After the egregious attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by a mob of unhinged thugs, I came to the same conclusion as I do when seeing rows of tents occupied by homeless people in Anchorage and on city streets across America: As a society, we have failed.
Born not long after the end of World War II, I struggle with understanding how our nation got to where it is today. And I believe there are many of my generation who feel the same. At the outset, it’s important to note that I have voted Republican for most of my life, except in the two most recent elections.
I am not a social scientist, but history tells us that the conservative tenet of “survival of the fittest” and “rugged individualism” was born in the 1800s with the social Darwinism of English philosopher Herbert Spencer. Capitalist entrepreneurs like Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and others were emboldened by that philosophy to build the vast industrial might of our country that led us into the 20th century — and ultimately, to become the most powerful nation on earth.
But along the way, the dark side of capitalism began to emerge. Monopolies were formed, profiteering became rampant and the common man was overlooked. This, as we know, caused the rise of labor unions that for many years provided workers effective bargaining power in regard to wages and working conditions.
What people of my generation remember most about the post-World War II years was that this U.S. industrial juggernaut provided good-paying jobs that allowed average workers to earn a middle-class income. It was an income that provided a house, a car, perhaps an occasional vacation and hope for sending a family member to college.
Then, as we also know, there came a time in recent history when labor unions overstepped their bounds and became too powerful. I worked for one of them in the 1970s during construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. It seemed everyone was in that particular union. It wasn’t long before the anti-union movement arose and from that point on, the foundations of the middle class began to weaken.
Beginning about the 1990s, America’s middle class was severely impacted by globalization, as American companies driven by fierce competition secured cheap labor by outsourcing manufacturing and other jobs overseas. It obviously made a new class of American capitalists very wealthy. But President Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down, supply-side economics didn’t really trickle down to the middle class and others in any meaningful way. America’s abandoned factories became what is known as the “Rust Belt.”
America’s economic shift from an industrial powerhouse to a dot-com information society left many people behind and exposed a bitter truth: In formal education and skills training, we never prepared people to participate in the rapidly evolving workforce of the 21st century. Some of them are living in tents across our great nation. Some are mentally ill with no place to turn. A lot of them are in jail. We saw some of them storm the Capitol Jan. 6.
Unemployed, disaffected, many of these people were ripe for the clarion call of a populist like Donald Trump, who promised to take our country back to the 20th century and create thousands of industrial jobs. He proclaimed that on his watch, the stock market would rally. Yet as we know, only about 50% of the U.S. population owns stock through 401(k)s or other retirement programs; and 1% of the population owns about 70% of the stock. Trump would cut taxes for the rich, and he did; build a wall to stop illegal immigration and created a border catastrophe with separated families. Through social media and at rallies, he became a voice that addressed them personally, as if he were one of them.
During the past four years, he coddled and nurtured these people’s lesser angels regarding racism and civil disobedience. And at the same time, he gained a lemming-like following among a group of Republicans who were (and continue to be) only concerned about securing votes and financial backing for their reelection.
Aside from seriously dividing our nation and casting doubt on our democratic election processes and institutions, the damage Trump caused to our nation is incalculable. While the Operation Warp Speed program helped develop a COVID-19 vaccine amazingly quickly – mostly attributable to the fact work was already underway – efficient delivery of the vaccine throughout the states was poorly planned. At the end of Trump’s administration, more than 400,000 Americans have died from the disease.
Trump turned a blind eye to one of the most pressing issues of our time, climate change; he alienated many of our allies and blemished our reputation across the world.
Not all of our country’s ills can be placed at the feet of Donald Trump. Many of our festering problems began long ago: racism, unequal opportunity in education, unemployment, crime and lack of affordable health care for all.
The task of repairing a post-Trump America is daunting. It will take time — longer than a four-year administration. But it is doable. A massive U.S. infrastructure program would put a broad cross-section of Americans to work for many years and help lift us out of the current coronavirus recession.
A country cannot be strong without an educated citizenry. A major emphasis on education, particularly vocational and high-tech skills training, would prepare more people for this century’s jobs. College loans should be forgiven, and, as in other developed countries, some phases of education should be free. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider reinstating civics to high school curriculum to teach students about their role as citizens of the United States.
Affordable health care can also be provided to millions of uninsured Americans. These and other Biden administration programs will be expensive, and we can’t print money forever. The tax increase he describes will not affect anyone earning less than $250,000 per year. It’s hard to believe that the 1% to 5% wealthiest Americans truly care about Joe Biden’s proposed corporate and personal income tax increases.
And contrary to conservatives’ fears, Biden’s programs will not spark the flame of socialism and extinguish the fire of capitalism. Economists on all sides of the political spectrum agree a free-market economic system works well, but not if it is underpinned by unchecked corruption and insidious greed.
It is a lot to hope for, but perhaps a few years down the road, when the coronavirus blight is gone and our economy is getting back up on step, some of Trump’s most ardent followers might take a more balanced, reasonable look at our country and their place in it.
A lifetime Alaskan, Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.
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