As lives at work and home were thrown into chaos by a devastating pandemic that's killed a globe-leading 600,000 Americans (and possibly far more) amid fear, conspiracy theories, and anti-vax propaganda, working-class stress rose immeasurably or perhaps I mean measurably. In 2020, according to Gallup's State of the Global Workplace report, "U.S. and Canadian work forces saw the highest levels of daily stress globally" at 57%. And if American workers were indeed among the most stressed out on the planet, you can count on one thing even if Gallup doesn't measure it this country's billionaires weren't.
America's ever-expanding billionaire class raked in an estimated extra $1.6 trillion in the worst of the pandemic months. Not so surprisingly, then, as Inequality.org notes, by April "America's 719 billionaires, this country's .001%, held over four times more wealth ($4.56 trillion) than all the roughly 165 million Americans in society's bottom half ($1.01 trillion)." And as ProPublica recently reported, having "obtained a vast trove of Internal Revenue Service data on the tax returns of thousands of the nation's wealthiest people," unlike working-class Americans, many of them essentially paid next to no, or no (yes, that's right, no) taxes at all. Sometimes, quite literally not a cent. Oh, unless you want to count as a form of taxation (with representation) the rather generous contributions some of them have made to favored politicians.
This is the world of ultimate inequality and turmoil that Americans find themselves in at a moment when, as TomDispatch regular and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign Liz Theoharis suggests, this country may be in the early days of a new era of Reconstruction, the third in our history. If so, how appropriate, since who can doubt that, facing such a surge of Republican extremism and repression, ranging from the suppression of the vote to the suppression of what can even be taught in a classroom, a wave of genuine reconstruction couldn't be more in order. Tom
When You Lift from the Bottom, Everyone Rises
Have We Entered America's Third Era of Reconstruction?
West Virginia, a state first established in defiance of slavery, has recently become ground zero in the fight for voting rights. In an early June op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin vowed to maintain the Senate filibuster, while opposing the For the People Act, a bill to expand voting rights. Last week, after mounting pressure and a leaked Zoom recording with billionaire donors, he showed potential willingness to move on the filibuster and proposed a "compromise" on voting rights. Nonetheless, his claim that the filibuster had been critical to protecting the "rights of Democrats in the past" and his pushback on important voting-rights protections requires scrutiny.
After all, the modern use of the filibuster first emerged in the 1920s and 1930s as a response to civil rights and anti-lynching legislation. In 1949, senator and southern Democrat Richard Russell, then a chief defender of the filibuster, unabashedly explained that "nobody mentions any other legislation in connection with it."
Manchin's apathy toward democracy actively harms millions of West Virginians in a state where 40% of the population is poor or low-income and voter turn-out rates remain dismally low. Indeed, that filibuster potentially stands directly in the way of billions of dollars in infrastructure and job-development funding that would buoy the Mountaineer State, as well as many other states across the country. At the same time, the protection and expansion of voting rights would benefit poor and low-income West Virginians significantly.
The debate on protecting voting rights and on the filibuster in Congress is only part of an assault on democracy underway nationally. Halfway through 2021, the very Republican extremists who continue to cry wolf about a "stolen" presidential election have introduced close to 400 voter suppression bills in 48 states (including West Virginia), 20 of which have already been signed into law. As journalist Ari Berman recently tweeted all too accurately, this wave of reactionary legislation is the "greatest assault on voting rights since the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s."
When history circles back on itself like this, it's worth paying attention, especially since the years following the Civil War represented the most significant wave of democracy this country had ever seen. For almost a decade during that First Reconstruction, formerly enslaved men and women forged fragile but powerful political coalitions with poor whites across the South, leading state governments to advance the rights of dispossessed millions, while securing key federal legislation and constitutional amendments that would forever change the country.
The racist and violent backlash to Reconstruction was more than a reaction to the enfranchisement of former slaves and the empowerment of propertyless whites. It was a response to the threat a multiracial democracy from below posed to the still all-too-powerful remnants of the southern Slavocracy and the barons of Wall Street some thousand miles to the north. Today, the stirrings of a similarly transformative era are palpable and the growing antidemocratic counterattack suggests that the modern equivalent of those Slavocrats and the billionaire barons of this moment feel it, too.
As inequality and poverty continue to deepen, poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans favors commonsense policies like universal healthcare, wage increases, affordable housing, and voting rights. And from the multiracial Black Lives Matter uprisings last summer, which pulled in tens of millions of Americans, to the historic electorate that voted in the Biden-Harris administration, it may soon be increasingly clear that this majority is willing to act to make its needs and demands the order of the day.
In the wake of that First Reconstruction and what might be called the Second Reconstruction of the Civil Rights era from the 1940s to 1970s, we may now be in the early days of a Third Reconstruction. Still, no one should ignore another reality as well: those who would stop such a moment still wield enormous power and will continue to use every imaginable tool of division and subterfuge, from suppressing the vote and maintaining the filibuster to limiting wages and supporting highly militarized police forces.
The first two Reconstructions have much to teach us about the possibilities and dangers that abound today.
A Tale of Two Reconstructions
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