The cost of living has risen, wages have not, and debt just keeps on accumulating. By Anne Helen Petersen Dec 15, 2020, Vox
Delia did everything right. She went to college, she got a teaching degree, she found a reliable job, and she got married. She and her husband had two kids. “We followed the traditional path to middle class and economic security,” she told me. “Or so I thought.”
As a teacher in New Jersey, Delia, age 41, makes around $115,000 a year; her husband, who works as a carpenter, makes $45,000. Their $160,000 combined family salary places them firmly in the American middle class, the boundaries of which are considered to be two-thirds of the US median household income on the lowest end and double that same median on the highest, and adjusted for location. (According to the Pew Middle Class Calculator, Delia’s household income places her family in the “middle tier” along with 49 percent of households in the greater tri-state area.)
To most people, $160,000 sounds like a lot of money. “Middle tier” sounds pretty solid. So why does Delia feel so desperate? She’s able to put $150 a month into a retirement account, but the family’s emergency savings account hovers at just $400. Going on vacation has meant juggling costs on several credit cards. “I don’t feel like I’ll ever have a day that I won’t be worried about money,” she said. “I’m resentful of my partner for not making more money, but more resentful of his crappy employer for not paying him more.”
Delia is part of an expanding group of people whose income technically places them within the middle class of American earners but whose expenses — whether for housing, medical costs, debt payments, child care, elder care, or the dozens of other expectations that attend supposed middle-class living — leave them living month to month, with little savings for emergencies or retirement.
Pre-pandemic, middle-class Americans modeled the belief that everything was fine. Unemployment was low; consumer confidence was high; the housing market had “recovered.” In 2019, 95 percent of people in households making over $100,000 a year reported they were “doing okay” financially, a 13 percent increase from 2013. But those positive economic indicators obscured a larger reality.
Forty years ago, the term “middle class” referred to Americans who had successfully obtained a version of the American dream: a steady income from one or two earners, a home, and security for the future. It meant the ability to save and acquire assets. Now, it mostly means the ability to put your bills on autopay and service debt. The stability that once characterized the middle class, that made it such a coveted and aspirational echelon of American existence, has been hollowed out.
It’s difficult to tell if someone’s part of the hollow middle class because they’re still performing all the external markers of middle-classness. Before the pandemic, they were (and largely still are, absent a layoff) buying and leasing cars, purchasing homes, going on vacation, covering their kids’ education and activities. They’re just taking on massive loads of debt to do so.
As journalist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out, it’s very expensive to be poor. It’s also increasingly expensive to be middle class, in part because wages for all but the wealthy have remained stagnant for the past four decades. Most middle-class Americans seem to be making more — getting raises, however small, sometimes billed as “cost of living” increases. Yet these increases largely just keep pace with inflation, not the actual cost of living.
AT THE HEART OF THIS QUESTION IS THE HEAVY, CONFOUNDING ISSUE OF AMERICAN MIDDLE-CLASS IDENTITY AND THE PSYCHOLOGICAL AND SOCIAL WRECKAGE THAT COMES WITH LOSING IT
Basic costs are taking up bigger chunks of the monthly middle-class paycheck. In 2019, the middle class was spending about $4,900 a year on out-of-pocket health care costs. More middle- and high-income people than ever are renting, and 27 percent are considered “cost burdened,” paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, particularly in expensive metro areas. Then there’s the truly astronomical price of child care. In Washington state, for example, which ranks ninth in the US for child care costs, care for an infant and a 4-year-old averages $25,605 a year, or 35.5 percent of the median family income; you can find costs in your state here.
Many middle-class households try to figure out what expenses they have to cover immediately with cash and what can be put on a credit card, financed, or delayed in some fashion. In March 2020, household debt hit $14.3 trillion — the highest it’s been since the 2008 financial crisis, when it reached $12.7 trillion. In the first quarter of 2020, the average loan for a new car was a record-breaking $33,738, with an average monthly payment of $569 (the average payment for a used car is $397).
And then there’s student loan debt, which, for Americans, currently totals $1.56 trillion. Not everyone has student loan debt, but among those who do — many with degrees and jobs that seemingly place them in the middle class — the average debt load is $32,731. The average monthly (pre-pandemic) payment is $393.
Some of these costs have shifted slightly since the beginning of the pandemic; federal student loan payments, for example, have been paused since February. But in January, just under 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 of back rent and utilities. And some costs, like child care, are poised to escalate even more once the pandemic is over.
So why don’t middle-class people just curb their spending? At the heart of this question is the heavy, confounding issue of American middle-class identity and the psychological and social wreckage that comes with losing it. “I don’t know that I could shake this identity regardless of how much money I do or don’t have,” Leigh, who makes $80,000 a year and spends all her take-home pay on rent and credit card bills, told me. “It’s ingrained within me.” If you’ve grown up poor and become middle class, there’s great bitterness in rescinding that status; if your parents worked years to enter the middle class, falling from it is often accompanied by great shame.
There’s also the difficulty of significantly shifting your family’s consumption patterns. Once set, many find it impossible to change their own expectations for vacations, activities, and schooling — let alone those of their partners or children. Why? Because the middle class is spectacularly bad at talking honestly about money. Readily available credit facilitates our worst habits, our most convenient lies, our most cowardly selves.
Some say Americans writ large are bad at talking about money, but truly rich people talk about money all the time, as do truly poor people. Kids who grow up poor learn the refrain “we can’t afford it” at an early age; as Aja Romano pointed out in this Vox discussion of all that Hillbilly Elegy gets wrong, “when you’re poor, you know every cent you have in the bank, down to the last penny, and you have already calculated exactly how much gas you can put in your car and how far that gas will get you before you get out of money.”
It’s middle-class people, or people who still cling to middle-class identity even if they’ve risen above it or fallen out of it, who don’t know how to talk about money. They don’t know how to talk about it with their peers or their parents or their children, and oftentimes not even with their partners. Instead, so many of us allow ourselves to default to the vast middle, the typical, the median, the democratic “we” that shows up in television commercials — a place in the American imaginary that’s venerated by politicians and overwritten with narratives of bootstrapping, hard work, and meritocracy.
In truth, the American middle class has become less of an economic classification and more of a mode: a way of feeling, a posture toward the rest of the world, predicated on privilege of place. Which is why it’s so untoward to talk about the economic realities; the rising panic over medical bills exists on a different plane than the ineffable feeling of “normal.”
Normal is defined less by what it is than by what it is not. Put differently, no matter how precarious your middle-class existence might be, it feels essential to distance from or disidentify with the precarity of the poor or working class. You maintain your middle-class identity by defining yourself as not poor, notworking class, regardless of your debt load or the ease with which you could descend into financial ruin. So many are so obsessed with defining themselves as not poor that they can’t grapple with the changes in spending habits that would actually prevent them from becoming so.
Solidarity — especially solidarity across classes — has been declining for decades. When the middle class first began to expand in the United States in the mid-20th century, it did so in large part through the work of unions, which advocated for salaries and benefits that allowed millions of workers to afford a down payment and save for the future. There are still hundreds of thousands of union workers in the middle class (teachers, nurses, tradespeople), but much of the solidarity with workers outside your profession, or even your specific workplace, has evaporated.
THE AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS HAS BECOME LESS OF AN ECONOMIC CLASSIFICATION AND MORE OF A MODE: A WAY OF FEELING, A POSTURE TOWARD THE REST OF THE WORLD
What’s more, most politicians have done a spectacularly poor job of framing policy that speaks frankly about class realities. They talk vaguely about expanding the middle class, and single out specific high costs like medical premiums, but when was the last time you heard a politician talk about credit card debt? The less these kinds of problems are talked about, the more individual they feel, as opposed to a reality for millions of Americans.
Delia, for example, is a real person, but Delia’s not her real name; she doesn’t want others knowing her family’s business. She also thinks all her friends and neighbors are in a better financial situation than she is. They don’t ever talk about it, but she thinks they have better rates on their mortgages, more equity in their homes — how else could they drive $60,000 SUVs and put pools in over the summer? But someone on the outside might look at Delia’s life and think something very similar.
That’s how you get the hollow middle: when a bunch of people are terrified of being poor, have no idea how to talk with others about money, and have no political will to advocate for changes that would alter their position.
When I first attempted to describe the condition of much of the middle class today — moderately high income, but with bills and debt that make it difficult to weave a safety net for their families — I wanted a word for it, an evocative term. The term “hollow middle” eventually came, via Twitter, from Carina Wytiaz, but the vast majority of people who responded said that what I was explaining was just, well, being middle class. Tons of debt, tons of bills, very little leftover.
However, the middle class only really started to hollow out over the past 20 years. Back in 1960, the personal savings rate (the percentage of income households were saving after taxes) was 11 percent. In 1990, it was 8.8 percent. By 2000, it had dropped to 4.2 percent, before eventually hitting a nadir of 3.6 percent in 2007. That number grew in the aftermath of the Great Recession, peaking at 12 percent in 2012 before falling again as consumers gained more “confidence” in spending. This is because consumer confidence doesn’t mean more savings; it means more people with access to credit are confident about using it, and low interest rates disincentivize savings.
ONE IRONY OF THE HOLLOW MIDDLE IS THAT ATTEMPTS TO SECURE YOUR CHILDREN’S CLASS STABILITY OFTEN REPRODUCE DEBT PATTERNS FOR THE NEXT GENERATION
We’ve been normalizing low savings rates at the same time that we’ve become more and more comfortable taking on consumer debt — a symptom, as financial analyst Karen Petrou put it, of “deep economic malaise.” In the early ’80s, the income-to-debt ratio hovered between 0.55 and 0.65, which meant that a household’s overall debt level amounted to between 55 percent and 65 percent of their income after taxes.
The ratio first hit 1.0 in 2003, and rose all the way to 1.24 before the 2007 crash. Now it’s stabilized at just under 1, so a middle-class family making $80,000 has somewhere around $80,000 in debt. Until relatively recently, the majority of that debt would have been mortgage debt. Over the past decade, the proportion has begun to shift toward student loans, auto loans, credit card debt, and medical debt: so-called “bad” debt.
More people are retiring with debt, too — or unable to retire, or coming out of retirement to service debt. In 2016, the median debt for a household headed by someone 65 or older was $31,300, more than four and a half times what it was in 1989. These debts come from mortgages, but also student loans taken out for their children or for themselves when they went back to school, mid-career, during one of the recessions of the 2000s, or credit card debt trying to cover costs when they were out of work.
“The jobs came back after the recession of 2001,” economist Christian Weller, whose research focuses on middle-class savings and retirement, told me. “But the wages never really grew. Benefits were cut, and then people were hit with yet another massive recession in late 2007, and job growth doesn’t really come back until 2010. That’s a long period of a lot of economic pain for a lot of people.”
When the jobs did come back, a lot of them weren’t great. People became employed as gig workers or independent contractors, precarious roles with few benefits and little stability. Those who had gone into debt to get through the Great Recession were now accumulating more debt in order to stay middle class, or to try and provide a middle-class future for their children. More than a decade later, only the top 20 percent of earners have actually recovered from the Great Recession, in part because the percentage of the middle class with appreciating assets — whether in the form of a home or stocks — has continued to decline.
