Andrea Batista Schlesinger is executive director of The Drum Major Institute , which is dedicated to making the government and elected officials accountable, and to improve the lot of all Americans. She delivered this speech yesterday during the opening plenary session of the Take Back America conference.
I’m going to make a somewhat odd proposition, which is that this all comes down to our feelings about nature versus nurture, and Voltaire. I’ll explain. I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature versus nurture conversation. Maybe it’s the conversation about gays in the military again. Maybe it’s the talk about women in science. Larry Summers isn’t here, is he? I’ve been thinking about nature versus nurture as a debate that’s really true and relevant when it comes to our economy. For the Right—our economy, it’s nature. Globalization—it’s nature. The world is flat, after all. More millionaires than ever—nature. Concentration of wealth at the top—nature. Exorbitant CEO pay—that’s just what happens. Only 12% of Americans in labor unions—nature. Forty-seven million without health insurance. The share of GDP going to wages and salaries—the smallest in the 77 years since they’ve started collecting the data. That’s just nature.
But it’s not nature is it?
We know that fact that the social contract has been obliterated, and that more and more risk is being borne by us. Exit polling in the mid-term election showed that more and more Americans do not believe that their children will do as well as they have done. That’s not nature. We have a choice. Public policy can make our nation fairer. Or it won’t. But it’s a choice.
It’s not nature. An example, which Bob referred to, the middle class; it’s the best lens through which to look at the failure of the Right when it comes to our economy. I was doing an interview earlier and talking about how we need to strengthen the middle class, and he said, “Well, isn’t that social engineering?” It’s a fair question. Damn straight, it’s engineering. That’s the point of government. The point is that we’re supposed to engineer fairness.
The middle class wasn’t some naturally occurring phenomenon. We created it. We created it through unions. We created it through a commitment to middle class housing, to access to higher education. Today, they found that car that had been buried. You could put the middle class in a time capsule and dig it up in a few years. The Right has finally managed to do something that we have not been able to do: unite the poor and the middle class. So, thank you.
The creation of the middle class is the best evidence for a governing ideology. I say ideology; I’m not going to run from ideology. It is the best evidence of what we mean when we say we’re progressives, and it’s the best evidence of a failure of a conservative ideology.
The demise is real. Sixty-five percent of Americans feel that when it comes to their financial future, no one’s looking out for them. Forty percent of working-age, middle-income people went without health insurance for at least part of the year in 2005. Three out of ten haven’t saved at all for retirement. Half of workers have no employer-sponsored retirement. The middle class has squeezed as tuition has increased 35% over the last five years for an average public four-year school. The issues of access to education, health care, job stability, retirement security—they’re no longer the issues of the poor. They’re the issues of everyone but the very wealthy.
This is an indictment, but it’s also an opportunity. Bob told me to be positive, so this is me being positive. I told him I’m from New York. The Employee Free Choice Act is our opportunity. We can stop undermining middle-class wages and conditions by offering legal status to 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country. We can reform a bankruptcy bill that far too many democrats voted for, which means that a health crisis or job loss isn’t the end. We can push not just for universal health insurance, but for paid sick leave, for paid family leave. And we can try to push for tuition to be as low as possible instead of tinkering around in the margins with excuses of pitifully low grants for students who can’t afford to go to school.
Ok, Voltaire. I think this all comes down to two choices. Either you believe, as Voltaire said, that “the best is the enemy of the good,” or you believe what my Dad told me in junior high school, which is that the good is the enemy of the best. I vote with my Dad. Are we going to settle for good when it comes to our economic policy? Are we going to work in silos—do health care one day, do energy policy the next day, maybe we’ll talk about taxes on Thursday? Or are we going to get to the core questions, the essential questions that must be a part of any of those debates. I think there are two. What is the role of corporate power in the country? And what is the role of government?
I encourage you all, throughout this conference—and I will do the same—to ask yourself: Are we getting to the core questions? When we talk about immigration, are we talking about the role of industry that wants as many workers here as possible to exploit, while pretending it’s in our best interest? Us, the advocates. Us, the progressives.
How many of you heard about the judge with the pants? Are we going to talk about the role of corporate power in dismantling our civil justice system so that almost everybody knows about this judge who sued the dry cleaners, but we don’t know enough about the extent to which tort reform is funded by the very industries that don’t want to be held accountable? I mean, I’m not saying he should have sued about the pants. I’m just saying that’s a point—that we should be able to hold corporations and power entities accountable. Let the jury decide.
We’re not going to get to the best with a policy of mandatory 401-Ks, tax cuts, school uniforms. We’re not going to get there pretending like we’re Lou Dobbs talking about "border control, border control, border control" because we’re too afraid to tackle our role in the trade policies that created this immigration crisis in the first place. And we’re definitely not going to get there talking about tax “relief” in the language that they have offered us.
We need to trust that the American people are going to get it. I think that is our opportunity.
To end optimistically—hey, I’m trying. We all wouldn’t do this work if we weren’t optimistic, right? The mid-terms were not only about the war. They were about profound economic anxiety and an anxiousness for government to do more. That’s where we come in. The urgency is great, and I think if we hold true to our progressive ideologies when it comes to formulating our country’s economic policy, when we aim for the best instead of the good, I think we can offer this country something.