The playing field seems to keep tilting further against ordinary people in this country — poor people, hourly workers, low-paid service workers, middle-class people with family incomes in the $60-80K range, uninsured people, …. 75% of American households have household incomes below $80,000; the national median was $44,389 in 2005. Meanwhile the top one percent of Americans receive 17% of total after-tax income. And the rationale offered by the right to justify these increasing inequalities keeps shifting over time: free enterprise ideology, trickle-down economics, divisive racial politics, and irrelevant social issues, for example.
Here is the trajectory of US income by quintile since 1965 (link); essentially no change in the bottom three quintiles over that 40-year period. Plainly the benefits of growth and productivity change in the national economy have benefited the top 40% of the population, and disproportionately have flowed to the top 5%.
Just consider what has happened to income to the “middle” class versus the top 1% in the US economy. The 40-60% segment of earners have declined from 16.5% to 14.1% of after-tax income, while the top 1% has more than doubled its share, to 17.1%.
And here’s a very graphic demonstration of the rapid increase in the percent of income flowing to the top percent of US income earners since the Reagan revolution (thanks to benmuse):
Meanwhile, the power of extreme wealth in the country seems more or less unlimited and unchallenged. Corporations can spend as much as they want to further candidates — as “persons” with freedom of speech rights following Citizens’ United v. Federal Election Commission (link). Billionaires like the Koch brothers fund the anti-labor agendas of conservative governors. Right-wing media empires dominate the airwaves. Well-financed conservative politicians use the language of “budget crisis” as a pretext for harshly reducing programs that benefit ordinary people (like Pell grants). Lobbyists for corporations and major economic interests can influence agencies and regulations in the interest of their clients, more or less invisibly. And billionaire lightweights like Donald Trump continue to make ridiculous statements about President Obama’s birth status.
The political voice of the right, and the economic elite they serve, has never been louder. And it is becoming more reckless in its attacks on the rest of society. Immigrants come in for repressive legislation in Arizona and other states. Racist voices that would never have been tolerated a generation ago are edging towards mainstream acceptability on the right. Self-righteous attempts to reverse health care reform are being trumpeted — threatening one of the few gains that poor and uninsured people have made in decades. And the now-systematic attack on public sector unions is visibly aimed at silencing one of the very few powerful voices that stand in the political sphere on behalf of ordinary working people.
The big mystery is — why do the majority of Americans accept this shifting equation without protest? And how can progressive political organizations and movements do a better job of communicating the basic social realities of our economy and our democracy to a mass audience? Social justice isn’t a “special interest” — it is a commitment to the fundamental interests and dignity of the majority of Americans.