made acceptable and win the support of people who are traditionally dismissive or distrustful of government by ensuring that participants in them can retain the dignity of controlling and shaping their own economic future.
Putting in Context the Approach I Have in Mind
As everyone knows, American society today is marked by a truly astounding inequality of income and wealth. The most recent data, readily available from various reliable Internet sources, is often cited in TV and public appearances by Independent Vermont Senator and now presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who, in my own opinion, is America's most serious, consistent, and persuasive spokesman for progressive values and ideas. Bernie points out the following: Currently, corporation executives have an average income more than 200 times greater than their workers, and the top one-percent of Americans earns ninety-nine percent of all new income. Even more astonishingly, just 0.1-percent of Americans own more wealth than the bottom ninety percent, and, in just the last two years, the wealthiest fourteen individuals in the U.S. saw their wealth increase by 157 billion dollars--which is more than the total wealth of the bottom forty percent. It is widely reported, too, that millions of Americans within the bottom ninety percent have seen what little wealth they had eroded in recent years by various combinations of job loss, collapse in the value of asset holdings, stagnant real wages, and rising debt. As a result of these trends, forty-million Americans are now in poverty, and remain so despite a continuing downward trend in official unemployment rates. This is because many unemployed workers have become too discouraged to continue looking for work, and others, now counted as employed, have found only part-time or low-paying jobs.
Given the desperate circumstances to which the grossly unequal distribution of wealth in America has reduced many millions of its working-class citizens, it might be expected that most of them would eagerly support economic changes that promise to rein in and reverse the trend. Such changes have been recommended by a number of voices in the U.S. Congress, and include those contained in a very specific 12-point progressive agenda presented to the Senate by Bernie Sanders. Among other initiatives, the Sanders agenda calls for a massive trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure rebuilding; break-up of too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks; real tax reform that creates a more steeply progressive tax system based on the ability to pay; enactment of a living minimum wage; expanded Social-Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and nutrition benefits to protect America's most vulnerable citizens; designing trade policies that benefit, not hurt, American workers; making college affordable to all; and instituting a "Medicare-for-All" system of universal health care. Critically, too, Sanders calls for an overturn of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and public financing of all federal elections. In his view, it is only by taking the money out of national politics that we can stop an emerging takeover of democratic government in the U.S. by a few wealthy oligarchs.
People of course reasonably ask, How are we going to pay for all this good stuff? When asked this in a recent hour-long interview broadcast on the Internet, Senator Sanders suggested that money to fund the most critical progressive initiatives can be derived to a large extent in just four ways: by steeply higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans; by legislation prohibiting corporations and billionaires from stashing their profits in tax havens like the Cayman Islands; by steep cuts in military spending, based mainly on the elimination of waste; and by transferring to allies, especially in the Middle East, responsibility for fighting adversaries in their own geographic neighborhood.
All of the Sanders economic proposals, and others, too, strike me as eminently sensible. Yet, both the results of the 2014 midterm election and my own take in talking to people suggest that very few Americans have as yet been impressed by them. It is true that a recent poll found that sixty-percent of Americans favor higher taxes on the rich, and it may also be true that other progressive policies--hiking the minimum wage, for example--can also poll more yeas than nays. But these responses, it seems to me, are profoundly superficial. They are at most little more than wishes, unrelated to any realistic expectation that proposed policies designed to really help economically poor and struggling Americans will actually be enacted into law. Still less do such responses in themselves suggest any willingness on the part of large numbers of people to actively participate in the kind of massive people's movement Senator Sanders himself has said is essential to get a president and congressmen (and women) elected to office who would actually push hard to get progressive policy proposals enacted into law.
To understand the political apathy of Americans, two realities about our Ninety-Nine Percent must be taken into account. Apparently, sixty-three percent of them are so alienated from, or uninterested in, the American democratic process that they couldn't bring themselves to vote in the 2014 midterm election. And second, as I'll discuss in this paper, many others who did vote, perhaps even the majority, are of a distinctly American conservative mindset that, up to this point at least, remains moderately to rigidly anti-government. Many of these conservatives are now struggling to make ends meet, and would welcome help from any quarter in the private sector to ease their financial burdens. Yet, because they remain tied to an historically-based "rugged individualism," and also profoundly distrust the motives of the federal government, they have little or no interest in any assistance it may offer, no matter how seemingly well-intended and programmatically sound. Such distrust seems in fact to extend to struggling Americans in general. Voting and polling data suggest that most Americans who have been hurt worst in the current economy simply don't believe that the politicians in Washington really care about helping them solve their problems. Instead, the victims continue to place their faith in the workings of an impersonal profit-driven free-enterprise system, in which the prime movers are in reality supported by a cabal of government/corporate cronyism that is largely responsible for the very conditions from which they suffer.
