Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, expanding the Citizens United doctrine that money equals speech, formalized what was already clear: The 1 percent is undertaking a serious effort to buy elections. So how will our nation’s elected leaders, of both parties, respond? By offering themselves up for sale? Competing to see who can get the most money from the Sheldon Adelsons of America? Or by seeking to play on a different field — one where they listen seriously to the hundreds of millions of people who are not getting ahead even as our economy grows?
In many ways, the driving question in a capitalist democracy is: Do people have enough money at the end of the week to provide for themselves and their families?
Six years after the financial crisis, an alarming concentration of wealth and income at the top of this country is hobbling our economy and strangling our democracy. Wage stagnation is a fact of life for the vast majority of the United States. The bottom 90 percent of wage earners have experienced falling wages since the end of the Great Recession, and 95 percent of the income gains since June 2009 have gone to the richest 1 percent. But the problem predates the recession. Census data show that household income for the typical family in 2012 was lower than it was in 1989 and that the median income for men working full time is lower than it was 40 years ago.
This is regress. This is retreat. This is democratic capitalism teetering, held upright mainly through greed, speculation and fear.
The winners in our society, the top 10 percent, belong to both political parties, as do the 90 percent experiencing stagnant and falling incomes. And the winners in our losing economic game have pushed policies that benefit the super-rich instead of helping most of the United States: bank bailouts and fiscal austerity, NAFTA-like trade agreements, attacks on Social Security. The more this agenda gains ground in both parties, the more working-class voters get discouraged and don’t turn out.
We are approaching a midterm election in which the real issue is not the Affordable Care Act’s Web site. The real issue is whether we continue down the road toward more radical inequality or move, instead, toward reinventing a nation whose economy is consistent with our national values of democracy and opportunity.
Historically, midterm elections are decided by base voters, more so than swing voters. Working people will turn out for candidates who support solutions that would make a difference in the real world. We are not going to be fooled by poll-tested gestures transparently designed for use as political props.
We will also turn out for candidates who tell the truth about what is happening in our country: candidates who speak clearly about falling wages and concentration of wealth and income, and about the astounding tilt in our economy and politics toward global corporations and the very rich.
Most important, we are going to turn out to support candidates who offer a better future: candidates who squarely acknowledge that our society faces a choice between plutocracy and a future of shared prosperity — and who choose shared prosperity. That means candidates who stand for investing in the United States to create jobs and make our country more competitive, not giving tax breaks to companies that send jobs overseas or signing trade agreements that benefit corporations and not people. Those who stand for raising wages for the 90 percent, not cutting taxes for the 1 percent; those who support comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship and oppose mass deportations of families from our communities; those who have the courage to say that mass incarceration is a blight on our country; and those who know that unequal pay for women is an injustice.
Now, the message of some candidates is not hope or a future of shared prosperity but fear: fear of the future and of each other. Some will seek votes by looking to divide and conquer the 90 percent for the benefit of the 10 percent. Fear can be a powerful motivator in politics — and in a time of continued mass unemployment and economic anxiety, fear cannot be defeated with platitudes. Fear cedes ground only to hope, which must be backed up with a clear agenda for action. President Obama’s proposals to raise the minimum wage and to make the 40-hour workweek real again are great first steps, and candidates in both parties are moving toward them.
Candidates might succeed in November if they make it worthwhile for working people to vote for them. They surely will succeed if they go on offense and expand the president’s opportunity agenda to a full range of measures designed to lift the wages of most Americans.
There is no way to out-plutocrat the plutocrats. Working-class voters will turn out when politicians put on the ballot an economy that works for all, where opportunity is real, wages rise and the government is truly on our side.