I’ll never forget the time, waiting tables in Boston at the start of the Iraq War, when I overheard a group of aging baby boomers nervously wonder aloud when the young people of America would “rise up” and revolt. It sounded ridiculous then, and not especially less so now.
But as the American middle class continues to falter — according to a recent New York Times report, we’ve fallen behind much of Western Europe and Canada in terms of wealth — the question presents itself: Will the idea of a popular uprising seem ridiculous forever? Maybe not. But to see why, we have to take a step back and consider why the idea seems so easily dismissed in the first place.
The Times research helps remind us that America still boasted the world’s richest middle class until very, very recently. Even today, our poorest citizens tend to be far richer than most people in the developing world, according to a comprehensive examination of global inequality from professor Branko Milanovic, former lead economist at the World Bank’s research division. According to Milanovic’s work, the average American is still doing very well from a global perspective. Indeed, if your household income is above $100k — roughly 22 percent of this site’s readership, according to recent quantcast rankings – you are a part of the “global one percent.” That might be a difficult pill to swallow for middle-class readers who’ve grown accustomed to focusing their ire entirely at our own, more local “1 percent,” but if we want to understand our role in the world — and why truly widespread popular uprisings are so uncommon here at home – an honest assessment of America’s (relatively) enormous wealth is a necessary first step.
(Credit: Branko Milanovic/World Bank)
Consider the graph above, which shows how some of the world’s largest economies — including the United States — fare in terms of global wealth distribution: The vertical axis represents the share of global wealth enjoyed across each country’s income strata. The horizontal axis shows income breakdown by country; further to the left represents poorer people, and further to the right represents richer people. This graph attempts to show how, compared to a country like India, even the poorest Americans are fairly rich.
(I should note briefly that it is difficult to measure purchasing power across countries, despite the best efforts of economists. This may partly explain the startling comparison between the income levels of India and the U.S. As professor Milanovic explained when I asked him about these numbers last August, “India’s top is likely underestimated. But recall 1 percent in India is 12 [million people]. Their average income is not that high.”)
It is likely our sizable wealth and relative comfort, then, and not some paucity of character, that best explains the American people’s acquiescence to the troubling growth of the national security state, an increasingly militarized police force, and widening inequality of income and wealth. The need to protest feels somehow less pressing when the nature of our consumer economy, and the relatively comfortable existence much of the country lives, give at least the impression of prosperity.
And that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand: It’s a good thing, after all, that Americans, even many of whom are poor, enjoy a level of comfort in short supply in other parts of the world. But it’s also striking how the abundance of certain mass-produced creature comforts can pacify what might otherwise seem like unacceptable corruptions of the political system. Which is why it’s so insane (and strategically shortsighted) that those on the right who work tirelessly to promote our massively unequal society are so unyielding in their commitment to waging a class war.
Our silence could be purchased for a token, the scraps from an overflowing table, but avarice – as an end unto itself – is baked too deeply into the right’s political ideology.
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While Americans are generally a well-heeled people, we do have our limits: The recent fast-food strikes are an obvious example. As soon as real wages fall low enough that losing one’s job becomes only marginally worse than keeping it, the willingness to protest starts to overcome the fairly rational concerns that tend to keep us silent.
And while it feels somewhat irresponsible to uncritically cheerlead an “uprising,” so to speak — especially considering what we’ve witnessed in the aftermath of mass protests in Egypt, Syria and Turkey – it cannot be ignored that the threat of mass protests has always been a necessary component in the poor and downtrodden achieving policy concessions here at home. Entrenched power is not freely abandoned. As Daenerys Targaryan might remind us, “if you want it back, you must take it for yourselves.”
This is the essential balance that our politics must strike: Protesters, activists and even the occasional large angry mob are necessary elements in spurring our leaders to action. Walkouts, sit-downs and general strikes motivated and empowered our labor movement in the first half of the 20th century. They often led to brutal, vicious melees that pitted the people against their own government (or employer), but collectively these protests were enormously effective, forcing otherwise moderate politicians like FDR to champion progressive politics, lest he enable a popular uprising like those that had spread across Western Europe.
Some still argue that this balance is precisely what led to America’s enormous success in the latter half of the 20th century: Popular far-left policies were frequently co-opted by more mainstream politicians, which led to an enormous increase in the standard of living for most Americans, with the added benefit of minimizing the destruction and discord caused by popular unrest. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reluctant yet strident progressivism is often understood from this perspective.
But could it happen again? Could the threat of popular action — and, when necessary, the willingness to act in one way or another on that threat — help this country escape its current economic and political malaise? The better question may be: How else will we force those who hold outsize power in our current system to support popular reforms?
Unless the political climate of this country changes profoundly, so that conservative Republicans are suddenly willing to abandon their take-no-prisoners, “a-hostage-worth-ransoming” mentality, and work with Democrats to enact substantive programs that help average Americans, the only change we’re likely to see will be spurred by some form of unrest.
Most Americans probably don’t want that, and in a country that could lay claim to the wealthiest middle class in the world, that was fine. But as our economy and our democracy erode, this passivity becomes increasingly problematic. We cannot let our desire for peace transform into blind docility. Our willingness to “go along to get along,” then, must come with this one nonnegotiable qualifier: that our system still works to promote the interests of the many and not the few.
Anything less demands action.