This misalignment of economic interest and attitude among struggling Americans is a political tragedy, since, as many economists attest, the implementation of progressive policies like those referenced in Bernie Sanders' agenda could in fact be of immediate help in narrowing the country's growing economic inequality. It would generate many millions of new jobs at good pay, introduce a living wage that would lift millions of active workers into the middle class, boost opportunities for upward mobility throughout the economy, and enhance the economic security of millions of seniors and other vulnerable Americans. The same initiatives could also create a more vibrant and unified national community, while having little adverse effect on the productivity of the competitive private economy. This last point continues to be supported empirically by ongoing federal programs, such as Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and, perhaps especially, the GI Bill with its wide range of hand-up benefits. All of these programs have demonstrated the government's ability to help better the lives of the great majority of Americans, without impairing national economic growth or impeding the enterprise of small-business job creators or their prospects for long-term success.
This paper will suggest reasons for the seemingly reflexive resistance or aggressive opposition to progressive views on economic reform by what may be most of the American public and a large majority of its national political representatives. Most importantly, it will propose an approach by which progressive thinkers, activists, supporters, and political candidates may be able to get around the barriers and, perhaps as early as the next election cycle, gain increased attention and a fair hearing from people outside the progressive core--including such seemingly unlikely ones as alienated non-voters and struggling conservatives. As I will try to show, the latter in fact represent an immense natural pool of potential support.
The Challenge of the Conservative Mindset
Many American progressives have long been aware that their values and policies are strongly resisted by a conservative mindset deeply embedded in American politics and culture. They often wonder why this is so, since, from their own perspective, their objectives are eminently humane -- even markedly Christian. Why is it, they ask, that many conservatives see progressives as a powerful "elite" that seeks to impose on them a new social order at odds with fundamental American values; or that they condemn progressive concerns for economic fairness at home and cooperative, rather than confrontational, relations abroad? Why is it, too, that conservatives maintain a near-creedal belief in the justice of "free markets," when it is clear that, either by themselves or in alliance with the government, they drive an economic system that is largely responsible for the widening economic gap between the one-percent and the rest of America? One might also ask why conservatives believe strongly in an American"exceptionalism" that is invoked to justify military incursions abroad that have produced no better world, but much bloodshed and unrest. Such seemingly irrational beliefs create high barriers for the advance of progressive principles such as participatory democracy, economic fairness, strategic investments in the public sector, corporate social responsibility, care for the environment, and a foreign policy that is not directed to the domination of other nations, but to the well-being of mankind as a whole.
I've only recently learned that a 2008 study published in the journal Science suggests that there may in fact be a rational explanation for conservative resistance to the seemingly reasonable and well-intentioned aims of political progressives. As summarized in the Los Angeles Times (Sept. 19, 2008), research on which the study was based traced a clear pathway in human makeup from genes, to physiology, to attitude, to behavior. In testing a cross-section of individuals, researchers found that genetically-conditioned levels of fear in response to various test stimuli were consistently indicative of how the individuals viewed the world. Those with heightened fear responses took the conservative view on contentious issues such as gun control, pacifism, and capital punishment, and were inclined to oppose changes in the existing social order. Those with lower fear responses tended to take the "progressive" view on the same issues, including a more willing acceptance of changes in the social order.
These findings seemingly confirm something I myself have long suspected: that one is in fact born with a predisposition to the conservative or progressive mindset. More importantly, in my own view, this inborn bias would appear to be strongly linked to an individual's sense of self-identity. Because this sense is critical to personal psychological stability, it is necessarily resistant to contrary ways of seeing things and makes it difficult to bridge ideological differences. The psychological divide is especially averse to the advance of progressive ideas, since it is highly likely that the inborn bias toward the conservative view is greatly more prevalent than that toward the progressive. This is because, as I hope to show, the conservative view reflects the pervasive human awareness of separation between the self and everything outside it, while the progressive view is based on a rare sense of essential connectedness with other human beings and all natural creation outside the self.