I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, 61 years ago. My father sold $1.98 cotton blouses to blue-collar women and women whose husbands worked in factories. Years later, I was secretary of labor of the United States, and I tried the best I could – which wasn’t nearly good enough – to help reverse one of the most troublesome trends America has faced: The stagnation of middle-class wages and the expansion of povety. Male hourly wages began to drop in the early 1970s, adjusted for inflation. The average man in his 30s is earning less than his father did thirty years ago. Yet America is far richer. Where did the money go? To the top.
Are Americans who have been left behind frustrated? Of course. And their frustrations, their anger and, yes, sometimes their bitterness, have been used since then -- by demagogues, by nationalists and xenophobes, by radical conservatives, by political nuts and fanatical fruitcakes – to blame immigrants and foreign traders, to blame blacks and the poor, to blame "liberal elites," to blame anyone and anything.
Rather than counter all this, the American media have wallowed in it. Some, like Fox News and talk radio, have given the haters and blamers their very own megaphones. The rest have merely "reported on" it. Instead of focusing on how to get Americans good jobs again; instead of admitting too many of our schools are failing and our kids are falling behind their contemporaries in Europe, Japan, and even China; instead of showing why we need a more progressive tax system to finance better schools and access to health care, and green technologies that might create new manufacturing jobs, our national discussion has been mired in the old politics.
Listen to this morning’s “Meet the Press” if you want an example. Tim Russert, one of the smartest guys on television, interviewed four political consultants – Carville and Matalin, Bob Schrum, and Michael Murphy. Political consultants are paid huge sums to help politicians spin words and avoid real talk. They’re part of the problem. And what do Russert and these four consultants talk about? The potential damage to Barack Obama from saying that lots of people in Pennsylvania are bitter that the economy has left them behind; about HRC’s spin on Obama’s words (he’s an “elitist,” she said); and John McCain’s similarly puerile attack.
Does Russert really believe he’s doing the nation a service for this parade of spin doctors talking about potential spins and the spin-offs from the words Obama used to state what everyone knows is true? Or is Russert merely in the business of selling TV airtime for a network that doesn’t give a hoot about its supposed commitment to the public interest but wants to up its ratings by pandering to the nation’s ongoing desire for gladiator entertainment instead of real talk about real problems.
We’re heading into the worst economic crisis in a half century or more. Many of the Americans who have been getting nowhere for decades are in even deeper trouble. Large numbers of people in Pennsylvania and across the nation are losing their homes and losing their jobs, and the situation is likely to grow worse. Consumers are at the end of their ropes, fuel and food costs are skyrocketing, they can’t go deeper into debt, they can’t pay their bills. They aren’t buying, which means every business from the auto industry to housing to even giant GE is hurting. Which means they’ll begin laying off more people, and as they do, we will experience an even more dangerous downward spiral.
Bitter? You ain’t seen nothing yet. And as much as people like Russert, Carville, Matalin, Schrum, and Murphy want to divert our attention from what’s really happening; as much as HRC and McCain seek to make political hay out of choices of words that can be spun cynically by the mindless spinners of the old politics; as much as demagogues on the right and left continue to try to channel the cumulative frustrations of Americans into a politics of resentment – all these attempts will, I hope, prove futile. Eighty percent of Americans know the nation is on the wrong track. The old politics, and the old media that feeds it, are irrelevant now.