Populist Democracy: Webb and Dobbs
American workers have a chance to be heard.
BY JIM WEBB
Wednesday, November 15, 2006 12:01 a.m.
The most important--and unfortunately the least debated--issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. America's top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools; fewer still send their loved ones to fight our wars. They own most of our stocks, making the stock market an unreliable indicator of the economic health of working people. The top 1% now takes in an astounding 16% of national income, up from 8% in 1980. The tax codes protect them, just as they protect corporate America, through a vast system of loopholes.
Incestuous corporate boards regularly approve compensation packages for chief executives and others that are out of logic's range. As this newspaper has reported, the average CEO of a sizeable corporation makes more than $10 million a year, while the minimum wage for workers amounts to about $10,000 a year, and has not been raised in nearly a decade. When I graduated from college in the 1960s, the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker made. Today, that CEO makes 400 times as much.
In the age of globalization and outsourcing, and with a vast underground labor pool from illegal immigration, the average American worker is seeing a different life and a troubling future. Trickle-down economics didn't happen. Despite the vaunted all-time highs of the stock market, wages and salaries are at all-time lows as a percentage of the national wealth. At the same time, medical costs have risen 73% in the last six years alone. Half of that increase comes from wage-earners' pockets rather than from insurance, and 47 million Americans have no medical insurance at all.
Manufacturing jobs are disappearing. Many earned pension programs have collapsed in the wake of corporate "reorganization." And workers' ability to negotiate their futures has been eviscerated by the twin threats of modern corporate America: If they complain too loudly, their jobs might either be outsourced overseas or given to illegal immigrants.
This ever-widening divide is too often ignored or downplayed by its beneficiaries. A sense of entitlement has set in among elites, bordering on hubris. When I raised this issue with corporate leaders during the recent political campaign, I was met repeatedly with denials, and, from some, an overt lack of concern for those who are falling behind. A troubling arrogance is in the air among the nation's most fortunate. Some shrug off large-scale economic and social dislocations as the inevitable byproducts of the "rough road of capitalism." Others claim that it's the fault of the worker or the public education system, that the average American is simply not up to the international challenge, that our education system fails us, or that our workers have become spoiled by old notions of corporate paternalism.
Still others have gone so far as to argue that these divisions are the natural results of a competitive society. Furthermore, an unspoken insinuation seems to be inundating our national debate: Certain immigrant groups have the "right genetics" and thus are natural entrants to the "overclass," while others, as well as those who come from stock that has been here for 200 years and have not made it to the top, simply don't possess the necessary attributes.
Most Americans reject such notions. But the true challenge is for everyone to understand that the current economic divisions in society are harmful to our future. It should be the first order of business for the new Congress to begin addressing these divisions, and to work to bring true fairness back to economic life. Workers already understand this, as they see stagnant wages and disappearing jobs.
America's elites need to understand this reality in terms of their own self-interest. A recent survey in the Economist warned that globalization was affecting the U.S. differently than other "First World" nations, and that white-collar jobs were in as much danger as the blue-collar positions which have thus far been ravaged by outsourcing and illegal immigration. That survey then warned that "unless a solution is found to sluggish real wages and rising inequality, there is a serious risk of a protectionist backlash" in America that would take us away from what they view to be the "biggest economic stimulus in world history."
More troubling is this: If it remains unchecked, this bifurcation of opportunities and advantages along class lines has the potential to bring a period of political unrest. Up to now, most American workers have simply been worried about their job prospects. Once they understand that there are (and were) clear alternatives to the policies that have dislocated careers and altered futures, they will demand more accountability from the leaders who have failed to protect their interests. The "Wal-Marting" of cheap consumer products brought in from places like China, and the easy money from low-interest home mortgage refinancing, have softened the blows in recent years. But the balance point is tipping in both cases, away from the consumer and away from our national interest.
The politics of the Karl Rove era were designed to distract and divide the very people who would ordinarily be rebelling against the deterioration of their way of life. Working Americans have been repeatedly seduced at the polls by emotional issues such as the predictable mantra of "God, guns, gays, abortion and the flag" while their way of life shifted ineluctably beneath their feet. But this election cycle showed an electorate that intends to hold government leaders accountable for allowing every American a fair opportunity to succeed.
With this new Congress, and heading into an important presidential election in 2008, American workers have a chance to be heard in ways that have eluded them for more than a decade. Nothing is more important for the health of our society than to grant them the validity of their concerns. And our government leaders have no greater duty than to confront the growing unfairness in this age of globalization.
Mr. Webb is the Democratic senator-elect from Virginia.
Dobbs: I'm a populist, deal with it
By Lou Dobbs
NEW YORK (CNN) -- The Democratic victory last week has our political elites in both parties and in the national media squealing like stuck pigs. Way to go, America, we may be on the way.
It seems nothing frightens our free trade and pro-illegal immigration orthodoxies more than putting the common good and the national interest above dominant special interests, corporate America and, of course, our darling elites in both political parties and the media.
