What's a "Stuck Nation"? America in 2021, paralyzed by injustice and inequality

Book excerpt: What do you call a nation where billionaires fly into space while living standards keep declining?

Published July 25, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)

"Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" by Bob Hennelly (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Democracy at Work)
"Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" by Bob Hennelly (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Democracy at Work)

This is an excerpt from Salon correspondent Bob Hennelly's new book “Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?” published by Democracy@Work. Used by permission.

What do we call a nation where one man builds a multi-billion-dollar empire by outwitting its tax system and uses a fraction of the fortune he's made at the expense of every other taxpayer to build his own rocket so he can leave the planet?

A Stuck Nation.

I selected @StuckNation as my Twitter handle shortly before I left WNYC-New York Public Radio in 2013. By that time, I had spent more than 20 years covering local, state and national politics — long enough to see a discernible pattern of American stagnation where, regardless of the issue, the forces of capital prevailed over labor. No matter what injustice would catch fire, politicians would gain traction by appearing to address it just long enough to win elections, yet the underlying problem that had sparked protest was left to fester. 

From gun violence to local flooding from overdevelopment, public calls for reform would crest and dissipate as the commercial forces that profited from the status quo endured.

When President Barack Obama was just into his second term, I could see that in places where I was reporting — like Newark and Paterson, New Jersey — things had actually continued to deteriorate from the Great Recession. There was a disturbing disconnect between the MSNBC, NPR, New York Times rhetoric of recovery and my lived and reported experience. At street level, in the neighborhoods where I had reported before Obama was elected, the slide had continued. The same mortgage predators paid their Department of Justice fines, but continued their corrupt practices, driving primarily African American families from their homes that had been in families for generations, leaving a devastated streetscape of zombie homes and disrepair.

African Americans got bragging rights for having a Black man in the White House, but millions of them lost their own homes. This was just more evidence of a "stuck nation," so stuck because its leadership was cut off and willfully blind to the circumstances of a broad swath of the country, particularly people of color.

In my WNYC interview with then-Sen. Obama on March 27, 2008, he had a sweeping command of the national economy and the global situation. 

Obama's answers to my questions, spanning from the perils of offshore banking to foreign policy, were smooth and considered, but his vague response on the question of the essential need for a shift in the U.S. policy on drugs — away from a criminal justice approach to a public health focus — made me realize that he was more of a charismatic moderate than a change agent.

On Aug. 28, 2008, I was in Denver's Mile High Stadium when Obama accepted his party's nomination as its presidential candidate. I was standing with the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, on whose 1984 presidential campaign I had worked, as the sense of limitless possibilities surged through the capacity crowd.

"Four years ago, I stood before you and told you my story, of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas, who weren't well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to," Obama told the adoring crowd.

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On the night of the 2008 general election, I decided the best place from which to file my reporting throughout the night would be the Rutgers University New Brunswick campus. It was a place where the college students really had to fight hard to get to vote, because the local election authorities saw them as interlopers. When the networks called the election for Obama, the wave of youthful exuberance surging out of those dormitory buildings and into New Brunswick's night air was electric, as college students even embraced police officers who were swarmed by a tsunami of joy. 

Just three years later, in September 2011, I would be covering the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which had taken root in its prolonged encampment in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park. I recorded hours of interviews with the primarily young activists who had come from all over the nation to camp out in the canyons of Wall Street and protest an economy that was increasingly rigged against them.

No doubt most of them had been Obama voters. For them, hope and change had become despair and stagnation. Many were buried under mountains of debt for college educations that society had told them they needed as the foundation for a good life; but for so many, that turned out to be a dead end of living in their parents' basements.

The global war on terror was now over a decade long, and Uncle Sam just seemed to be a robot stuck spinning his wheels in a deepening rut on foreign soil.  

Stuck Nation seemed completely apropos on every level. 

This stuck-ness was even manifest in the way New Jersey would flood in the same places year after year, where the bipartisan complicity in real estate development had permitted filling in the wetlands, blowing up mountains and clearing forests, only to be "surprised" when, year after year, people's basements flooded. 

As the Obama years drew to a close, the Economic Policy Institute observed astutely that the country had "suffered from rising income inequality and chronically slow growth in the living standards of low- and moderate-income Americans." 

The erosion of the middle class that has been in the making at least since the 1970s — when American workers stopped seeing their wages grow at a pace with their increasing productivity — was continuing.  By August 2016, EPI reported that from 1973 until 2015, while productivity increased by more than 73%, hourly pay for workers went up only 11% — in other words, productivity grew by more than six times the rise in wages earned by workers.

For decades, American workers had been losing leverage, while the world's biggest corporations were able to successfully play one country's workforce off another. 

