This year, Guernica celebrates its 10th anniversary as a free, online magazine of art & politics! As we prepare to launch into our second decade, we hope you'll consider making an end-of-year donation. Reader, you make this work possible.

Skip to Content

Share

Robert Reich: Why There’s No Outcry

February 3, 2014

At some point, working people, students, and the broad public will have had enough.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/voting.jpg
Image from Flickr via Caelie_Frampton

By Robert Reich
By arrangement with Robert Reich

People ask me all the time why we don’t have a revolution in America, or at least a major wave of reform similar to that of the Progressive Era or the New Deal or the Great Society.

Middle incomes are sinking, the ranks of the poor are swelling, almost all the economic gains are going to the top, and big money is corrupting our democracy. So why isn’t there more of a ruckus?

The answer is complex, but three reasons stand out.

First, the working class is paralyzed with fear it will lose the jobs and wages it already has.

In earlier decades, the working class fomented reform. The labor movement led the charge for a minimum wage, 40-hour workweek, unemployment insurance, and Social Security.

No longer. Working people don’t dare. The share of working-age Americans holding jobs is now lower than at any time in the last three decades and 76 percent of them are living paycheck to paycheck.

Since 1999, student debt has increased more than 500 percent, yet the average starting salary for graduates has dropped 10 percent, adjusted for inflation.

No one has any job security. The last thing they want to do is make a fuss and risk losing the little they have.

Besides, their major means of organizing and protecting themselves—labor unions—have been decimated. Four decades ago more than a third of private-sector workers were unionized. Now, fewer than 7 percent belong to a union.

Second, students don’t dare rock the boat.

In prior decades students were a major force for social change. They played an active role in the Civil Rights movement, the Free Speech movement, and against the Vietnam War.

But today’s students don’t want to make a ruckus. They’re laden with debt. Since 1999, student debt has increased more than 500 percent, yet the average starting salary for graduates has dropped 10 percent, adjusted for inflation. Student debts can’t be cancelled in bankruptcy. A default brings penalties and ruins a credit rating.

To make matters worse, the job market for new graduates remains lousy. Which is why record numbers are still living at home.

Reformers and revolutionaries don’t look forward to living with mom and dad or worrying about credit ratings and job recommendations.

Third and finally, the American public has become so cynical about government that many no longer think reform is possible.

When asked if they believe government will do the right thing most of the time, fewer than 20 percent of Americans agree. Fifty years ago, when that question was first asked on standard surveys, more than 75 percent agreed.

It’s hard to get people worked up to change society or even to change a few laws when they don’t believe government can possibly work.

Cynicism has unfolded like a giant wet blanket over the outrage and indignation most Americans feel but don’t express.

You’d have to posit a giant conspiracy in order to believe all this was the doing of the forces in America most resistant to positive social change.

It’s possible, of course, that right wing Republicans, corporate executives, and Wall Street moguls intentionally cut jobs and wages in order to cow average workers, buried students under so much debt they’d never take to the streets, and made most Americans so cynical about government they wouldn’t even try for change.

But it’s more likely they merely allowed all this to unfold, like a giant wet blanket over the outrage and indignation most Americans feel but don’t express.

Change is coming anyway. We cannot abide an ever-greater share of the nation’s income and wealth going to the top while median household incomes continue too drop, one out of five of our children living in dire poverty, and big money taking over our democracy.

At some point, working people, students, and the broad public will have had enough. They will reclaim our economy and our democracy. This has been the central lesson of American history.

Reform is less risky than revolution, but the longer we wait the more likely it will be the latter.

Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future and The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism. His latest, Beyond Outrage, is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause. His new film, “Inequality for All,” is now in theaters.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterAdd to BufferShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUpon
Submit to redditShare on App.netShare via email

You might also like

One comment for Robert Reich: Why There’s No Outcry

  1. Comment by David Crosswell on February 6, 2014 at 5:31 am

    Hello Robert,

    Let’s get ridiculous and take that final step into conspiracy theory and state something along the lines of:

    This is intentional social engineering, in order to drop the local price of labour to a level that will compete on a median level with any other third world economy, because that’s what’s required to deliver the product to the market economically, with the assistance of the reduced logistics savings.

    You always listen to accountants for their unique viewpoint, but you never permit them to make the decisions on your business, and that’s what has happened. Wall Street pointed to the advantage of the cheap off-shore labour outsourcing and industry leapt.
    Now, U.S. national administration is running round like a headless chicken, trying to reclaim U.S. intellectual property by way of Free Trade Agreements. Too late! Barn door/Horse bolted.

    There will be no revolution, let alone reform. The opportunity to cast of Plato’s `Democracy breeds complacency and therein lies it’s downfall’ is long past in the times of Scott’s Wisconsin, where people permitted their homes to be taken from them to the point where, now, vacant buildings in the U.S. outnumber the homeless 8-1.

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting