THE WIDENING income gap in America points to a distressing aspect of
the close of the 20th century: the lack of a viable, organized and
coherent left in this country.
Traditionally, the left takes up for the little people, the
dispossessed and nonrepresented, against economic forces that grow
wealthy at their expense. A recent study by the Economic Policy
Institute in Washington, D.C., reveals that over the past 20 years,
from the 1970s to the late 1990s, the poorest fifth of the families
lost 6.5 percent of income while the richest posted a 33.3 percent
gain. The richest 1 percent spends as much as the poorest 100 million
of our citizens.
One might think such a redistribution of the wealth would cause an
uprising, but not here, where there's been a radical shift of the
political spectrum to the right.
As president, Ronald Reagan organized extremely conservative and
wealthy forces to turn America back to the 19th century, when
laissez-faire capitalism ran hegemony over the public agenda. As a
result, the public today more often champions opposition to
government than to the multinational corporations that control every
aspect of our lives and redistribute wealth to the rich.
Our political climate is held hostage to advertising that
convinces us that corporations have our interest at heart, while they
control our economic life. Wealthy individuals in these corporations
bankroll groups who oppose taxes and propose selling all government
property. They also fund the National Rifle Association, the Moral
Majority and so-called Christian forces that attempt to institute a
moral system to keep the public in its place and control our personal
This wasn't always the case. In the last
century, a number of organizations challenged laissez-faire
capitalism. Millions of people joined groups to oppose the
concentration of capital and economic power in the hands of giant
trusts. The Socialist Party had an active membership of 70,000 and
polled almost 600,000 votes for its presidential candidate in 1916.
The Progressive Party garnered almost 5 million votes for president
in 1922 on a platform that included the right to organize unions, an
excess-profit tax, public ownership of railroads and utilities,
graduated income tax, women's representation and expanded public
There's a reason there's no left in America today and it goes back
to the corporations and wealthy individuals who opposed these
progressive social programs in the early days of the century.
These corporations calculated that if they could push the United
States into the first world war, they could unite Americans behind
patriotism and destroy their opposition. In addition to employing
legions of strikebreakers, they turned to the government for
The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act outlawed freedom of
speech and association. Raids on Communist offices in 1920 led to the
arrest of 4,000 ``subversives.'' Leaders were jailed, groups shut
down and publications banned.
According to David Kennedy in ``Over Here; the First World War and
American Society,'' patriotic groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the
National Security League, the American Defense Society and the
American Legion backed the ``Great Red Hunt.'' The tactic paid off
for big business and the wealthy. Not only were the reforms stymied,
but wealth was transferred from taxpayers to the wealthy, who gobbled
up war bonds at triple the interest rate in the commercial market.
``The Solid South'' protected its Jim
Crow laws, capitalists protected their interests and industry reined
in labor unions. The backbone of the progressive, socialist movement
was broken, only to be revived briefly with the Depression and
stamped out again with ``witch hunts'' for so-called subversives in
the 1950s led by Joe McCarthy.
When President Clinton pursued a mild reform of the health care
industry that threatened to remove excessive profits from the system,
the proposal was soundly defeated with cries of ``socialized
medicine'' and ``government control.'' Proposals to raise the minimum
wage are attacked as ``government interference'' while Robert Reich,
former secretary of labor, reports that since the start of the
Clinton administration, 40 percent of the increase of the value of
the stock market has gone to the top 1 percent of families and 85
percent to the top 10 percent.
Where are the leftists today? Where are those who call for free health
care or demand that the gasoline and telephone conglomerates be
broken up so the Bay Area can stop paying 10 to 40 cents more per
gallon than the rest of the country?
Where are those who call for appropriating land for nature
preserves, demand economic equality, a 30-hour work week, a six-week
vacation, a ban on firearm sales and an end to dumping toxic
chemicals into the air every year in the Bay Area?
The political debate in the United States today is restricted and
conservative. Unless people begin to see their interests as different
from the interests of the corporations that control our economic and
social lives, America will be held hostage to corporate interests
well into the 21st century.
Don Monkerud is a high-tech writer and novelist living in Aptos.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle