In November 1994 Secretary of Labor Robert Reich stood before the Democratic Leadership Council and warned that economic inequality was creating a “two-tiered society.” He was worried, he said, that a growing number of angry and disillusioned Americans could be “easily manipulated.”
“Once unbottled, mass resentment can poison the very fabric of society, the moral integrity of a society, replacing ambition with envy, replacing tolerance with hate,” Reich said at the time.
More than two decades later, Donald Trump rode that wave of White working-class rage into the White House by promising to “make America great again,” referring to undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” labeling the mainstream press as “fake news” and praising dictators such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Sadly, I predicted it would come about,” Reich said in a recent phone interview with Street Sense Media.
Reich now hopes to help poor and middle-class Americans become more politically engaged and tip the scales away from corporations and wealthy elites.
In November, Netflix released Reich’s documentary “Saving Capitalism,” in which he explains how the wealth gap has continued to grow over the years and more economic power has flowed to a smaller number of wealthy elites. That money, Reich said, is then spent on campaigns, lobbying, lawyers and other ways that policy is influenced.
"It’s a vicious cycle that’s becoming increasingly more vicious, so that the rules of the game, the rules of the economy, increasingly favor people at the top and hurt everybody else.”
“Over the past 35 years, most of the economic gains have gone to the top, not to the middle, and certainly not to the poor,” Reich said. “They spend that money in order to get public policies that help them become even wealthier. It’s a vicious cycle that’s becoming increasingly more vicious, so that the rules of the game, the rules of the economy, increasingly favor people at the top and hurt everybody else.”
As an example, Reich said that Americans spend more for pharmaceuticals than people in any other advanced nation because pharmaceutical companies have used their political capital to make it impossible for people to buy drugs more cheaply from Canada, rigged the rules so it’s impossible to beat their patents for long periods of time and barred the federal government from using its bargaining power through Medicaid and Medicare to lower drug prices.
He also pointed to the since-adopted tax bill as it was making its way through Congress.
“That’s almost entirely the handiwork of big corporations and Wall Street,” Reich said. “Average working Americans had no part to play at all.”
In order to reverse that trend, he said, “there’s no substitute for American citizens becoming ever more actively involved in our politics.”
One reason for encouragement for Reich: The support Bernie Sanders received during the Democratic primaries.
“There’s a huge craving in this country for progressive populism, not for Donald Trump’s brand of authoritarian populism.” Reich said. “All the energy in the Democratic Party is with progressive populism; much of the energy in the Republican Party is with authoritarian populism. But if many working-class Republicans understood what was actually happening and understood how they’re being ripped off, they would become progressive populists.”
Reich said his biggest challenge has been overcoming misinformation produced by Fox News and other conservative news outlets.
“Millions of people are watching Fox News and falling for the venom and lies that Sean Hannity spouts every night, and others like him,” Reich said. “There are right-wing personalities on the radio who continue to spout right-wing propaganda that has no basis in reality.”
Reich also said that while the mainstream media “have done a pretty good job of telling the truth,” he also noted that “they’re easily distracted by the sensation of the day.” Most often, that means a presidential tweet or sound bite.
But such distractions particularly worry Reich after the passing of tax reform, which has left Medicaid and Medicare cuts up next on many Republicans’ agendas.
“The tax cut will create a huge budget deficit — I mean much larger than they have today — and Republicans will use that increased deficit as an excuse to call for cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and programs for the poor,” Reich said. “This is the bait-and-switch tactic that they have been rehearsing for a long time, and we need to be ready.”
How dire could a lack of preparedness be?
According to Reich: very.
“I think that unless we join together and make our voices heard,” he said, “it’s possible that we’re going to end up without a democracy.”
This article first appeared in Street Sense, Washington D.C.’s street newspaper. Wait, there's more. Check out the full January 24th issue.