Here, Delia’s story is instructive. Back in 2005, she had her teacher’s job, and her husband had a promising construction company. They were on solid economic footing for the first time and decided to do what a lot of people in that position do: buy a house. The problem with their strategy revealed itself only in hindsight; they bought at the height of the mid-2000s housing bubble. They hung on to their house as long as they could, but by 2012, they were drowning. They ended up shutting down her husband’s business and short-selling the house, leaving them with no equity.
Their home hadn’t been foreclosed on and their credit was still intact, but they suddenly felt seven years behind. They moved in with Delia’s parents, only to discover that they, too, had for years been struggling to pay their mortgage and had taken a bad modification in order to stay in their house. Delia and her husband started covering the mortgage payment, which is now $3,300 a month, and most monthly costs. Eight years later, they’re still there.
Though Delia’s teaching job is steady, her husband is making less than he did when he ran his own company. They’re also paying private school tuition for their two daughters, which takes up a “huge chunk” of their income. They could pull their kids from private school and put them in public, but the kids have made their friends, and Delia’s intent on giving them the opportunity to get out of the same claustrophobic town where she grew up.
“If the girls want to come back and live here, that’s fine,” Delia explained. “But I want them to be able to write their own story and invent themselves as they see fit. Private school might give them access to better colleges, by which I mean better job opportunities or travel opportunities or meeting-different-people opportunities.”
One irony of the hollow middle is that attempts to secure your children’s class stability often reproduce debt patterns for the next generation. Delia’s middle-class in-laws are living in a paid-off house in Texas, but Delia’s parents, in her words, “have never made a good financial decision.”
That’s how they found themselves years behind on their mortgage, and that’s why Delia and her husband have been forced to take it on. Her parents have no savings, and Delia and her husband will continue to provide and pay for care for them as they age. If nothing about their financial situation or America’s exorbitant higher education costs changes over the next decade, either Delia and her husband or their children will likely take on large amounts of student debt to pay for college.
For the top earners in our society, wealth and assets reproduce wealth and assets. For the hollow middle class, debt reproduces debt. The major difference between the ostensibly middle class and the poor is that one group began life with access to credit and had just enough support and funds to keep accessing it.
Over the months to come, I’ll be focusing on different aspects of the hollow middle class for this column: people who’ve been unable to uphold the performance of middle-class status in the shadow of Covid-19; whose education places them in the “cultural” middle class but whose wages place them barely above the poverty line; whose parents immigrated to the US to obtain and pass down middle-class stability but now struggle to sustain what they worked so hard to provide.
I’ll be talking to those who feel ambivalent about, shut out from, or trapped in homeownership; those who are struggling to pay for elder care and child care at the same time; and others who are now supporting members of their extended family after reaching the middle class. There are so many intersecting and complicated ways to be part of the hollow middle today, and I want to go deep into the economic shifts, governmental policies, and lived experiences that inform them.
The suffering of the housed, the fed, and the employed is not to be equated with the suffering of those facing eviction, hunger, and chronic unemployment. But if the middle class is the backbone of America, what does it communicate about the state of the nation — psychologically, politically, sociologically — that the backbone is too weak to support its own weight? If savings are shorthand for promise and potential, what does it mean that we have so little of it? At what point do we abandon the farce of the stable, secure American middle class and start talking about ways to make life more secure for everyone, up and down the actual income scale?
The more we insist on obscuring the economic realities of middle-class existence, the harder it is to muster the political and social might to actually confront income inequality. We continue to think of our struggles as personal, and shameful, and our responsibility alone, instead of as symptoms of systemic failure, the result of broken ideals of the past jury-rigged to the present.
“The walls are closing in,” Nicole, who lives in South Carolina on $65,000 a year with no savings and no support system, told me. “The chasm between income and expenses just grows. I don’t know where the system will break. But it will, if we don’t do something about it.”
The Life in The Simpsons Is No Longer Attainable
The most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence.DECEMBER 29, 2020Dani Alexis RyskampFreelance writer
The most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence that now seems out of reach for all too many Americans. I refer, of course, to the Simpsons. Homer, a high-school graduate whose union job at the nuclear-power plant required little technical skill, supported a family of five. A home, a car, food, regular doctor’s appointments, and enough left over for plenty of beer at the local bar were all attainable on a single working-class salary. Bart might have had to find $1,000 for the family to go to England, but he didn’t have to worry that his parents would lose their home.
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This lifestyle was not fantastical in the slightest—nothing, for example, like the ridiculously large Manhattan apartments in Friends. On the contrary, the Simpsons used to be quite ordinary—they were a lot like my Michigan working-class family in the 1990s.
The 1996 episode “Much Apu About Nothing” shows Homer’s paycheck. He grosses $479.60 per week, making his annual income about $25,000. My parents’ paychecks in the mid-’90s were similar. So were their educational backgrounds. My father had a two-year degree from the local community college, which he paid for while working nights; my mother had no education beyond high school. Until my parents’ divorce, we were a family of three living primarily on my mother’s salary as a physician’s receptionist, a working-class job like Homer’s.
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By 1990—the year my father turned 36 and my mother 34—they were divorced. And significantly, they were both homeowners—an enormous feat for two newly single people.
Neither place was particularly fancy. I’d estimate that the combined square footage of both roughly equaled that of the Simpsons’ home. Their houses were their only source of debt; my parents have never carried a credit-card balance. Within 10 years, they had both paid off their mortgage.
Neither of my parents had much wiggle room in the budget. I remember Christmases that, in hindsight, looked a lot like the one portrayed in the first episode of The Simpsons, which aired in December 1989: handmade decorations, burned-out light bulbs, and only a handful of gifts. My parents had no Christmas bonus or savings, so the best gifts usually came from people outside our immediate family.
Most of my friends and classmates lived the way we did—that is, the way the Simpsons did. Some families had more secure budgets, with room for annual family vacations to Disney World. Others lived closer to the edge, with fathers taking second jobs as mall Santas or plow-truck drivers to bridge financial gaps. But we all believed that the ends could meet, with just an average amount of hustle.
Over the years, Homer and his wife, Marge, also face their share of struggles. In the first episode, Homer becomes a mall Santa to bring in some extra cash after Homer learns that he won’t receive a Christmas bonus and the family spends all its Christmas savings to get Bart’s new tattoo removed. They also occasionally get a peek into a different kind of life. In Season 2, Homer buys the hair-restoration product “Dimoxinil.” His full head of hair gets him promoted to the executive level, but he is demoted after Bart accidentally spills the tonic on the floor and Homer loses all of his new hair. Marge finds a vintage Chanel suit at a discount store, and wearing it grants her entrée into the upper echelons of society.
The Simpsons started its 32nd season this past fall. Homer is still the family’s breadwinner. Although he’s had many jobs throughout the show’s run—he was even briefly a roadie for the Rolling Stones—he’s back at the power plant. Marge is still a stay-at-home parent, taking point on raising Bart, Lisa, and Maggie and maintaining the family’s suburban home. But their life no longer resembles reality for many American middle-class families.
Adjusted for inflation, Homer’s 1996 income of $25,000 would be roughly $42,000 today, about 60 percent of the 2019 median U.S. income. But salary aside, the world for someone like Homer Simpson is far less secure. Union membership, which protects wages and benefits for millions of workers in positions like Homer’s, dropped from 14.5 percent in 1996 to 10.3 percent today. With that decline came the loss of income security and many guaranteed benefits, including health insurance and pension plans. In 1993’s episode “Last Exit to Springfield,” Lisa needs braces at the same time that Homer’s dental plan evaporates. Unable to afford Lisa’s orthodontia without that insurance, Homer leads a strike. Mr. Burns, the boss, eventually capitulates to the union’s demand for dental coverage, resulting in shiny new braces for Lisa and one fewer financial headache for her parents. What would Homer have done today without the support of his union?
The purchasing power of Homer’s paycheck, moreover, has shrunk dramatically. The median house costs 2.4 times what it did in the mid-’90s. Health-care expenses for one person are three times what they were 25 years ago. The median tuition for a four-year college is 1.8 times what it was then. In today’s world, Marge would have to get a job too. But even then, they would struggle. Inflation and stagnant wages have led to a rise in two-income households, but to an erosion of economic stability for the people who occupy them.
Last year, my gross income was about $42,000—the amount Homer would be making today. It was the second-highest-earning year of my career. I wanted to buy a home, but no bank was willing to finance a mortgage, especially since I had less than $5,000 to make a down payment. However, my father offered me a zero-down, no-interest contract. Without him, I would not have been able to buy the house.
I finally paid off my medical debt. But after taking into account all of my expenses, my adjusted gross income was only $19. And with the capitalized interest on my student loans adding thousands to the balance, my net worth is still negative.
I don’t have Bart, Lisa, and Maggie to feed or clothe or buy Christmas presents for. I’m not sure how I’d make it if I did.
Someone I follow on Twitter, Erika Chappell, recently encapsulated my feelings about The Simpsons in a tweet: “That a show which was originally about a dysfunctional mess of a family barely clinging to middle class life in the aftermath of the Reagan administration has now become aspirational is frankly the most on the nose manifestations [sic] of capitalist American decline I can think of.”
For many, a life of constant economic uncertainty—in which some of us are one emergency away from losing everything, no matter how much we work—is normal. Second jobs are no longer for extra cash; they are for survival. It wasn’t always this way. When The Simpsons first aired, few would have predicted that Americans would eventually find the family’s life out of reach. But for too many of us now, it is.DANI ALEXIS RYSKAMP is a freelance writer.
What Trump Showed Us About America
A disruptive presidency is coming to a close. Here’s what 35 thinkers say it revealed—not about the man, but about the rest of us.
Illustration by Eiko Ojala
By POLITICO MAGAZINE
11/19/2020 07:55 PM EST
The world has spent the past four years obsessing over President Donald Trump: his biography, his ideology, his speech, his tweets, his moods, his health, his hair. But what did the Trump era teach us about ourselves, and the country he was elected to lead?
Trump’s presidency has been a four-year war on many people’s assumptions about what was and wasn’t “American”—what a leader can call people in public, which institutions really matter, whether power lies with elites or masses. And it has forced serious arguments about what information, and what version of our history, we can even agree on.
With four years of Trump nearly behind us, Politico Magazine asked a group of smart political and cultural observers to tell us what big, new insight this era has given them about America—and what that insight means for the country’s future.
Many were alarmed to discover that our political institutions and norms are more fragile than they thought. Others pointed out the blind spots that members of the political and cultural elite have for the deep sense of dislocation and injustice that their fellow citizens feel. Some wrote optimistically about an America that is steadily becoming more diverse and inclusive, or one that has retained a powerful role in the world. Yet, even in the face of a common enemy—a once-in-a-century pandemic—“patriotism became a blunt instrument that Americans wielded against one another,” as one contributor put it.
Others questioned whether the disruptions of the past four years have really shaken us out of old patterns, and whether the political establishment has really been diminished. “The house always wins,” one wrote. And then there was this conclusion from another contributor: “At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”
‘The cultural elite are inexcusably unaware of the challenges and perspectives of many others in this country.’
BY KATHERINE J. CRAMER
Katherine J. Cramer is professor of political science and chair of Letters & Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.
The past few years have taught me just how removed the cultural elite in the United States is from many of the other people in this nation. By cultural elite, I mean those of us who create the knowledge and the media content people consume, as well those of us in positions of political and other decision-making power. There is a deep well of people in this country who are sure the system is not working for them, and we seem to be only coming around to recognizing how deep it goes.
Four years ago, I published a book about the feelings of resentment many rural people in Wisconsin felt toward the urban elite. When Donald Trump won in 2016, partly by tapping into this resentment, people turned to me for answers. I became aware just how surprised many in the cultural elite were about the challenges facing rural communities and the fact that many people living in these places feel they are not getting their fair share of attention, resources or respect. The shock at the closeness of the 2020 race suggests we are still unaware of the depth of this resentment.
We are removed not just from rural residents. Those of us in the cultural elite are inexcusably unaware of the challenges and perspectives of many others in this country who feel they are not getting what they deserve. George Floyd’s killing and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer means it is no longer possible to ignore the centuries of violent dehumanization of Black people in this country. But how long has it taken us to confront this reality? The astonishment among white cultural elites (myself included) at the extent of police brutality until cellphone video cameras came along leaves me questioning what our democracy is actually built on. What is the infrastructure that allows the hardships of so many to remain invisible?
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‘Internalized constitutional norms matter more than any external checks.’
BY TIM WU
Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University and the author, recently, of The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.
We’ve learned something important about America’s resistance to an authoritarian takeover. Most republics, even the best of them, have struggled when confronted with a nationalist leader who shows up in bad economic times, blames everything on immigrants and foreigners, and promises to restore greatness. That’s the fate that befell, among others, the Roman, Spanish, German and Russian republics. Before Trump, it was widely thought that the written Constitution and its fabled “separation of powers” had spared the United States from a similar fate.
But over the past four years, we’ve watched constitutional checks repeatedly fail to control the president, trumped by party loyalty. Congress and the judiciary asserted limited control at best; even impeachment turned out to be just another party-line vote. What really mattered, in the end, was a different set of checks, upheld not by a document but by people: namely, the independence of federal prosecutors, the neutrality of the armed forces and the independence of the electoral system. He tried hard, but Trump ultimately couldn’t find a prosecutor to indict Joe Biden and his family. The armed forces declined to embrace Trump’s proposed occupation of liberal cities over the summer. And, finally, when it mattered, election officials, at a distance from the White House, conducted a fair vote.
In a manner that John Adams might have found satisfying, we have learned that internalized constitutional norms matter more than any external checks.
Unfortunately, lies can trump truth.
BY NICHOLAS CARR
Nicholas Carr is a writer covering technology, economics and culture. His book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
“Truth Trumps Lies.” That motto, needling yet reassuring, has been a popular hashtag ever since Donald Trump’s election in 2016. But the last four years have revealed its hollowness. In the digital marketplace of ideas, where most of us now get our news, falsehoods go viral while facts go begging. An extensive MIT study of Twitter posts, published in Science in 2018, found that fake or otherwise misleading news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than truthful ones. The audience for misinformation is routinely an order of magnitude larger than the audience for accurate reports. “False news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth,” the researchers concluded.
In the 20th century, propaganda came from the top down. Tyrants would seize control of radio, TV and other mass media to broadcast their poison to the public. In the 21st century, propaganda is a bottom-up phenomenon. Falsehoods may be seeded from the White House or the Kremlin, but they circulate through the public’s own posts and tweets. Social media has allowed propaganda to be crowdsourced; it has democratized George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. The problem won’t be solved by a naive faith in truth’s innate power to prevail over fabrication. Nor will it be solved by the removal from office of a mendacious president. Without far-reaching institutional, educational and legal remedies, lies will continue to trump truth.
America can be both backward-looking and radically progressive at the same time.
BY LESLIE M. HARRIS
Leslie M. Harris is professor of history and African American studies at Northwestern University and the Beatrice Shepherd Blane fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
During the Trump presidency, I have had the odd sensation of being in two time frames at once. The recrudescence of classic struggles around race, class and culture exists alongside the reality that many have moved forward from that toxic terrain. When Trump entered office in 2016, the nation—knowingly or not—elected to return to these struggles in their 1980s form. New York in the 1980s was a time of white urban racial violence, racialized assumptions about crime, widespread homelessness and decaying infrastructure. In Trump’s New York, we were asked to believe that graffiti artists were to blame for the condition of old subway cars that lacked heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, when the graffiti in the subway was the most attractive thing about it. We were told that high taxes and high crime rates—as opposed to racism, inflated rents and depressed wages and salaries for the working and middle classes—were why “the tax base” (presumed middle class and white, but in fact much more diverse) had left Manhattan.
In the 1980s, I was infuriated by the beatings of Cedric Sandiford and Timothy Grimes and the murder of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, but, finally, reduced to tears by the death of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst—all of these crimes committed by young white men who thought Black people didn’t deserve to be in “white spaces.” Meanwhile, Trump was silent on these crimes, but took out a full-page ad demanding the execution of The Central Park Five—who we now know were wrongfully convicted.
Trump’s GOP has enacted some of these practices on a national scale. The middle and working classes were again left behind by GOP tax cuts that benefit only the wealthiest among us. The racialized-crime dog whistle use of the 1980s has become an inescapable bullhorn. And discussing the parallels in the struggles over sexual politics then and now would take another whole article.
But as important as the resurgence of these backward-looking policies has been the rise of a radical response—necessary in a moment in which we face a radical set of problems: a pandemic; ongoing racial brutality enacted by the police and by individuals and political movements steeped in white supremacy; a crumbling infrastructure exacerbated by climate change; and an ever-widening gap between those with stable access to a living wage, education for their children, and proper nutrition and health care, and those without. This radical push for greater equity has been in existence longer than failed GOP policies—indeed, 1980s GOP policies were a response to the successes of the 1960s. But the demand for radical equity has gained more adherents than ever, as the support for politicians like Bernie Sanders, the members of The Squad and Elizabeth Warren demonstrates. In the past five years—before Trump took office—we have witnessed a series of massive protests. Such demonstrations have called for the removal of cultural imagery honoring Confederates and others who supported racial hierarchies. Some protests challenged the sexual violence enacted by Trump himself. And, this past spring, the largest and most diverse demonstration in American history spilled into the streets to protest racialized police brutality. All of these protests and movements have echoed around the world. Although Trump was not a world leader, U.S. activists for equity are. Will these radical demands for change take root or be crushed?
Trump exposed how overrated the elites really are.
BY MARK BAUERLEIN
Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things and professor emeritus of English at Emory University.
Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was a trauma for the elites. Why? Because he showed that people in charge of major U.S. institutions weren’t as elite as they liked to believe. It wasn’t just that the concerted efforts of those in high places failed to keep him out of the White House. It was their inability to explain how it happened: Russia collusion, racist working-class white voters, cheap demagoguery … any reason but themselves, the faces in the mirror. Ordinary Americans looked at the elite zones of academia, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington itself, and saw a bunch of self-serving, not very competent individuals sitting pretty, who had enriched themselves and let the rest of America slide. Remember when Trump told crowds at his rallies to turn around and “Look at ’em!”—at the media with their cameras and notepads? The audience complied, stared back at the Fourth Estate, raised their phones and put them on camera—a turnabout that delighted Americans sick of these strutting egos who had been putting the rank and file down for years.
It wasn’t Trump’s politics that disgusted the college presidents, celebrity actors, Google VPs, D.C. operatives and the rest. It was because he pinpointed them as the problem—the reason factories and small stores had closed, unemployment was bad, and PC culture had cast them as human debris. And millions cheered. This was unforgivable to the elites. They sputtered in reply, which only confirmed that our betters aren’t so smart or skilled or savvy, and not so virtuous either, though very good at self-help. The outburst was a long time coming. Trump gave it an outlet, and the scorn for men and women at the top of our country is now widespread and frank. It’s not going to pass any time soon.
We still don’t understand Trumpism.
BY FRANCIS FUKUYAMA
Francis Fukuyama is senior fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Mosbacher director of its Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
The single most confounding thing about the Trump era is that we still do not really understand why more than 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, and why there remains a smaller core of fanatical supporters who will believe anything he says—most recently, that he won the election but that it is being stolen through voter fraud.
Over the past several years, a legion of explanations for the Trump phenomenon have been put forward—that it is a backlash against the inequalities created by globalization, that it represents the fear of white voters fearing a loss of power and prestige, that is has been generated by social media companies, that it reflects a huge social divide between people living in big cities and those in smaller communities, that it is based on level of education, and so on.
All of these factors are probably true to some extent, but none of them adequately explains the fear and loathing evident on the right in America today. There is a qualitative change in the nature of partisanship that conventional explanations fail to capture, reflected in poll data showing that a majority of Republican voters believe some version of QAnon theories about Democrats drinking children’s blood. Nor have I seen a good explanation for why so many conservatives can see such an imperfect vessel as Trump as the object of cultlike worship, or fear the Democrats as the embodiment of Satan.
At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.
Immigrants still have to fight for their place in America.
BY SUKETU MEHTA
Suketu Mehta is a journalism professor at New York University and author of This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto.
Iimmigrated to America with my family in 1977, and with each passing year, I found the United States more and more welcoming—until 2016. It wasn’t just Donald Trump who assumed power; it was an army of nativists who voted for him because they wanted to Make America White Again. Hate crimes surged, and anti-immigrant invective, including incitement to murder, found nightly vent on mainstream airwaves. I was truly shocked. Was this really the nation I claimed as mine? Did it have a place for me, or my children? Did Miss Liberty still lift her lamp beside the Golden Door?
Sixty-three million people voted for Trump in 2016. After four years of an all-out war on immigrants, both legal and illegal, that tally rose to more than 70 million. Most Trump voters, I like to believe, consider me American. But many don’t, and they are legion. And so it makes me realize: I can’t take anything for granted, including my place in this country. I’m going to have to fight for it: Speak up against bigotry, demand my rights as a citizen, get politically involved. No immigrant can afford to focus exclusively on chasing the American Dream, because we have just lived through four years of the American Nightmare. Trump is out of the house, for the moment, but the ugly passions he unleashed are not. The white supremacists and xenophobes are marching in the streets, heavily armed. This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land too, but I’ll have to fight for it to be so.
Americans are more populist, conspiratorial and anti-establishment than we thought.
BY ADAM M. ENDERS AND JOSEPH E. USCINSKI
Adam M. Enders is assistant professor of political science at University of Louisville. Joseph E. Uscinski is associate professor of political science at University of Miami.
Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency exposed a rift between what politicians and journalists think Americans’ political views are, and what those views actually are. Elites—politicians, journalists and other commentators, as well as a small number of politically sophisticated Americans—understand politics through worldviews arranged neatly along a left-right continuum, ranging from Democratic to Republican, liberal to conservative. But most Americans do not see politics this way, and their views do not necessarily align with left-right principles or ideologies. And, while many Americans feel an emotional attachment to a party label, many Americans don’t like either party all that much or hold closely corresponding issue preferences. Instead, many Americans see politics as a battle between “the corrupt elite” and “the good people.” Trump took advantage of such views, presenting himself as an outsider taking on a corrupt group of elite insiders. His conspiracy theories about the deep state and election rigging, for example, closely approximate what many Americans think about politics. His 2016 message about the country needing to “drain the swamp” was, in this sense, an ingenious ploy aimed at people who already agreed with the general sentiment.
To treat Trumpism as an extreme form of conservatism or Republicanism is to erroneously overlook the populist, conspiratorial and anti-establishment sentiments that really drove Trump’s appeal. And, if we interpret Trump’s banishment from the White House as a repudiation of the views that brought him to power, then we will miss the important fact that these views continue to exist without Trump––he is a symptom, not a disease. Trump’s unique contribution to American electoral politics was harnessing anti-establishment views, imbuing them with legitimacy and making it advantageous for other politicians to voice such views, as well. These sentiments remain a fixture of the American political landscape, lying in wait to be taken advantage of by the next strategic politician seeking to broaden his or her base and execute policy goals at any cost.
‘Nothing is inviolable—including patriotism.’
BY THEODORE R. JOHNSON
Theodore R. Johnson, a retired military officer, is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and author of the forthcoming When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism in America.
It used to be an article of faith that in the face of a national threat, Americans would put differences aside and unite to meet the challenge. In those moments, patriotism was the lifeblood of our shared identity and common interest. Yet, the past few years have demonstrated that, in the clutches of increasing hyperpartisanship and toxic polarization, nothing is inviolable—including patriotism. It has been both painful and sobering to realize that, in the face of a foreign nation interfering in our electoral process, an economic downturn stranding millions and a once-in-a-century pandemic, the American citizenry was unable to muster a united disposition. Instead, patriotism became a blunt instrument that Americans wielded against one another, each side accusing the other of being the threat to a well-functioning democracy.
If the United States is to overcome the threats to its democracy, the past few years prove that Americans will need to find a patriotism grounded in national solidarity. It will need to be one of both devotion and dissent, praising progress while holding the nation accountable for its shortcomings. That is, we will need to reimagine what it means to be American in a 21st-century multiracial democracy and who is included. This past summer has given us a reason to be optimistic. The protests following the killing of George Floyd were a demonstration of multiracial, multigenerational union across lines of party and class unrivaled in recent American history. An inclusive form of patriotism is both possible and elusive. We will need to decide if we will lean on the version that brings people together or succumb to the narrow and exclusive sort that’s exploited for political advantage.
‘Democracy really is a verb.’
BY MARIA HINOJOSA
Maria Hinojosa is anchor and executive producer of “Latino USA,” and author of Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America.
One of this country’s greatest faults is that when things take a turn for the better, democracy takes a seat at the back of the bus. When Barack Obama was elected, there was a collective celebration, another sigh of relief, and then people went back to their daily lives. Obama did wonderful things, but he also made great mistakes. With Vice President Joe Biden at his side, he deported more than 3 million people. The greatest lesson this country has just learned is that democracy really is a verb—that the only way that things get better is with everyone participating. These past four years have taught us that street politics and electoral politics run neck-and-neck.
But this time around, I believe this country’s younger generations are not going to take a back seat. Democracy will continue to be a part of their lives on an everyday basis. It will involve voting at the polls. It might also involve marching on the streets and organizing locally. I hope the country has learned that democracy is only as good as the people—all of us—who make it, one person, one vote, one act of love and solidarity at a time.
‘America’s international alliances remained solid.’
BY BRAD THOR
Brad Thor is the author of the New York Times bestseller Near Dark and other novels.
After four years of an “America first” (and sometimes “America only”) foreign policy, America’s international alliances remained solid. When necessary, such as with the G-7 and the question of readmitting a revanchist Russia, our allies pushed back. America’s NATO partners, the majority of whom were not investing their agreed to 2 percent of GDP in defense, took their lumps (often publicly) and recommitted to honoring their obligations. Even South Korea withstood reduced joint military exercises and the elevation of North Korea’s dictator on the world stage in the hopes of achieving lasting peace and denuclearization on the Peninsula.
Every step of the way, no matter how confusing or unconventional the approach to breaking up the status quo ante, through wins and losses, our allies stood with the United States. We are more than just the man or woman behind the Resolute desk. We continue to be that shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope for the entire world. Our allies continue to need and trust us. Like a marriage, we will go through ups and downs, but the longer-term vision of peace and stability is what binds us.
The political establishment is still entrenched.
BY HELEN ANDREWS
Helen Andrews is a senior editor at the American Conservative and author of the forthcoming book Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster.
When Donald Trump won in 2016, it proved that millions of Americans felt so dispossessed by globalization that they were willing to risk America’s future on a gamble. The lesson of the last four years is the one learned by gamblers everywhere: The house always wins. The bipartisan establishment threw everything it had at stopping Trump, and it worked. He couldn’t even get control of his own bureaucracy. The anti-Trump elites that dominate America’s universities, corporations, media and even churches might have taken their 2016 defeat as a wake-up call and given the populists’ grievances a hearing, for once. Instead, they put all their energy for the past four years into making sure nothing like the 2016 upset could ever happen again. Trump’s supporters elected him because they felt powerless. Evidently, they are.
The generational gap is widening.
BY WILLIAM H. FREY
William H. Frey is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program and author of Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America.
The most striking development over the past four years has been the deliberate political use of wedge issues to widen what I have called the “cultural generation gap.” This refers to the political and cultural divide between our highly diverse younger generations and largely white older generations on issues such as racial inclusion, immigration and criminal justice. This demographic divide between the young and the old has been evident for a while and made plain in the disparate age-race voting patterns in recent presidential elections, including the present one. I have long maintained that it is important for Americans to see a common future across this divide.
However, in the past four years, the president and other politicians have done the opposite by creating a myriad of generational wedge issues. The long-term impacts of the Covid-19 crisis could exacerbate this tension even further, as the nearly “minority-white” younger generations—millennials and Gen Zers—who have suffered most from the pandemic economically move further into their schooling, home-buying and working ages. To respond, the government must provide much more support to young people in the areas of education, job training, health care, housing and family services. Demographically, we are now at a pivotal period that requires greater recognition among citizens of all ages of how crucial this generation’s well-being will be not only for them but for thenation’s productivity—and, as well, for the future viability of programs like Social Security and Medicare that benefit our growing senior population.
Americans are not so exceptional.
BY CHARLES SYKES
Charles Sykes is editor at large of The Bulwark.
Isuppose I should be more upbeat. But what strikes me now, looking back, is how many Americans were able to watch Donald Trump and say, “Yeah, I’m all right with that.” Not a majority, to be sure, but more than 70 million Americans wanted to give him four more years. And that’s a revelation.
Trump didn’t create our dysfunctions, but he exposed the degree to which we live in alternative, clashing realities. He also exposed our inconstancy on things like values, character, honesty and constitutional norms. We watched one of our great political parties become a cult of personality.
Americans are a good, decent, honorable and empathetic people. We think of ourselves as exceptional. But it turned out that we were also gullible, vulnerable to demagoguery and willing to embrace bizarre conspiracy theories. Many of our neighbors were also willing to tolerate racial dog whistles and extraordinary cruelty, including separating children from their parents. And every day now, we learn that our neighbors’ commitment to democratic norms was thinner than we had once imagined.
Millions of Americans feel their status is threatened.
BY MATT A. BARRETO
Matt A. Barreto is faculty co-director of the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative and was a pollster for the Joe Biden campaign.
When the Tea Party movement emerged in late 2009, University of Washington’s Christopher Parker and I closely studied the group’s opinions and motivations. Our book documented how the election of Barack Obama ushered in a new, diverse America that many whites were uncomfortable with. It was not the price tag of Obama’s health care plan they opposed; Tea Party supporters loved government spending on Social Security and Medicare. It was what Obama’s health care plan represented: providing equitable access, through government backing, to Black, Latino, Asian and immigrant communities in America.
As Parker and I wrote back in 2013, this new movement was motivated by an existential threat to their inward-looking America, and by paranoia and conspiratorial discourse. Obama and his coalition represented a shocking change that Tea Party adherents could not take.
So, what have we learned after four years of Donald Trump? That millions of white Republican voters in America are so motivated by the threat they see to their status in America that they hunkered down in 2020 and voted in favor of Trump in larger numbers than in 2016. While many preelection polls hinted that white voters, especially college-educated women and men, were drifting away from Trump, in the end, white voters largely stayed true to Trump. In fact, white women increased their vote share for Trump from 52 percent in 2016 to 55 percent in 2020. College-educated whites increased their support from 48 percent to 49 percent. Across rural America, Trump increased his vote share among white Americans over 2016.
The Tea Party movement was captivated by Trump in 2015, when he launched his campaign with a tirade of racist attacks against immigrants, Mexicans and Muslims. As president, he regularly disparaged Black members of Congress, especially women, calling their districts dirty and corrupt. He refused to condemn white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. In one of his debates against Joe Biden, Trump infamously told the white supremacist group Proud Boys to “stand by,” which they quickly took as a sign of support. Yet more than 70 million Americans voted to reelect Trump.
Social scientists who have been studying race in America are not surprised at all. There is much work to do in bringing the nation together and pursuing a path toward unity, but that must start with a recognition of the historic institutional racism, and an acknowledgement that so many millions of white Americans proudly agreed with some of Trump’s most hurtful rhetoric. To heal our nation, all Americans must see an equal path forward for their community, and also recognize that diversity and multiculturalism are strengths.
‘Our blue/red segregation is complete.’
BY GARY SHTEYNGART
Gary Shteyngart is the author, most recently, of the novel Lake Success.
Imostly live in a rural area, and my county voted for Donald Trump. Yet nearly all the conversations I have are with like-minded people. Our blue/red segregation is complete. The local newspaper that once served as a common source of information is gone. There’s always a sadness when a beloved shopkeeper puts up a Trump sign or another ironic “Cold Beer Matters” pops up in a front yard, but mostly the past four years have brought about a resignation of reaching over to the other side and finding a common purpose. After Charlottesville, the dream of an exceptional nation marching among others, our disagreements in tow, died a quick death. Was the dream fraudulent to begin with? Joe Biden’s acceptance speech hit all the right notes, but I doubt it will make much of a difference up and down my rural drive. Time is your friend, a doctor told me after a recent wound refused to quickly heal. I would like to believe so. But how do we heal when my newfound hope in this country is mirrored by a neighbor’s hopeless despair?
Americans are coming to accept their diversity.
BY KIRSTEN GREENIDGE
Kirsten Greenidge is a playwright and an associate professor at the School of Theatre at Boston University.
When presented with the question of “What has Trump’s America taught us,” I think, on the eve of this era’s end, I am heartened by the idea that many more Americans are asking, “Who is this ‘us’?” And they are learning not to be as threatened by the answer—that this “us,” so to speak, is capable of holding within it multitudes; multitudes of individuals of diverse racial, ethnic, religious backgrounds; of people of diverse sexual orientations and expressions; of those of us of varying political points of view. I am heartened by witnessing more Americans work toward a better future where more of this “us” are included, celebrated and expected to participate in this experiment in democracy we’ve come to know as the United States of America.
