There were two eras that elevated the middle class. The first was the period from 1700 to the mid-1800s. This period was propelled by the transfer of land from the Indigenous Americans to the settlers, who got the land for practically nothing. With cheap land as capital, regular citizens began to have an adequate standard of living. They were literate and suitably informed about politics and international affairs.
This lasted through the Civil War when land was becoming scarce and the industrial revolution drew workers to the cities in search of work. By the late 1860s, big business grew and the middle class collapsed. This was due in part because the early inheritors of companies like Cargill (agriculture) of today gained control of the sale and the distribution of farm products. The farmers fought back by creating farming rules (industry standards) known as the Grange movement. This fraternal organization made it possible for families to join together for their common good. So what are we waiting for?
The country was moving away from agriculture and towards industrialization. This augmented the farmers loss of power. As the industry continued to grow, the wealthy obtained monopolies over new technology and the resources that was required to run the technologies, such as the railroads , steel and oil. This allowed them to accumulate massive amounts of wealth. This period became know as the Gilded Age or the Era of the Robber Baron because the wealth did not trickle down to the workers.
Soon the twentieth century had arrived with the average income of working class Americans being less than $10,000 per year in todays dollars. But the Americans still did not give up. They fought back through Progressive and Populist movements, and gained important economic and political reforms. So what are we waiting for?
The first thing they did was limit the size of corporations to limit their power. This was the SHERMAN ANTITRUST ACT OF 1881. This law is still in effect but the decision not to enforce it was made by Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter was the last president to use it significantly when he broke up the AT&T monopoly. So what are we waiting for?
The second thing they did was to force the special interest out of politics by enacting legislation to prohibit corporations from “directly or indirectly” making contributions in federal elections. On Jan. 26, THE TILMAN ACT OF 1907 (which is still on the books) was signed into law by Pres. Roosevelt. Other changes were made politically, such as changing to electing instead of appointing senators, and the woman’s suffrage (19th amendment ratified Aug. 18, 1920). Still they struggled to bring together the developing union movement. Once an aristocracy is in place, it is very hard to dislodge. So what are we waiting for?
The Depression was the catalyst that precipitated the second era of the middle class. By 1929 after a number of massive tax cuts for the wealthy by successive Republican presidents, the division between the wealth of the investor class and the working class in the country was wider than it had ever been. (It has again reached those dimensions). The end result was the October 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression. Sound familiar? So what are we waiting for?
Herbert Hoover tried to continue on this path of destruction by running his re-election campaign idea of more tax cuts for the wealthy to stimulate the economy (Prosperity Is Just Around The Corner), but the public had had enough of him and the extremist Supreme Court that had recently voted down minimum wage and other protection laws for workers saying that they were unconstitutional. So what are we waiting for?
It took President Roosevelt to make sure that the citizens had money in their pockets by using the progressive taxation code, starting Social Security, passing fair labor laws, regulating businesses and vigorously enforcing the antitrust laws. In 1935 he pushed through the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act) which protected workers right to form a union and in 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act which set a minimum wage. So what are we waiting for?
During World War II, the President passed a progressive income tax which took up to 90% of the income after a person earned what would be more than $2 million in today’s dollars. That rate remained in effect under FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Johnson and Carter, and America’s debt was small and monies was in the hands of We The People who were most likely to spend it and keep the economy stimulated. So what are we waiting for?
FDR set the stage for a middle class with spending programs blended with unionization, antitrust laws and the most importantly the expansion of citizen participation in our democracy which happens when a middle class grows. So what are we waiting for?
In a time of crisis, FDR instead of giving tax cuts to billionaires like Reagan and the Bushes, he went to the working class to stimulate the economy, like Obama. The infrastructure projects were started giving workers a living wage which provided a direct stimulus to the economy and the work improved the commons. Social Security made sure that all working and disabled citizens had something for retirement and he set up the FDIC to insure that the citizens money would be safe. So what are we waiting for?
If we do nothing the results are clear: corporations will determine our fate. We can take a different path and fulfill the promise and vision of our founders. The conservative view will not meet the needs of the majority. it can only lead to aristocracy and feudalism as history has taught us. So what are we waiting for?
President Barack Obama ran on a campaign for change, but change cannot happen unless we change. As you can see from history, the citizens need unions. And as in the words of Samuel Adams, “it does not take a majority to prevail. But rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brush fires of freedom in the minds of men.” So what are WE waiting for? No really, WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?
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