The Bush administration long ago took polemics and false choices to a high art form. On the issue of the war in Iraq, this administration has starkly defined our choices, until recently, as "stay the course" or "cut and run." Any critic of our conduct of this war, like me, has been declared unpatriotic. Any critic of this administration's faith-based economic policies that drive its free-trade agenda, like me, has been labeled an economic isolationist.
But now the name-calling and labeling is reaching a new level, and from all quarters. The political, business and media elites have called me a "table-thumping protectionist" because I want balanced and mutual trade, because I want this country to export as much as it imports. They've called me a racist, nativist xenophobe because, in order to win the war on terror, the war on drugs and to stop illegal immigration, I want our borders and ports secured.
Over the past week, pundits and savants of both the left and the right have been trying to simultaneously define me and the newly elected Democratic victors in the Senate and the House by accusing us of being populists. What a dirty little word. Horrifying.
I admit to being, among many other things, a proponent of populism. But I do believe my critics should look up the definition before they sling the word at me like a filthy epithet. On second thought, it may be to them, because a populist is, after all, nothing more than "a supporter of the rights and the power of the people." In fact, I'm a damn proud populist.
Since the election, there's been an incredible confluence of one of the nation's most liberal online magazines -- Slate -- with one of the world's most traditional establishment newspapers -- The Financial Times -- to decry what Slate columnist Jacob Weisberg calls the ascension of the "Lou Dobbs Democrats."
Weisberg decries what he sees as my "economic nationalism" and instructs us that such nationalism "begins from the populist premise that working people aren't doing so well. But instead of blaming the rich at home, it focuses its energy on the poor abroad."
The Financial Times also published Weisberg's column, obviously equally unsettled with the possible turnaround in the new Congress, which could inconveniently lead to some mild discomfort for the Times' corporate masters and some marginal improvement in the lives of America's middle class.
Both Slate and The Financial Times resist saying what I've been saying loudly and clearly: We're in a class war, and our middle class is losing, and losing badly. But I do blame and have blamed the rich, corporate America and our political elites in both parties who have permitted the unabated assault on middle-class working men and women and their families. And by God, I hope they're right about the Lou Dobbs Democrats, and I hope they find some Lou Dobbs Republicans in the fight to return our government to the people.
I have never blamed the poor of Mexico, China or India for corporate America's avarice and our political elites' cowardice. I blame us for forgetting that the United States is first a nation, and secondly a marketplace or an economy, and I blame us for being taken as fools by both political parties for far too long. It is not nationalism by any stretch of the imagination for me to remind those in power that our political system, our great democracy, makes possible our free-enterprise economy, and not vice versa as the elites continually propagandize.
From the right, The Weekly Standard lamented that the Lou Dobbs Democrats "didn't just attack the GOP's corruption and malfeasance; they embraced a more thoroughgoing economic populism...." The conservative Standard is obviously more upset that the newly elected Democratic senators and congressmen want to focus not only on the corruption and incompetence of the Republicans, but -- God help us -- many of our new officeholders also actually want to see this great free-enterprise democracy work for all Americans. No wonder the orthodoxies on the left and the right are convulsing.
Human Events Online, another conservative publication, attacks my sincerity and conviction with the bizarre notion that because -- as it says -- I can "afford a bottle of Cristal or Dom Perignon" that my concern for the middle class is really nothing more than crocodile tears. Human Events didn't quite get the fact that as flawed as I am, as many mistakes as I've made in my life, the one thing I haven't done is forget that I was born poor, both parents working, and I've never forgotten those who have made my opportunities in this country possible.
Also disturbed by the perturbation in their political universe and liberal orthodoxy, Newsweek columnists Fareed Zakaria and Jonathan Alter attacked my positions on illegal immigration (I'm against it) and border security (I'm for it).
Zakaria refers to "CNN's Lou Dobbs and his angry band of xenophobes" and Jonathan Alter describes those who agree with me as "nativist Lou Dobbsians." But Alter and Zakaria are far too bright to not know better. I've never once called for a restriction on legal immigration -- in fact, I've called for an increase, if it can be demonstrated that as a matter of public policy the nation requires more than the one million people we bring into this country legally each year.
And what does it mean to be a nativist in the United States in the 21st century when ours is the most ethnically and racially diverse society on the face of the earth? Both Alter and Zakaria are smart enough to know the answer to that question, and they know better than to write such drivel. Neither Zakaria or Alter can substantiate their disappointing attempts at labels with a single thing I've ever said or written. I say what I mean and I mean what I say.
What we all need to be about now is honesty and forthrightness. And the truth is, our political, business and media elites have abandoned the cornerstone of this great nation: equality of rights, equality of economic opportunity and equality of educational opportunity.
And, yes, I'm an ardent and fervent believer in the first three words of that radical populist document, which begins with the words "We the People."