Rich America, Unfair America


THE BIGGEST THREAT to democracy in the United States today

is economic prosperity.

That observation isn’t motivated by a desire to see people

suffer, but rather is a challenge to the celebration of a certain kind of

prosperity, distributed in a certain fashion, in the service of certain kinds of

institutions, in which it turns out lots of people don’t do so well after all.

In a real democracy, one would expect economic growth and

prosperity steadily to shrink the gap between rich and poor so that eventually

political equality is mirrored in a rough kind of economic equality that can

give people the space and security to maximize use of their freedoms.

In a real democracy, one would expect the workplaces within

which people spend a third of their day to be participatory and, well,


Neither is the case in the contemporary United States,

which means democracy is in trouble.

From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, the average income

of the lowest-income families grew by less than 1 percent, while that of

middle-income families grew by less than 2 percent. But for high-income

families, the growth was 15 percent, according to an analysis of Census Bureau

data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy


One of the economists who helped write that report calls

the unequal distribution of wealth from the recent prosperity "our nation’s most

serious economic problem," pointing to evidence that societies with higher

levels of inequality grow more slowly. Our government’s only response has been

to push massive tax cuts that mostly benefit the rich.

The economy that produces the grotesque level of inequality

is dominated by huge corporations that internally are structured like

tyrannies-power concentrated at the top, hierarchal management systems, and no

freedom for employees at the bottom, except the "freedom" to leave to find a job

in some equally tyrannical competitor.

People, even those who often are loyal to corporations for

which they work, have few illusions about this, which is why a Business Week

poll last summer found that three-quarters of people agreed that "business has

gained too much power over too many aspects of American life." Apologists for

the corporations argue that the rich-getting-richer should be of no concern, so

long as the economy continues to grow and the poor-aren’t-getting-poorer. The

rich are doing their job, this argument goes, by creating a dynamic economy that

will, in the end, help everyone.

That’s a story that’s been peddled to working people and

the poor for a long time and is no more compelling today than it ever was to

folks at the bottom who are working longer hours to try to hold on to their

standard of living.

So, we have economic institutions built on anti-democratic

principles that produce inequalities that make democracy outside the workplace

increasingly difficult.

There is no denying that this economic system is very good

at producing vast numbers of products. There’s also no denying that it is not

very good at producing free and fulfilled human beings. Work is, for most

people, something to be endured, not a site for individual development or the

enhancement of communities.

Though the overtly corporate-hugging Republicans and the

pseudo-populist corporate-hugging Democrats sometimes engage in rhetorical

clashes, neither is willing to speak to a simple question: How can we have a

meaningful democracy at home, or promote democracy abroad, if we live most of

our lives under the thumbs of authoritarian institutions that concentrate wealth

and power in the hands of the few to the detriment of the many? Working people

at the end of the last century understood this as they fought what turned out to

be a losing battle to stem the emerging power of large corporations. A century

later, the basic struggle to democratize America is no different.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the Department of

Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.

Other writings are available online at



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