Economic Inequality and the Future of Democracy: Tracking the Conversation

Banksy” by Tom Thai

Last year, a researcher from Harvard, along with another from the University of Melbourne, published research that showed a growing decline in the support for democracy among young Americans. Only 30 percent of millennials believed that “it is essential to live in a democracy,” down from 75 percent of people born in the 1930s. That’s a pretty scary thought, and a statistic to which our nonprofit community ought to pay attention. What has brought us to this point? Is the world’s greatest experiment in democratic governance under threat? How can we revive our democratic institutions and ensure that everyone in America has a stake in our society?

Recently, I attended the Aspen Institute Economic Security Summit, a three-day conference cosponsored by the Economic Opportunities Program and the Financial Security Program, where these questions animated discussion among business, academic, and NGO leaders. At the heart of much of the discussion were the declining fortunes of the middle class and what prolonged income stagnation and lost economic mobility might mean for our democracy.

Among several public presentations I attended was the Summit’s opening panel, moderated by reporter Ray Suarez. Panelists included Mickey Edwards, former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma and executive director of Aspen’s Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership; Maria Echaveste, a senior fellow at the Opportunity Institute who formerly served as White House deputy chief of staff for President Clinton; and Robert Post, who recently finished his term as dean of the Yale Law School. Together, they carried on a 90-minute discussion of the deepening divisions in our country and what we might do to address them.

Economic Despair

When talking about the “hollowing out of the middle class,” the data bears repeating. In our nation today, half the working population earns less than $35,000 per year. Despite increasing productivity over the last 40 years, wages have not risen; in fact, the largest portion of that increased wealth has gone to the top 20 percent, creating a gaping chasm between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Today, most American families can no longer assume that their children will do better. In fact, economic mobility in the U.S. is now less robust than in many European nations, as well as Canada and Australia.

When these numbers are broken down by race, gender, and age, the picture is even more bleak for certain groups of Americans. Where you are born—as well as your demographic profile—pretty much determines your ability to get ahead. White families have 13 times the wealth of African American families, a gap that has grown wider since the Great Recession. Young people today are not accumulating wealth—and the opportunities that wealth provides in terms of stability, the ability to start a business, send children to college, or save for retirement—at the same pace as their parents’ generation.

With this grim picture of wealth and mobility, is it any surprise many people across the country feel resentful? They no longer believe that the American dream is accessible to them. As Ray Suarez put it, millions of Americans believe the system is rigged, that it isn’t fair, and that “it is a game they are going to lose.” In America today, working hard no longer means you will get ahead.

Failure of Institutions

Economic despair, according to New York Times reporter David Leonhardt, who spoke one evening as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series, underlies a profound loss of trust in institutions, including the news media. Since the 1980s, overall confidence in the Congress, the Supreme Court, banks, public schools, and religious institutions, along with the media, has tumbled, according to Leonhardt, with less than half of the population expressing confidence in any one of these institutions. When it comes to Congress, only 10 percent of Americans give our most powerful governing body a vote of confidence.

Former Congressman Edwards expressed no surprise. He argued that, pretty much across the board, our nation’s core institutions have failed to provide a better life for middle-class Americans: The justice system has criminalized Black lives; the educational system doesn’t teach the basics of civic engagement and how our democracy works; corporations have used the “myth of shareholder primacy” to funnel wealth to the top at the expense of workers and our communities. As far as Congress, Edwards said, our party system is a “pox on society.” Partisanship and the primary system, in his opinion, have made our politics completely dysfunctional.

Nonetheless, Maria Echaveste pointed out, U.S. institutions remain far stronger than those of many nations, with the population still invested in a nation of laws. What she found most disturbing is how the American myth of individualism has been combined with anti-government sentiment, making it increasingly difficult to collectively solve our social and economic problems.

“We all want the same things,” said Echaveste—a good job, decent housing, health care, good schools, a secure retirement. “The fact that we all want the same things, means that we should be able to find a way to talk to each other about how to pay for it.”

