A fundamental war has been waged in this nation
since its founding, between progressive forces pushing us forward and
regressive forces pulling us backward.
We are going to battle once again.
Progressives believe in openness, equal opportunity, and tolerance.
Progressives assume we're all in it together: We all benefit from public
investments in schools and health care and infrastructure. And we all
do better with strong safety nets, reasonable constraints on Wall Street
and big business, and a truly progressive tax system. Progressives
worry when the rich and privileged become powerful enough to undermine
Regressives take the opposite positions.
Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and the other
tribunes of today's Republican right aren't really conservatives. Their
goal isn't to conserve what we have. It's to take us backwards.
They'd like to return to the 1920s -- before Social Security,
unemployment insurance, labor laws, the minimum wage, Medicare and
Medicaid, worker safety laws, the Environmental Protection Act, the
Glass-Steagall Act, the Securities and Exchange Act, and the Voting
In the 1920s Wall Street was unfettered, the rich grew far richer and
everyone else went deep into debt, and the nation closed its doors to
Rather than conserve the economy, these regressives want to resurrect
the classical economics of the 1920s -- the view that economic downturns
are best addressed by doing nothing until the "rot" is purged out of
the system (as Andrew Mellon, Herbert Hoover's Treasury Secretary, so
decorously put it).
In truth, if they had their way we'd be back in the late nineteenth
century -- before the federal income tax, antitrust laws, the pure food
and drug act, and the Federal Reserve. A time when robber barons --
railroad, financial, and oil titans -- ran the country. A time of
wrenching squalor for the many and mind-numbing wealth for the few.
Listen carefully to today's Republican right and you hear the same
Social Darwinism Americans were fed more than a century ago to justify
the brazen inequality of the Gilded Age: Survival of the fittest. Don't
help the poor or unemployed or anyone who's fallen on bad times, they
say, because this only encourages laziness. America will be strong only
if we reward the rich and punish the needy.
The regressive right has slowly consolidated power over the last
three decades as income and wealth have concentrated at the top. In the
late 1970s the richest 1 percent of Americans received 9 percent of
total income and held 18 percent of the nation's wealth; by 2007, they
had more than 23 percent of total income and 35 percent of America's
wealth. CEOs of the 1970s were paid 40 times the average worker's wage;
now CEOs receive 300 times the typical workers' wage.
This concentration of income and wealth has generated the political
heft to deregulate Wall Street and halve top tax rates. It has
bankrolled the so-called Tea Party movement, and captured the House of
Representatives and many state governments. Through a sequence of
presidential appointments it has also overtaken the Supreme Court.
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Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Roberts (and, all too often, Kennedy)
claim they're conservative jurists. But they're judicial activists bent
on overturning 75 years of jurisprudence by resurrecting
states' rights, treating the 2nd Amendment as if America still relied
on local militias, narrowing the Commerce Clause, and calling money
speech and corporations people.
Yet the great arc of American history reveals an unmistakable
pattern. Whenever privilege and power conspire to pull us backward, the
nation eventually rallies and moves forward. Sometimes it takes an
economic shock like the bursting of a giant speculative bubble;
sometimes we just reach a tipping point where the frustrations of
average Americans turn into action.
Look at the Progressive reforms between 1900 and 1916; the New Deal
of the 1930s; the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s; the
widening opportunities for women, minorities, people with disabilities,
and gays; and the environmental reforms of the 1970s.