Jobs with health care benefits were increasingly hard to find as corporations like Uber figured out how to profit from the increasing precarity of the workforce. The rideshare-app company benefited considerably from the counsel of former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, who became Uber's policy chief in 2014, as it bullied its way into local markets and destroyed the existing local taxicab business model along the way.

By 2016, after eight years of struggle packaged as recovery, millions of voters were ripe for Donald Trump's picking. A critical number of Obama voters of color just stayed home, and Hillary Clinton was not perceived as a change agent.

From the oligarchs' point of view, there was nothing better than Trump's strategy of having the victims of predatory, multinational capitalism go after each other over issues like race and national origin. Both major parties had long since been co-opted at the top by these corporate interests. It was all pay-to-play, no matter who the players were.

When first Bernie Sanders and then Trump carried Michigan, it became clear that the rising anger within the electorate was about an America that no longer worked for American workers. What we had on our hands was a political predator class that had been ignoring the social and economic circumstances of the vast majority of people for a long time, and had profited by doing so. 

American multinationals avoided paying hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes every year, transferring the tax burden to small business and working people. We were misled to suspect that the undocumented among us were the real drag on our national treasury. Yet these folks, one in three of whom own homes here in the U.S., pay billions of dollars in taxes each year. Likewise, when unions were chased out of the private sector but made inroads in the public sector, big-money interests proceeded to demonize public unions for getting the type of pay and benefits that the rest of us were denied, because (they alleged) the new global trade imperative would not permit it.

Meanwhile, on the ground the lack of affordable housing was the nexus of so much of the dislocation I was encountering, more than 40 years after the New Jersey Supreme Court's landmark Mount Laurel decision was hailed nationally for proclaiming that it was unconstitutional for towns to exclude housing for the  poor and working class. Decades later, New Jersey was still in a full-blown affordable housing crisis and was leading the nation in foreclosures; and despite the scarcity of affordable housing, there were tens of thousands of vacant homes just wasting away. 

How stuck was this nation?

In 2018, I told a too-common story of the lack of affordable housing through the lived experience of a pair of 20-somethings living in their car. Kelee Patterson and her boyfriend Tim Johnson knew all too well about the failure to live up to Mount Laurel's 43-year-old mandate. They spent the winter of 2018 living in Patterson's car with her three dogs. Almost six years after Superstorm Sandy had hit their part of Monmouth County, New Jersey, along the Route 35 corridor, finding affordable housing was impossible.

"In the front seat, we put the little dog on the floor on where I drive," Patterson explained. "The driver seat has two little dogs. On the seat there is one dog, and on the floor, there is one little dog. Then the big dog is on the passenger seat with the seat laid down. Then we cuddle up in the back. We make that in with blankets and pillows. All our clothes are in the back."

Patterson tried to remain positive about the couple's prospects and a pending job interview later that day. "I would love to be in my own home to wake up and brush my teeth, shower and go to work … because right now we go to Target [or] QuickChek bathrooms to get ready for an interview, and thank God we have an interview."

"I hope we get these jobs. Get these jobs and save money and get to a state where the cost of living isn't so high," Johnson added.

Inside MJ's Pizza in Middletown, over a late lunch, Patterson recounted the story of her mother's home in Middletown, which the family lost in foreclosure. "My mom has lived there for 18 years, and so have I," she said. 

For Johnson, his life was upended when his father came down with pancreatic cancer and within just a few months died. His mother fell behind on the mortgage payments. "I had a similar story with foreclosure too; my mother was foreclosed in 2002," he said. "When my father passed away, our house was foreclosed. She had to sell it before it was foreclosed."

Johnson's mom's home in Middletown was still listed as vacant when I finished reporting the story in 2018. It was one of nearly 40,000 empty homes throughout New Jersey at the time.  

In "Stuck Nation," I share my observations on the origins of our national stuck-ness, my reporting on how it endures and my analysis of what might be required for us to change the course of our historical patterns. I've written this book while our country has been in the convulsions of a global pandemic that had been long predicted by public health experts. Yet the nation and the planet were caught so unprepared that millions would die; and, as of this writing, 115,000 health care workers around the world have perished. 

And in the midst of this once in a century public health crisis, the United States itself — despite the expenditure of trillions of dollars in military procurement and global deployment in the name of protecting democracy — was almost toppled from within by one of the two national political parties, which had been commandeered by a white-supremacist authoritarian.

In "Stuck Nation" I have assembled accounts of individuals and a broader movement willing to put everything at risk to change our national narrative, so that America can begin what the Rev. Dr. William Barber describes as a "Third Reconstruction," one that puts the condition of the people ahead of profits so obscene they can launch a handful of billionaires into space.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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