‘Americans are willing to ignore or condone violations of democratic norms.’
BY LARRY DIAMOND
Larry Diamond is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Our political polarization is so intense, our mutual distrust so great, our partisan tribalism so overwhelming, that it is seriously eroding democratic norms. To be sure, the Congress is more polarized than the American public. As my colleagues and I learned in a deliberative poll in September 2019, Americans are ready—even eager—to reach across the partisan divide, hear one another and deliberate on the issues thoughtfully when given the opportunity to do so in a safe and supportive environment. But out there in the real world of political fear, rage and shouting matches, our civic life and democratic culture continue to deteriorate. As a result, large numbers of Americans are willing to ignore or condone violations of democratic norms—abuse of power, chronic disinformation, vulgar incivility, voter suppression—because they are so afraid of or angry at the other political party. And a growing number of Americans are thinking that there might be some justification for violence to press or defend their partisan cause.
I still hope and believe that had Donald Trump tried to do something much more blatantly authoritarian, such as suspend elections or the Constitution, many of his supporters would have at that point defected. But probably, many others would have stuck by him even then. And the central finding of recent political science research on polarization and democratic regression in other countries seems to be true for the United States as well: The majority of voters put their partisan attachments and policy or material interests ahead of their commitment to democracy. You can’t defeat a populist autocrat simply by denouncing his violations of democratic norms. We have to find ways to reduce partisan polarization in the United States, or our democracy is going to be in deepening trouble.
The past four years reinforced what Black Americans already knew.
BY CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD
Charlamagne tha God is co-host of the nationally syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club” and author of Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me.
America can’t unsee what it has seen over the past four years, from George Floyd’s death to Covid-19 killing Black people at double the rate of whites because of systemic inequities. But the reality is that racism in America isn’t just about Donald Trump and “Make America Great Again.” The foundation of America is literally built on racism. The illusion of this country is that it’s an all-inclusive resort that everyone can access, when the truth is it’s a country club for old, rich, white men. America has never been great for Black people, and it’s not clear it’s about to get better.
When Joe Biden says “Build Back Better,” what does that even mean? Everyone is cheering and jumping for joy saying Biden’s win means a return to normal. What the hell is normal when you are a Black person in this country? Normal has never worked for us. I hope Democrats don’t think they had such high voter turnout because Black people actually bought into Biden and this return to “normal” his campaign keeps talking about. We voted against fascism. We voted to save democracy. Personally, I think Kamala Harris is the political change agent this country needs moving forward. But she can’t play small. It’s important that Black Americans have her back so she can show up in that White House as her full self and not have to worry about tip-toeing around white, fragile, male egos—you know, the same egos who said she was too ambitious when Joe was looking for potential running mates. I think Kamala will actually listen to progressives and embrace some progressive policies, and if centrist Democrats and progressives don’t get on the same page, the future of the Democratic Party is not bright. I can easily see progressives forming their own party, just like we’ve seen Black people do recently with “Our Black Party.”
Democrats won a battle in this election, but not the war. Biden is a placeholder who reminds the Black community too much of the past, a past that so many of us will never forget because he was the architect of legislation that ruined us. Does he have a chance to atone for that? Of course he does. Will he? The jury is still out, but I can tell you this: If Democrats get a majority in the Senate and House, along with the Oval Office, and they don’t make any real tangible moves to improve the conditions of Black people in America, then good luck energizing Black folks to vote in future elections.
‘Americans feel ripped off, and they’re looking for someone to blame.’
BY JOAN C. WILLIAMS
Joan C. Williams is a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and author of White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.
Ilived in Venezuela growing up. Now, I have lived to see the Venezuelization of my own country. Venezuela had tremendous oil wealth, but at age 8, I was deeply shocked at the level of inequality. I still remember driving into Caracas for the first time and seeing people living in shanty towns, with little boys running around in only shirts. Our house there had high concrete walls topped with broken glass. This brought home to me that the white picket fence we think of here in America signals the social trust and peace possible only in a democracy that offers workers a stable, middle-class life.
Donald Trump represents what happens when the American dream dies. It is dying: Virtually all Americans of my generation did better than their parents, but only about half of those born in 1980 will. Americans feel ripped off, and they’re looking for someone to blame—that’s what Trump showed me. His election made me realize that I and other progressives had failed to clearly communicate to our fellow Americans the reason for the hollowing out of the middle class: a toxic brand of slash-and-burn capitalism where Big Men’s frantic performance of masculinity “requires” them to hoard outlandish wealth so they can win the masculinity contest that defines their lives—gutting workers’ futures in the process.
The left’s failure to explain this enabled Trump to blame immigrants for the disappearance of solid full-time jobs, and to convince many in the fragile and former middle class that they’ve been victimized because they’re white. Immigrants aren’t to blame; slash-and-burn capitalism is. We urgently need to draw that link, clearly and soon, or our democracy’s days may be numbered.
‘Even in the Trump era, there are some big things on which Americans agree.’
BY LYNN VAVRECK
Lynn Vavreck is professor of American politics at University of California, Los Angeles.
For the past 16 months, my colleague Chris Tausanovitch and I have been interviewing 6,250 people every week as part of the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project. We now have more than 400,000 interviews with Americans across the country. Despite the closeness of our last two presidential elections, the narrow split in the U.S. Senate and the intensity with which people engage one another politically, I’ve noticed a few areas on which most Americans agree—regardless of party, gender, age, race or where they live. Even in the Trump era, there are some big things on which Americans agree.
Most people, for example, want to live in a country with universal background checks before gun purchases, 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, a path to citizenship for Dreamers and a tax cut for families earning less than $100,000 a year. These are policies currently under debate—and most people want to see them enacted into legislation. So why don’t we live in this world? People prioritize these policies differently, and politicians respond to their constituents’ priorities. But the lopsided nature of public opinion on these issues (for example, 83 percent of Trump voters and 92 percent of Biden voters want universal gun background checks) suggests a path forward for entrepreneurial politicians who really want to unite the country.
What politicians also know is that they can lead their constituents on important matters—especially signaling the importance of things their voters already want. They do this in campaigns all the time. There are opportunities right now for the president-elect, but also for Republican elites, to give voters a set of things they want and focus on the things Americans agree on instead of the things they don’t. In fact, this moment in time might be uniquely situated for this kind of cross-partisan coordination, the result of which would somewhat surprisingly be to actually give people what they have wanted for some time. This isn’t an easy prescription. It will require talented politicians with vision and the courage to lead.
‘The American middle class is in trouble.’
BY CHRIS BUSKIRK
Chris Buskirk is editor and publisher of American Greatness.
One thing has become very clear to me in the past four years: With stagnant wages real, the American middle class is in trouble, it has been for a long time and it’s getting worse. That is causing social and political turmoil that no one of either party who holds power is equipped to address. Rising wealth inequality—first slow and lately fast—as a result of stagnating real economic growth beginning around 1970 and other structural demographic forces, is producing a situation that is unsustainable.
If this situation persists, we will experience more government patrimonialism accompanied by increasing factional conflict. This is not, strictly speaking, an ideological issue along a traditional right-left political spectrum. It has been partially described by some as a class conflict (ruling class vs. country class, globalists vs. deplorables, anywhere vs. somewheres), as a racial conflict, as an education gap, as a spiritual deficit, and so forth. There are elements of all of these things, but many of these conflicts are initiated or at least intensified by a lack of long-term economic growth. The frustration and broken dreams that occur when children can’t do as well as their parents are at odds with the expectations we’ve been promised and with our understanding of what America is and should be. This produces persistent social and political conflict that undermines American solidarity.
Even wise political leaders would have a difficult time successfully navigating these issues. But for now, the political class remains trapped in an out-of-date framework: one that assumes science is still advancing quickly, that productivity growth driven by scientific advance will continue to make the economy grow indefinitely, and that the United States is still the world hegemon that can use the massive preponderance of its wealth and power to get its way on everything. In reality, this obsolete worldview is more likely to exacerbate our structural problems than to resolve them.
Gen Z has arrived.
BY MELISSA DECKMAN
Melissa Deckman is chair and professor of political science at Washington College.
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 helped to foster higher levels of political engagement among Generation Z, particularly young women, many of whom were angered by the country’s willingness to elect a man with a penchant for demonizing women and other marginalized groups. It wasn’t just Trump’s bombastic style, however, that galvanized many young people politically. His administration’s rejection of science, its refusal to address gun violence and its dismissal of youth-led racial, gender and LGBTQ equality movements have been wholly out of step with the priorities of this generation, who are growing up with existential concerns about systemic racism, the well-being of the planet and mass shootings in their schools and on their streets.
What’s unique about Gen Z is that they have brought unparalleled organizational tools to their brand of progressive activism. Teens and young adults have borne witness to the success of youth leaders fighting against climate change and the March for Our Lives movement, inspiring the creation of similar offshoot organizations, both in their own communities and on-line. Social media also has provided an excellent venue for the mobilization of younger voters—including during a pandemic, when voting became more complicated for all Americans.
While older Americans still turned out at higher numbers this election cycle, exit polls show that the youth vote was much higher in 2020 than four years ago. Young voters also preferred the Biden/Harris ticket by a 25-point margin, their support critical in battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. This nascent generation’s allegiance to the Democratic Party is far from certain, particularly if Democratic leaders are slow to address their progressive concerns. And there are pockets of Gen Z that lean more conservative on many issues, particularly young white men. However, if these voting and activism patterns hold in the future, we could see a leftward surge in policy in the years to come, particularly as Gen Z becomes a bigger part of the electorate.
America is two countries.
BY STEVEN M. TELES
Steven M. Teles is professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and author, with Robert P. Saldin, of Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites.
Asignificant chunk of the American people are radically unsure of whether they want to live in America as it actually exists. Political scientists often get at this through the concept of “negative partisanship”—when attachment to a political party is driven more by aversion to the other party than commitment to your own party’s governing program. But I think there is something deeper going on.
The United States includes places with very different ways of governing the economy, whether taxes, services, regulation or unionization. On a deeper level, the United States includes highly secular, ethnically diverse big cities whose culture is shaped by the elite media and universities. But it also includes a wide swathe of places where the culture of white Christianity still shapes the worldview and organizes people’s lives, and which defines itself increasingly in contrast to what they think is the ethos of big cities.
America is a huge country that cannot be governed in the way that smaller, more homogenous states can. Too many Democrats allowed themselves to imagine that they could use the rising ethnic minority population of the United States as a battering ram to impose the form of governance of American cities on the rest of the country. But it turns out that Hispanic and Black Americans are not as homogeneous as that strategy imagined. Trumpists thought that they could elect a sort of strongman who would put the experts and increasingly assertive racial minorities in their place. But that didn’t work either. I am unsure whether the aspiration of either side of our culture war to be free from having to live with the rest of America has been extinguished. But the ambiguous results of this election just might show that we will have to find ways to live with the ideologically, racially, economically and religiously diverse America that actually exists.
Democracy can’t be taken for granted.
BY MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Michiko Kakutani is the author of the new book Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Re-Read. Follow her on Twitter @michikokakutani and on Instagram @michi_kakutani.
