If things don’t add up, it makes sense to see if something has been left out of the equation. That’s the case today. The experts tell us that the economy is as good as it has been in decades – unemployment at record lows, inflation under control, wages finally rising faster than prices.
Yet, most people are unhappy and pessimistic. President Biden’s approval rating is still underwater. Donald Trump, his likely opponent in the presidential race, is even less popular. What’s going on?
Americans aren’t wrong. They struggle every day with what pundits call a “polycrisis.” That’s a fancy word for a lot of big things going wrong in a big way all at once. Catastrophic climate change, pandemics, extreme inequality, a broken and unaffordable health care system, a dangerously decrepit infrastructure, a growing Cold War amid unending forever wars – this list can go on.
These crises are real and present. Families and communities take the hit again and again.
Extreme heat—or floods or forest fires or hurricanes – take lives and destroy homes. Ancient pipes serve up poisonous drinking waters. People can’t afford to get sick. Big money and powerful lobbies block vital reform. Now billionaires are paying for a new party – the No Labels (and Dark Money) Party, as if owning the two major parties were not enough.
Joe Biden – much to the surprise of many – stepped up to address some of this. He passed the biggest bill to rebuild America in decades, the biggest investment in renewable energy ever. He made a small start in making some drugs more affordable. He broke with our ruinous trade policies and began to crack down on the merger mania. First steps – but not nearly enough.
Trump’s MAGA Republicans, meanwhile, are missing the bus. They – aided and abetted by a zealously right-wing majority on the Supreme Court – are focused on social reaction – rolling back the progress of the civil rights movement, stripping women of the right to control their own bodies, trying to make voting harder and opening the door to big money in politics, waging war on “wokeness” as if diversity were the source of our problems. They just overloaded the Defense Appropriations bill with a bevy of anti-woke provisions – while utterly ignoring the reality that we’re starving basic investments at home while wasting billions of dollars and millions of lives trying to police the world. They may add to our problems, but they surely are not addressing the crises we face.
It is clear what gets in the way. In each area, powerful interests, deep pockets, entrenched lobbies benefit from what is – and stand in the way of what must be. Big oil and King Coal still impede a needed transition to renewable energy. The military-industrial-think tank complex defends endless wars and ever more bloated Pentagon budgets. Big Pharma and the health insurance complex defend a health care system Americans can’t afford.
It is easy to get depressed, to give up, or to turn on one another rather than toward one another. But change – and survival – will come only when citizens come together, confront the powers that be, and force the change. Modern America has seen two periods of profound reform. The New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s ended the Depression, built a modern infrastructure, guaranteed the right to organize, Social Security, and much more.
The Great Society under Lyndon Johnson that brought a final end to segregation, revived the right to vote, provided Medicare and aid for mothers with children and much more. Both were driven by citizens in motion – workers forced the New Deal reforms, the civil rights movement inspired Johnson to act.
Now we see stirrings once more. Occupy Wall Street exposed extreme inequality. Black Lives Matter challenged systemic racism, particularly in our criminal justice system. In response to reverses, the women’s movement and environmental movement are growing more powerful. Across the country, workers are striking for better pay and conditions, and for the right to a union. The Bernie Sanders campaigns inspired the young and provided the agenda. The progress Biden made came largely from that energy.
Much more is needed. We need leaders who will show up at the point of challenge. We need citizens who will come together to demand change. The “polycrisis” makes dramatic reform necessary. And that will come only from the people up – not from the interests and the big money down.
When I ran for president in 1984 and 1988, I sought to build a progressive coalition, across lines of race, region, religion, gender and sexual preference. We need, I argued, to move from racial battlegrounds to economic common ground and onto moral higher ground. Now, in the face of the many crises that are disrupting us at once, that citizens coalition is needed now more than ever. It is time to act.