It’s a paradox.
Almost all the economic gains are still going to the top, leaving America’s vast middle class with stagnant wages and little or no job security. Two-thirds of Americans are working paycheck to paycheck.
Meanwhile, big money is taking over our democracy.
If there were ever a time for a bold Democratic voice on behalf of hardworking Americans, it is now.
Yet I don’t recall a time when the Democratic Party’s most prominent office holders sounded as meek. With the exception of Elizabeth Warren, they’re pussycats. If Paul Wellstone, Teddy Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, or Ann Richards were still with us, they’d be hollering.
The fire now is on the right, stoked by the Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch, and a pocketful of hedge-fund billionaires.
Today’s Republican firebrands, beginning with Ted Cruz, blame the poor, blacks, Latinos, and immigrants for what’s been happening. They avoid any mention of wealth and power.
Which brings me to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Some wonder about the strength of her values and ideals. I don’t. I’ve known her since she was 19 years old, and have no doubt where her heart is. For her entire career she’s been deeply committed to equal opportunity and upward mobility.
Some worry she’s been too compromised by big money – that the circle of wealthy donors she and her husband have cultivated over the years has dulled her sensitivity to the struggling middle class and poor.
But it’s wrong to assume great wealth, or even a social circle of the wealthy, is incompatible with a deep commitment to reform – as Teddy Roosevelt and his fifth-cousin Franklin clearly demonstrated.
The more relevant concern is Hillary Clinton’s willingness to fight.
Politicians usually seek to appeal to as many voters as possible, eschewing controversy. After a devastating first midterm election, her husband famously “triangulated” between Democrats and Republicans, seeking to find a middle position above the fray.
But these times are different. Not in ninety years has America harbored a greater concentration of wealth at the very top. Not since the Gilded Age of the 1890s has American politics been as corrupted by big money as it is today.
If Hillary Clinton is to get the mandate she needs for America to get back on track, she will have to be clear with the American people about what is happening and why – and what must be done.
For example: Wall Street is still running the economy, and still out of control.
So we must resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act and bust up the biggest banks, so millions of Americans don’t ever again lose their homes, jobs, and savings because of Wall Street’s excesses.
Also: Increase taxes on the rich in order to finance the investments in schools and infrastructure the nation desperately needs.
Strengthen unions so working Americans have the bargaining power to get a fair share of the gains from economic growth.
Limit the deductibility of executive pay, and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Oppose trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership designed to protect corporate property but not American jobs.
And nominate Supreme Court justices who will reverse “Citizens United.”
I’m not suggesting a long list. Democratic candidates too often offer mind-numbing policy proposals without explaining why they’re important.
She should use such policies to illustrate the problem, and make a vivid moral case for why such policies are necessary.
In recent decades Republicans have made a moral case for less government and lower taxes on the rich, based on their idea of “freedom.”
They talk endlessly about freedom but they never talk about power. But it’s power that’s askew in America –concentrated power that’s constraining the freedom of the vast majority.
Hillary Clinton should make the moral case about power: for taking it out of the hands of those with great wealth and putting it back into the hands of average working people.
In these times, such a voice and message make sense politically. The 2016 election will be decided by turnout, and turnout will depend on enthusiasm. The largest party in America isn’t the Republican or Democratic Parties; it is the Party of Non-Voters, who have become so cynical about politics they’ve ceased voting.
If she talks about what’s really going on and what must be done about it, she can arouse the Democratic base as well as millions of Independents and even Republicans who have concluded, with reason, that the game is rigged against them.
The question is not her values and ideals. It’s her willingness to be bold and to fight, at a time when average working people need a president who will fight for them more than they’ve needed such a president in living memory.
This is a defining moment for Democrats, and for America. It is also a defining moment for Hillary Clinton.