“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” During Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House, many Americans had reason to worry that de Tocqueville’s observation would be proved wrong—that Trump’s assault on our institutions and the massive propaganda and disinformation campaign run by him and his enablers would mortally wound our democracy and subvert our Constitution, along with our values and ideals.
Trump’s nearly four years in office have exposed weaknesses in our government—from checks and balances that can be sabotaged by extreme partisanship, to norms and traditions that need to be codified into law—and underscored how dangerously polarized America has become in an age when many people receive information through social media and through partisan outlets like Fox and Breitbart.
The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, however, showed that a majority of voters repudiated Trump’s divisive and autocratic vision and reaffirmed the ability of Americans, in the words of the great John Lewis, to use the ballot box as a nonviolent “tool to redeem the soul of America.” From his lifetime as a civil-rights leader, Lewis knew that “democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part” to help build it. In 2020, voters—in unprecedented numbers—did exactly that, led in crucial battleground states by African Americans, by women, by young people and by people who understood exactly what was at stake. This was a sign that de Tocqueville was prescient in pointing to America’s “ability to repair her faults.”
At the same time, the refusal (so far) of Trump and his GOP enablers to recognize the results of the election are reminders that we can never let down our guard, never take anything for granted. As Lewis’ mentor and colleague the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed: “human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work” of people determined to “make real the promise of democracy.”
‘The law and even the Constitution itself might not be enough to sustain our democratic republic.’
BY TOM NICHOLS
Tom Nichols is professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.
We’ve learned a great deal about ourselves and our fellow citizens over the past four years, and much of it is unpleasant. But even more important, we’ve learned that our system of government is almost entirely dependent on shared cultural norms and traditions about democracy and accountability. If we are not willing to hold our elected officials—and each other—responsible for guarding those traditions, then the law and even the Constitution itself might not be enough to sustain our democratic republic.
In the past, we assumed that the existence of laws or constitutional requirements was sufficient to protect our rights and our institutions. We fell back on these codified and written statutes as insurance against our own behavior and insulation from our political choices. But when we empowered a chief executive and a political party to be “disruptive,” we learned that disruption can spread from the policy world and the conduct of our leaders into the groundwater beneath our entire system of government and poison its various wells. The “law” does not guarantee that we are protected by the rule of law; our commitment to rule of law as a basic value is what protects us and our rights. The Constitution does not automatically enforce itself. Institutions, such as a free press and open elections, do not renew themselves like some kind of perennial garden; they require our actual care and attention.
I hope that one lesson that we take away from the past four years is that we remember that merely writing things down on paper does not create a liberal democracy. We have to care about whether the laws are faithfully executed, whether impartial justice is served, whether the oaths our leaders take were spoken with sincerity. We have to care, deeply, about all of these things and more. Otherwise, all is lost, no matter who wins the next election, or the next one after that.
We still haven’t dealt with racism.
BY LILLIANA MASON
Lilliana Mason is associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity.
This nation has never fully dealt with our legacy of racial violence and oppression, and a large portion of the electorate has no interest in doing so. The deepest divide between Democrats and Republicans today is over whether systemic racism and sexism exist. As Democrats increasingly lean into the need to address racial and gender-based inequality, Republicans deny that it needs to be addressed, and some violently oppose any efforts to promote equality. We are in a fight over the persistence of the traditional social hierarchy, and whether we can or should become a truly egalitarian democracy that represents all Americans equally.
Economic divisions are driving political ones.
BY JOHN AUSTIN
John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center and is a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
It’s become clear over the past four years that, unless we address the root economic causes of many American voters’ anger and social alienation, we will remain a divided nation, with many remaining susceptible to the message of demagogues like Donald Trump. In much of left-behind rural America, and still struggling communities that dot the industrial Midwest around my home, anxieties about the economic future interact with a perceived loss of identity, status and control in a changing society. These dynamics generate a toxic brew of resentments of “others,” whether coastal elites or immigrants, and cravings for a return to a simpler and ordered time.
From afar, it appears that Joe Biden rebuilt the “Blue Wall” of Midwest industrial states this year and won over the white, working-class voters that powered Trump to the presidency in 2016. But Biden’s narrow victory in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania was made possible only by an historically high anti-Trump voter turnout, particularly among African Americans in cities. Working-class -whites from still struggling manufacturing towns and farm country doubled down on Trumpism, more excited than ever over Trump’s mix of economic nostalgia, nationalism and nativism.
Where residents of “old economy” communities in Michigan and elsewhere succeed in finding new economic purchase, their attitudes are different, as are outcomes at the ballot box. We’ve seen this in the Midwest swing states, where voters in newly revitalized former industrial communities—like Pittsburgh and Grand Rapids, Michigan—are exhibiting optimistic, forward-looking attitudes, and turning blue. I saw powerful trends away from nationalism and nostalgia in rebounding Rust Belt communities that supported moderate centrists both in the 2018 midterm elections and in this year’s results. The Biden administration and Congress must rebuild and spread the emerging new economy to more people and places in the American heartland. Only then will we heal our politics.
Corporate America is not on the side of conservatives.
BY SOHRAB AHMARI
Sohrab Ahmari is op-ed editor of the New York Post and author of the forthcoming The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.
For conservatives, the most acute lesson of the past four years was that corporate America—the owners of capital and the highly educated technocrats who serve them—isn’t on our side. More than that, corporate elites are actively aligned with the cultural and political left: an epochal realignment.
The shift was already apparent, in a latent way, during the Obama administration, but it became nakedly undeniable under President Donald Trump: from brands’ thorough adoption of the latest sex-and-gender dogmas; to sports leagues going woke (even as they looked the other way at their Chinese business partners’ hideous oppression of Muslims); to the way Silicon Valley dweebs living in some of America’s toniest neighborhoods turned against law enforcement. This is all very exciting for us on the right: How much more noble and worthwhile to stand with the working classes than to hanker for marginal tax cuts and trade deals!
‘White anxiety [is] a structural feature of our racialized politics.’
BY JONATHAN M. METZL
Jonathan M. Metzl is professor of sociology; medicine, health and society; and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.
The Trump era has taught this country about the always fragile and always tenuous nature of racial progress. It taught us that narratives of white racial resentment, and of white aggression masked as victimhood, persist and are too easily manipulated. It taught us that our inability to fully address the traumatic narratives of the past (wages of whiteness, the “color line”) or craft more equitable societies in the aftermath of crisis (e.g., Reconstruction) leave psychological fissures and structural inequities that open at times most urgent and least opportune. Trump’s America exposed our differences, and manipulated them. It taught us that, just as racism is structural, so too is white anxiety a structural feature of our racialized politics. As a result, if it is not continually guarded and protected, democracy can morph into fascism in the blink of an eye.
Ultimately, though, Trump’s America gives us a way forward. It taught us the vital importance of culling the collective power of our diversity in support of the greater good. Building networks and structures based on the common good in turn moves us closer to what economist Amartya Sen calls a “better society” that can emerge from moments of crisis—like an election held during a pandemic and a national reckoning with racism—that spark a renewed drive toward building shared and mutually beneficial communal infrastructures. National health care systems, reformed police, more vibrant food distribution networks, protected climates and closed wealth gaps. As Sen explains it, societies that react to moments of crisis by democratizing access to resources and seating the greatest number or shareholders around the decision-making table come out ahead in the long run. Those that fail to do so are not great again for a very long time.
Americans are dying of despair.
BY TOM FRIEDEN
Tom Frieden is president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies, and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The country as a whole needs to do a much better job addressing the fundamental concerns that middle-class people have about the loss of jobs and of a sense of place and meaning in their lives. A symptom of not addressing these challenges is growth in support for ideologies that demonize other people and also increased “deaths of despair”—including the increase in suicide and the epidemic of drug overdose. Addressing these concerns will determine the future health and future prosperity in our country. If the United States doesn’t act to support all in society to have fair opportunities—to vote, to work, to get health care—we will continue to be a divided, unhealthy country.
We’ve learned very little.
BY GUSTAVO ARELLANO
Gustavo Arellano is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Idon’t think this country has learned one bit from four years of Trump. The left will, as usual, bite off more than they should and allow the right to win again. The right, as always, will underestimate the anger that they stoke with their retrograde agenda and lose. This game has been going on since the days of the Federalists, and it will continue even as the country diversifies—and if you don’t believe me, talk to the Mexican Americans down in South Texas!
Cities have become ‘the deciding factor in nearly every matter of national consequence.’
BY MICHAEL HENDRIX
Michael Hendrix is director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.
Even as America grew more polarized by geography and density over the past four years, culminating in the 2020 election with one of the greatest urban-rural partisan divides in our history, this country’s metropolitan areas have consolidated power to become the deciding factor in nearly every matter of national consequence. And no wonder: America’s 50 largest metros alone account for half the country’s population, more than half its votes and two-thirds of its economy. Even as population growth slowed in some core cities over the past four years, their surrounding suburbs still boomed, in many cases becoming large cities in their own right. And rather than fleeing to the countryside during the Covid-19 pandemic, people leaving big metros have mostly moved to other big metros, such as Atlanta, Austin, Nashville and Tampa.
The result? Today’s most pressing issues, from the pandemic to civil unrest and economic distress, are all playing out in our cities and suburbs. The Trump era saw mayors become national figures for tackling these local issues. Because urban areas account for a disproportionate share of the nation’s economy and population, their recovery fuels the rest of the country. We must identify barriers to and opportunities for growth—from addressing fiscal woes and onerous housing rules to restoring good quality of life and schooling—not only for the sake of urban dwellers, but for all Americans. As goes America’s metros, so goes our country.
Norms can quickly be hacked away.
BY MICHAEL J. GLENNON
Michael J. Glennon is professor of international law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
For a lawyer, the stunning discovery has probably been the extent to which our “rock-solid” government has always rested not on laws or judicial opinions or even the Constitution but on unwritten social norms—and how quickly those social norms can be hacked away. John Adams was wrong: It’s not at all a “government of laws not men.” From the start, it’s been a government of people—people who imagined this grand, majestic juridical edifice we call law. Those imagined norms were built up over many decades, and it’s unlikely they can be resparked swiftly, which is why freedom is hard to get and easy to lose.
We’ve forgotten what respect is.
BY ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a senior adviser at Akin Gump, represented South Florida in Congress for three decades.
These past four years have taught me that, when talking about politics, we must find a way forward that treats others with respect, even when we disagree strongly with them. What has happened to the cliché we would use when the differences in our opinions seemed insurmountable: “Let’s agree to disagree”? Now we think we must fight to the death, to cling stubbornly to our positions and cede no ground. On all sides of the political spectrum, we stick to our own views because to do otherwise would seem weak. It is not enough that I win. I must insist that you lose.
We have forgotten that we are all Americans. We all fundamentally want the same things: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If we can have something in common with our Founding Fathers of 244 years ago, surely we have common ground now. Let’s look for it and stop assuming the worst of our neighbors because of their campaign yard signs. Let’s make a concerted effort to debate and disagree with others but to not berate them, belittle them or call them names. Enough. Basta ya.
