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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Reich: Epidemic Powerlessness Challenges Progressives

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has identified a source of ballooning discontent in America, which progressives must address. From his blog post:

As I travel around America, I’m struck by how utterly powerless most people feel.
The companies we work for, the businesses we buy from, and the political system we participate in all seem to have grown less accountable. I hear it over and over: They don’t care; our voices don’t count.
A large part of the reason is we have fewer choices than we used to have. In almost every area of our lives, it’s now take it or leave it.
Companies are treating workers as disposable cogs because most working people have no choice. They need work and must take what they can get.
Although jobs are coming back from the depths of the Great Recession, the portion of the labor force actually working remains lower than it’s been in over thirty years – before vast numbers of middle-class wives and mothers entered paid work.
Which is why corporations can get away with firing workers without warning, replacing full-time jobs with part-time and contract work, and cutting wages. Most working people have no alternative.
Consumers, meanwhile, are feeling mistreated and taken for granted because they, too, have less choice.
U.S. airlines, for example, have consolidated into a handful of giant carriers that divide up routes and collude on fares. In 2005 the U.S. had nine major airlines. Now we have just four.
It’s much the same across the economy. Eighty percent of Americans are served by just one Internet Service Provider – usually Comcast, AT&T, or Time-Warner.
The biggest banks have become far bigger. In 1990, the five biggest held just 10 percent of all banking assets. Now they hold almost 45 percent.
Giant health insurers are larger; the giant hospital chains, far bigger; the most powerful digital platforms (Amazon, Facebook, Google), gigantic.
All this means less consumer choice, which translates into less power.

The political consequences are also quite disturbing, as Reich explains:

…As voters we feel no one is listening because politicians, too, face less and less competition. Over 85 percent of congressional districts are considered “safe” for their incumbents in the upcoming 2016 election; only 3 percent are toss-ups.
In presidential elections, only a handful of states are now considered “battlegrounds” that could go either Democratic or Republican.
So, naturally, that’s where the candidates campaign. Voters in most states won’t see much of them. These voters’ votes are literally taken for granted.
Even in toss-up districts and battle-ground states, so much big money is flowing in that average voters feel disenfranchised.

Reich is on to something here. The decline in personal power felt by millions has happened so slowly that most of us take it for granted, as if it’s just ‘the way things are’ and there isn’t much we can do about it. The rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore may also be more an expression of the growing sense of powerlessness than anything else.
Reich goes on to identify a common denominator that feeds the spreading feelings of powerlessness — the lack of choice. He stops short of suggesting remedies. But it is clear that Democratic political leaders face both a crisis and opportunity here: If Democratic leaders fail to address the growing sense of powerlessness in a direct way, we shouldn’t be surprised if voters keep it home or cast their ballots for other parties.
But there are things that can be done about it, such as intensified voter registration and turnout drives, reinvigorating America’s labor movement, energizing the co-op and credit union movements and launching boycotts and stockholder’s campaigns to compel corporations to conduct business with a greater sense of social responsibility, to name just a few possibilities. If Democratic leaders will directly address the underlying causes of powerlessness in a way that average Americans will find credible, we just may be able to win something that now seems far out of reach — a Democratic landslide and a real working majority in congress.

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