Echaveste was particularly hard on the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth, noting that, as the daughter of a farmworker, she succeeded because California invested in public schools. A good student, she excelled and attended Stanford University. Today, she noted, California is fifth from the bottom in school spending, profoundly impacting the success of the current generation of young people (notably, now, majority students of color).

Education and Civic Engagement

The need to reinvigorate public education, and to embed civic education in the curriculum at all levels, emerged as a common theme among Aspen speakers, including Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan, who was honored as the first guest of the Sandra Day O’Connor Conversation series.

After retiring from the Court, former Associate Justice O’Connor has invested her time and energy in iCivics, a curriculum designed to teach students the fundamentals of how our representative government operates. The goal of iCivics is to help students become informed and engaged citizens, ready to take on the responsibilities of democratic governing.

iCivics offers one set of tools to address the deep disconnect between American citizens and their government. Edwards, a strong proponent of this type of civic education, nonetheless reminded the audience that students today are not exposed to the arts and humanities, which many school systems have cut in response to shrinking budgets. But these are the very subjects, argued Edwards, that teach about humanity and empathy, something he sees as profoundly lacking in today’s partisan society.

Overcoming Our Divisions to Create a Better Future

Our profound differences, particularly those of class, race, and gender, and our partisan divisions, animated all of the Aspen discussions. Suarez reminded the audience that in 2044, the U.S. will be a majority-minority country and that our struggles may get uglier before we find a path forward. As Suarez said, “Who matters? Who is supposed to matter? Who ought to matter? Who always is going to matter?” are profound questions for our society. We still live in a world, said Suarez, where some people believe they are the gatekeepers for who gets to define themselves as an American.

Panelists and audiences searched for solutions, reaching across these divides, finding ways for more people to have conversations with those who differ from themselves. Some nonprofits are already emerging to help bridge these gaps—for example, Living Room Conversations—but there is much more to be done. Through the Rodel program, Edwards brings Republicans and Democrats together to get to know each other as people rather than partisans. But is “getting to know each other” sufficient in a society in which so many people are not only disadvantaged but disempowered?

Robert Post from Yale spoke to this point eloquently, noting that talking across differences may be important, but even of greater value is empowering the disenfranchised. Returning to community organizing, strengthening our communities through shared prosperity, and building leadership based on trust are all essential ingredients for strengthening democracy.

Post and other panelists pointed out that one of the reasons inequality has risen so dramatically over the last several decades has been the collapse of labor unions. The growing low-wage workforce does not have a voice in our political system, which is beholden to moneyed interests. Acknowledging the failure to build a class-based movement in America, Post proposed a new narrative around “the proposition that most people derive immense meaning in their lives from work.” Suggesting that a narrative around work doesn’t necessarily have to be adversarial, he proposed asking our communities and organizations to consider such questions as:

  • How do we create work that is meaningful?
  • What are the pre-conditions?
  • What are the investments?
  • What’s the kind of education and training that are necessary?

These questions, he believes, could move our politics forward by considering how to continually upskill workers and ensure they remain competitive in a rapidly changing economy.

Fundamentally, panelists agreed that a robust democracy requires an economy that provides meaningful work and shared prosperity. To rebuild a shared vision around those values, we also need a press that keeps our citizens informed. Interestingly, reporter David Leonhardt delivered an optimistic forecast on the changing media landscape. A “growing market for truth,” and a desire for more serious journalism, he said, is evidenced by the growth of organizations like ProPublica and the growing number of subscribers to the New York Times. Leonhardt also pointed to the new array of multimedia tools available to journalists which, he says, has democratized access to information.

In an age when the president of the U.S. calls the press, “the enemy of the people,” it is all the more important to bolster the independent media and revitalize civic education so that an informed citizenry can work together to solve our nation’s problems. From 1940–1980, America built the world’s largest middle class. We now rank at number 27. We’ll need all of our best thinkers and doers to turn that around.