The Flat Tax Dog Whistle
Plenty of publications have enumerated the pros and cons of a graduated income tax and who the likely winners and losers are. However, little to no attention has been paid to the demographics of said winners and losers. Chicago is Illinois’ largest city and where the majority of the state’s ultrawealthy are concentrated. It’s also an incredibly segregated city. Overall, Chicago is fairly evenly mixed – 33 percent white, 30 percent Black, 29 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian, and 2 percent other.18 However, of its 77 community areas, virtually none of them even come close to this type of demographic split. Of the 77 communities, 82 percent have a single race accounting for more than 50 percent of the population. Even more strikingly, 23 percent of the communities have one race accounting for over 90 percent of the population.In other words, almost one-in-four communities in Chicago is almost entirely made up of a single race.
Figure 1 is a gradient map depicting the number of individuals with incomes over $150,000. These are the neighborhoods that are most likely to be negatively affected by a graduated income tax. Figure 2 is a gradient map that shows the percentage of a community area that is white. Remarkably, the two figures are almost identical. The neighborhoods that have the highest numbers of wealthy individuals are neighborhoods that are disproportionately white. The obvious flip side is that the poorest neighborhoods are comprised of non-whites. To further illustrate the point, consider Table 2 which provides the specifics of the six communities at either extreme.
|East Garfield Park||22,818||6.0||3.6||87.7||0.6||2.2|
|West Garfield Park||24,591||2.1||2.6||93.7||0.3||1.2|
|Near South Side||100,720||47.5||4.1||24.6||20.6||3.3|
Source and Notes: Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning Data Hub
Income is on average four times greater in the wealthier areas, with even greater inequality at the extremes. Equally strikingly is the difference in demographics between the two tables; an unfortunate but poignant reminder of Chicago’s segregated dynamics.
Table 2 shows that the graduated income tax would benefit Black households and, of the small number of households that would see their taxes increase, most of them would be white. The tax itself is not a racial issue, but its consequences most certainly are.
What Illinois Can Teach a Nation: Common Themes to Heed
In a democracy, we naively believe that the laws are passed to benefit the interests of the majority of people. The reality is far more complicated, as evidenced by the fact that a graduated income tax which would benefit 97 percent of people in Illinois failed by a large margin. Here are three important themes, highlighted by the Illinois tax referendum, that are broadly applicable across the US.
One: Distortion of Information
While nothing covered in this piece so far required especially investigative journalism, it’s likely that a large portion of the people who voted in the election weren’t entirely sure what a graduated income tax would entail. Many middle-class families ($75,000–$150,000) may have been worried that their income was high enough to qualify them for a tax increase; the reality is that it was not.
Why was the opposition’s framing successful? In part, because the opposition did a fantastic job of framing the amendment as the “tax hike” amendment. Technically, it was a tax hike, but it was a tax hike for the wealthiest 3 percent of the population, a fact they cleverly omitted. Part of the issue is there aren’t very many trusted, impartial sources of information. As political polarization continues, people seek out news from places that confirm their political intuitions, which often omits part of the story. A small-government advocate may have been against increasing taxes on principle but didn’t realize the question was effectively between an across-the-board tax increase or a graduated income tax. Distorted information is part of the reason that an increasing portion of the electorate seem to be voting against their best interest. When it’s not clear what is at stake, you might not realize what you’re really voting for.
Two: Some Voices Are Louder Than Others
The notion of one person, one vote is central to democracies. The US was founded on the idea of promoting the interests of the majority, while protecting the rights of the minority. Unfortunately, in practice, some voices/interests are louder than others. The push for the amendment was led by Governor Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt fortune, who spent $56.5 million19 of his personal wealth to push for the amendment. The opposition was led by Kenneth Griffin, the founder of Citadel Securities, who spent $53.75 million to campaign against the amendment. Regardless of whose side you fall on, there is no doubt than both Pritzker and Griffin had the resources to sway many individuals, magnifying the force of their own beliefs well beyond the one person, one vote baseline.
Lobbying of course, isn’t a uniquely Illinoisan innovation. In 2018, $3.4 billion dollars was spent on lobbying in the US.20 The issue is so prevalent that in 1995, the Lobbying Disclosure Act was passed, which requires public disclosure for legislative and executive lobbying at the federal level.21 Notably, the act does not apply to state or local lobbying. I assume that in part, the idea was that if all lobbying had to be reported, there would be less of it happening, because people would be ashamed. Maybe $3.4 billion is less than what lobbying would be without the law, but it didn’t exactly eliminate the issue entirely. And if lobbying was not deeply entrenched enough into the system, look at the electoral college.
The electoral college ultimately hands more political power (a larger voice) to lower populated, rural states than urban cities.22 Coincidently, these rural states tend to be majority white, which means that white voters have more of a say in our policies than other groups overall. This helps explain why democrats have repeatedly won the popular vote but lost the presidency. Of the last nine elections, democrats won the popular vote seven times, but will only hold the presidency five times.
Three: People Vote Against Their Immediate Best Interest
While distorted information helps people unknowingly vote against their best interest, it’s not always unknowingly. Although seemingly odd, it’s a well-documented phenomenon. Look at the estate tax, which is a tax on the transfer of property for a deceased person.23 The federal estate tax is on individuals with assets of greater than $5.3 million or couples with assets greater than $10.6 million.24 Ninety-nine percent of Americans do not qualify for an estate tax. In fact, in 2019, of the 2.7 million people that died, only .07 percent paid an estate tax.25 You’d imagine that approximately 99 percent would be in favor of such a tax. Even economists, a notoriously divided discipline, agree that there is a strong case for estate taxes, and they can be helpful in reducing inequality.26 But estate taxes are largely hated; in some cases, even more so by the poor than the rich. A 2017 Quinnipiac survey found that 48 percent of respondents favored repealing the estate tax, while only 43 percent opposed the idea (i.e., keeping the current estate tax).27 This is often because people tend to believe and or hope that they will become wealthy in the future. Therefore, people oppose estate taxes, in part, because they hope to become wealthy enough to qualify for the estate tax in the future. Of course, most people will never qualify for such a tax, but in the process, they prevent the presently ultrawealthy from being taxed, which allows generational wealth to be passed down. This is in some ways the trickiest obstacle to overcome, but presumably re-emphasizing the statistical nature of the situation would help increase its appeal.
The main issue is how these three factors have come together to create a perfect storm, echoed across the country, that helps enact and keep in place policies that benefit a disproportionately white, wealthy elite, at the expense of everyone else. While some may take comfort voting in favor of a small-government, conservative ideals in principle, the reality is that we’ve protected the ultrawealthy at the majority’s expense. It’s time for some pragmatism.
Systematic inequality refers to biases that are inherent under the model we operate in. True change requires us to re-evaluate the systems that we have in place and consider, on a fundamental level, whether or not they perpetuate inequality. The graduated tax amendment is an example of doing just this – re-evaluating our current tax system and deciding whether or not it’s fair. The existence of such a referendum is a positive step, but for the most vulnerable and marginalized in our communities, it’s not enough on its own.
We have to actively create the change, i.e., vote in favor of such reforms. Economists will genuinely debate the pros and cons of a flat tax versus a graduated one, but I’m confident in assuming that the vast majority of people in Illinois are not economists. When a measure was proposed that would not harm 97 percent of the population, one really has to wonder why it’s so hard to pass. How representative can our democracy be if such an amendment fails. People don’t generally vote with advanced knowledge of abstract economic principles; they vote based on what they think will benefit them and their surrounding communities. And if it wasn’t inherently obvious to most Illinoisans that this would be to their benefit, then that’s a huge red flag for how we disperse and educate our populous on political matters.
Of course, many will argue that fixing such matters (distortion of information, lobbying, etc.) will take time. But I think that we can and should expect more for two reasons. First, such matters are pinnacle to our fundamental notion of democracy and who we are as a nation, so what could possibly be more important to fix. And second, we cannot forget the people who have and will continue to pay the highest price – low-income people, who are disproportionately of color. The social unrest in the US didn’t happen overnight; it has been brewing for decades as communities of colors have noticed that, for a variety of reasons, they always seem to get the short end of the stick. Perhaps, we should stop exclusively looking at policy proposals in terms of end-state outcomes and start considering historical inequities. Chicago, a microcosm of the United States, was and continues to be segregated; the maps in Figures 2 and 3 have looked like that for quite some time. So maybe when we consider who should pay more in taxes, we should consider who has historically paid more than they should.
As a final point, we should keep in mind the magnitude of inequality. Economic models tell us about the general trade-offs between taxing everyone and taxing the wealthy. But in the modern-day US, the wealthy have magnitudes of order more wealth than everyone else (think Jeff Bezos who is worth $180 billion). And in cases where the inequality is so great, we have to wonder how those trade-offs are affected and if the ultrawealthy can and should bear a greater responsibility. When the income of households in the highest tax bracket is 75 times greater than the lowest, we really have to question the fairness of everyone paying the same rate.
- CBS 2 Chicago Staff, Supporters Of Graduated Income Tax Concede Defeat As Illinois Voters Reject Proposed Constitutional Amendment
- Sturm, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Graduated-rate Income Tax
- Loudenback, State Tax Rates Across America
- Ballotpedia, Illinois Graduated Income Tax
- Illinois General Assembly, Public Act 101-0008
- Illinois Policy, Pritzker’s “fair Tax” Hike
- Ibid, Sturm
- Sepeda-Miller, Fact-Check: Will Large and Small Illinois Businesses Pay More Under the Graduated Tax Plan?
- Americans for Tax Reform, Illinois
- Ken Griffin, Forbes
- Pearson, Billionaire Ken Griffin, in Battle with Gov. J.B. Pritzker
- Reuters, Fitch Downgrades Illinois’ Rating, Says State in Tenuous Position
- New York Times, Illinois Election Results
- Bremer, Illinois’ Graduated Income Tax Proposal Rejected, AP Projects, As Pritzker-Backed Committee Concedes Defeat
- Does not take into consideration other state, property, or federal taxes
- Editorial Board, Say Yes to Progressive Taxation
- Avalara, Chicago, Illinois Sales Tax Rate
- Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning Data Hub
- Hinton, One Billionaire’s ‘Fair Tax’ is Another’s ‘catastrophic Constitutional Amendment’
- OpenSecrets, Lobbying Spending Reaches $3.4 Billion in 2018, Highest in 8 Years
- DeLacy, What is the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA)?
- The Economist, American Democracy’s Built-in Bias Towards Rural Republicans
- Investopedia, Understanding the Estate Tax
- Americans For Tax Fairness, Fact Sheet: The Estate (Inheritance) Tax
- Tax Policy Center, How Many People Pay the Estate Tax?
- The Economist, A Hated Tax but a Fair One
- Thorndike, Why Do People Hate Estate Taxes But Love Wealth Taxes?
THE SUPER RICH AND HOW TO TAX THEM
How might one define the super-rich and how might the government tax them?
Florian Scheuer tackles these questions in “Taxing the superrich: Challenges of a fair tax system” (UBS Center Public Paper #9, November 2020). Also available at the the website is a one-hour video webinar by Scheuer on the subject. Those who want a more detailed technical overview might turn to the article by Scheuer and Joel Slemrod, Taxation and the Superrich,” in the 2020 Annual Review of Economics (vol. 12, pp. 189-211, subscription required).
When discussing the superrich in a US context, there are two common starting points. One is to focus on the Forbes 400, an annual list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. Another is to focus on the very top of the income distribution–that is, not just the top 1%. but the top 0.1% or even the top 0.01%.
On the subject of the Forbes 400, Scheuer writes: “The cutoff to make it into the Forbes 400 in 2018 was a net worth of $2.1 billion, and the average wealth in this group was $7.2 billion. The share of aggregate U.S. wealth owned by the Forbes 400 has increased from less than 1% in 1982 to more than 3% in 2018.” It’s worth pausing over that number for a moment: the share of total US wealth held by the top 400 has tripled since 1982. Scheuer also points out that one can distinguish whether those in top 400 inherited their wealth or accumulated it themselves. Back in 1982, 44% of the top 400 had accumulate it themselves, while in 2018, 69% had done so.
Of course, wealth is not the same as income. For example, when the value of your home rises, you have greater wealth, even if your annual income hasn’t changed. Similarly, when the price of stock in Amazon or Microsoft changes, so does the wealth of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates (#1 and #2 on the Forbes wealth list), even if their annual income is unchanged.
The IRS used to (up to 2014) release data on the “Fortunate 400” top income-earners in a given year; in 2014, the cutoff for making this list was $124 million in income for that year. Another approach is to looking at the top of income distribution. the top 0.01% represents the 12,000 or so households with the highest income in the previous year.
There are basically four ways to tax the super-rich: income tax, capital gains taxes, the estate tax, or a wealth tax.
In the 2020 tax code, the top income tax bracket is 37%: for example, if you are married filing jointly, you pay a tax rate of 37% on income above $622,500. (This is oversimplified, because there are phase-outs of various tax provisions and surtaxes on investment income that can lead to a marginal tax rate that is a few percentage points higher.) But one obvious possibility for taxing the superrich would be to add additional higher tax brackets that kicks in a higher income levels, like $1 million or $10 million in annual income.
The difficulty with this straightforward approach is what Scheuer refers to as the “plasticity” of income, that is, “the ease with which higher-taxed income can be converted into lower-taxed income.” Scheuer writes:
Plasticity is an issue when different kinds of income are subject to different effective tax rates. By far the most important aspect of plasticity, with implications both for understanding the effective tax burden on the superrich and for measuring the extent of their income and therefore income inequality, concerns capital gains.
To put this in concrete terms, if you look at the wealthiest Americans like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, their wealth doesn’t rise over time because they save a lot out of the high wages they are paid each year; instead, it’s because the stock price of Amazon or Microsoft rises. They only pay tax on that gain if they sell stock, and receive a capital gain at that time. Thus, if you want to tax the super-rich, taxing their annual income will miss the point. You need to think about how to tax the accumulation of their wealth
In the US, taxes on capital gains have several advantages over regular income. The tax rate on capital gains is 20%, instead of the 37% (plus add-ons) top income tax rate. In addition, you can let a capital gain build up for years or decades before you realize the gain and owe the tax; thus, along with the lower tax rate there is a benefit from being able to defer the tax. Finally, if someone who has experienced a capital gain over time dies, and then leaves that asset to their heirs, the capital gain for that asset during their lifetime is not taxed at all. Instead, the heir who receives the asset can “step up”: the basis, meaning that the value for purposes of calculating a capital gain for the heir starts from the value at the time the asset was received by the heir. Taken together, the “plasticity” of being able to gain wealth by a capital gain, rather than by annual income, is a core problem of taxing the superrich. Scheuer explains:
Most countries’ tax systems treat capital gains favorably relative to ordinary labor income (Switzerland being an extreme case where most capital gains are untaxed). Realized capital gains represent a very high fraction of the reported income of the superrich. For example, realized capital gains represented 60% of total gross income for the 400 highest-income Americans in tax year 2014. … For tax year 2016, those earning more than $10 million report net capital gains corresponding to 46% of their total income, whereas capital gains are a negligible fraction of income for those earning less than $200 k.
There are other ways to tax capital gains. For example, one of Joe Biden’s campaign promised was to tax capital gains income at the same rate as personal income for anyone receiving more than $1 million in income in that year. Before getting into some of the reasons, it’s worth noting that every high-income country taxes capital gains at a lower rate. Scheuer writes:
Five OECD countries levy no tax on shareholders based on capital gains (Switzerland being a prominent example). Of those that do, all tax is on realization rather than on accrual. Five more countries apply no tax after the end of a holding period test, while four others apply a more favorable rate afterwards. The tax rate varies widely with the highest as of 2016 being Finland, at 34%. With a few exceptions, the accrued gains on assets in a decedent’s estate escape income taxation entirely, because the heir can treat the basis for tax purposes as the value upon inheritance.
Why is capital gains taxed at a lower rate, all around the world? Why is it taxed only when those gains are realized, perhaps after years or decades, rather than taxed as the gains happen? One reason is that there is an annual corporate tax, so income earned by the corporation is already being taxed. Or if the capital gain is being realized on a gain in property values, there were also property taxes paid over time. In general, many countries want to have a substantial share of patient investors, who are willing to hold assets for a sustained time. Trying to tax capital gains as they happen, rather than when they are realized, would also raise practical questions–for example it might require people to sell some of their assets to pay their annual taxes.
Scheuer runs through a variety of different ways of ways of taxing capital gains, and you can consider the alternatives. But again, there are reasons why no country has pursued taxing capital gains as they accrue, rather than as they are realized, and why no country taxes such gains as ordinary income–and in fact why some countries don’t tax them at all.
Another alternative is to tax wealth directly. I’ve written about a wealth tax before, and don’t have a lot to add here. Scheuer offers the reminder that Donald Trump was an advocate of a large but one-time wealth tax on high net-worth individuals back in 1999, when he ran for president on the Reform Party ticket, as a way to pay off the national debt. Here, I’ll just offer a reminder that a wealth tax is based on total wealth, not on gains. Thus, if there is a an annual wealth tax of, say, 3%, then if your wealth was earning a return of 3% per year, the wealth tax means you are now earning a return of zero. If there is a year where the stock market drops, and the returns for that year are negative, you still owe the wealth tax.
About 30 years ago, 12 high-income counties had wealth taxes, but the total is now down to three. The general consensus was that the troubles of trying to value wealth each year for tax purposes (and just consider for a moment how the superrich might shuffle their assets into other forms to avoid such a tax), just wasn’t worth the relatively modest total amounts being collected. The one country that continues to collect a substantial amount through its wealth tax is Switzerland–but remember, Switzerland doesn’t have any tax at all on capital gains. Scheuer writes:
So far, the Swiss case is the only modern example for a wealth tax in an OECD country that has been able to generate sizeable and stable revenues in the long run. It enjoys broad support, as evidenced by the fact that it keeps being reaffirmed by citizens in Switzerland’s direct democracy, where most tax decisions must be put directly to voters. However, its design and the role it plays in the overall tax system are quite different from current proposals in the United States. In particular, it is not geared towards a major redistribution of wealth, and indeed wealth concentration in Switzerland remains high in international comparison.
A final option, which is not a focus of Scheuer’s discussion, would be to resuscitate the estate tax: that is, instead of taxing the superrich during their lives, tax the accumulated value of their assets at death. For an example of a proposal along these lines, William G. Gale, Christopher Pulliam, John Sabelhaus, and Isabel V. Sawhill offer a short report of “Taxing wealth transfers through an expanded estate tax” (Brookings Institution, August 4, 2020). They point out, for example, that back in 2001 estates of more than $675,000 were subject to the estate tax; now, it applies only to estates above $11.5 million. Maybe $675,000 was on the low side, but an exemption of $11.5 million is pretty high–only about 0,2% of estates are subject to the estate tax at all. They calculate that rolling back the estate tax rules to 2004–which was hardly a time of confiscatory taxation–could raise about $100 billion per year in revenue.
Taking all this together, it seems to me that a middle-of-the-road answer on how to raise taxes on the superrich would focus in part on the estate tax, and in part on the capital gains tax–and perhaps in particular on limiting the ability to pass wealth between generations in a way that avoids capital gains taxes.
VISION FOR BLACK LIVES
Black life and dignity require Black political will and power. Despite constant exploitation and perpetual oppression, Black people have bravely and brilliantly been a driving force pushing toward collective liberation. In recent years, we have taken to the streets, launched massive campaigns, and impacted elections, but our elected leaders have failed to address the legitimate demands of our Movement. We can no longer wait.
In response to the sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities in the U.S. and globally, a collective of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people from across the country came together in 2015 with renewed energy and purpose to articulate a common vision and agenda. We are a collective that centers, and is led by and rooted in, Black communities. And we recognize our shared struggle with all oppressed people: collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.
We are intentional about amplifying the particular experiences of racial, economic, and gender-based state and interpersonal violence that Black women, queer, trans, gender nonconforming, intersex, and disabled people face. Cisheteropatriarchy and ableism are central and instrumental to anti-Blackness and racial capitalism, and have been internalized within our communities and movements.
The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) launched the Vision for Black Lives, a comprehensive and visionary policy agenda for the post-Ferguson Black liberation movement, in August of 2016. The Vision, endorsed by over 50 Black-led organizations in the M4BL ecosystem and hundreds of allied organizations and individuals, has since inspired campaigns across the country to achieve its goals.
After three years of consultations, writing retreats and Zoom sessions, research and outreach, we are relaunching the Vision for Black Lives 2020. We will be rolling out revised, updated, and expanded policy briefs for each of the six planks of the platform over the coming months, leading up to a National Black Convention in August of 2020.
We begin with the first plank of our Vision: End the War on Black People, released on Juneteenth as we converge across the country in resistance to police and state sanctioned violence.
This document does not represent the entirety of our Vision – it is only the first section of six, and focuses on state violence. We will be re-releasing revised and expanded policy briefs in each of the remaining sections of the Vision – Reparations, Economic Justice, Invest/Divest, Community Control and Political Power – over the course of 2020
2020 Policy Platform
The PreambleEND THE WAR ON BLACK COMMUNITIESEND THE WAR ON BLACK YOUTHEND THE WAR ON BLACK WOMENEND THE WAR ON BLACK TRANS, QUEER, GENDER NONCONFORMING AND INTERSEX PEOPLEEND THE WAR ON BLACK HEALTH AND BLACK DISABLED PEOPLEEND THE WAR ON BLACK MIGRANTSEND TO ALL JAILS, PRISONS, AND IMMIGRATION DETENTIONEND THE DEATH PENALTYEND THE WAR ON DRUGSEND THE SURVEILLANCE ON BLACK COMMUNITIESEND TO PRETRIAL DETENTION AND MONEY BAILTHE DEMILITARIZATION OF LAW ENFORCEMENTEND THE USE OF PAST CRIMINAL HISTORY
click below to view demands
We Demand an End to the War Against Black People:
We demand an end to the criminalization, incarceration, and killing of our people. We call for not just individual accountability of officers after a murder, but entire police departments.