Power of 1% threatens our Democracy

Bob King

The growing concentration of wealth and power is the outcome of a deliberate, right-wing strategy to make corporations and the already wealthy even wealthier.


President, United Autoworkers of America

The strength of our democracy derives from the foundation of our economic and political system in a solid middle class. This is what has distinguished the United States from many other nations: the fact that average, middle-class citizens have the largest voice in the direction our country takes.

The last time our nation was as dominated by the wealthy as it is today, we had the Great Depression. It was only a social and economic justice movement including workers organizing their unions that built a strong middle class.

With the growing concentration of wealth, income and power, our very democracy is in danger if we do not act. It’s the shocking and unacceptable reality that the top 1 percent of Americans now takes in more than 20 percent of the nation’s income.

Compare that to the situation in the late 1970s, when the top 1 percent took in less than 10 percent of total income. From 1979 to 2007, the top 1 percent grabbed 60 percent of all income gains in our country. Most of the rest went to the rest of the top 10 percent. That left 90 percent of us scrambling for just 9 percent of all income growth.

And that’s only income. The concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent is even more extreme. In 2007, the top 1 percent owned nearly 43 percent of the nation’s non-home wealth.

The control of our nation’s wealth by the top 1 percent threatens our democracy because of the outsized influence of money on our political process and political decision making.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case added to the already out-of-control infusion of corporate money from the wealthy into political campaigns.

A government dominated by the 1 percent does not have the same priorities or values as a government controlled by a strong middle class.

The middle class values opportunity for all, which translates into support for strong public education, public libraries, public transportation, public parks, public investment in health care and infrastructure, and other programs that support the common good.

The 1 percent does not care about public education or equal opportunity because they can afford to meet all of their own needs without relying on anything in the public domain.

Therefore, their goal for government policy is to cut public programs and reduce any policies that restrain their accumulation and retention of wealth.

The 1 percent insists on a tax policy that preserves their privilege and advantages rather than investing in the needs of society at large. An example of this is the reduced tax rate for capital gains. This means that people who earn their money from working have to pay a much higher tax rate than people tax policy explains why billionaires can pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries.

Not only is this unfair, it deprives our government of needed Revenue instead of paying to fix roads and bridges, we are cutting taxes for millionaires. Instead of hiring teachers and firefighers and police, and expanding our public services, we are reducing taxes for the 1 percent. Instead of securing Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, we are enabling the extremely rich to become even richer.

The alarming truth is that as the 1 percent gains more wealth and more power, the trend is for inequity to become more pronounced because the priorities of the wealthy dominate our public policy decisions.

To reverse this threat to American democracy, we need to understand what is causing the concentration of wealth into the hands of the 1 percent and the decline of incomes for the middle class. These changes did not come about by accident or some historical inevitability.

The growing concentration of wealth and power is the outcome of a deliberate, right-wing strategy to make corporations and the already wealthy even wealthier. Their tactics include:

  • Moving jobs to wherever they can pay the lowest wages.
  • Undermining the rights of workers to join unions.
  • Undermining workers’ rights to collective bargaining.
  • Suppressing citizens right to vote.
  • Attacking immigrants.
  • Attacking women’s rights.
  • And many more destructive and polarizing tactics.

Unions are the necessary counterweight to the power of wealth. Unions are the most effective anti-poverty weapon ever devised. Before there were unions in the United States, workers earned poverty wages and worked 12 hours a day in dangerous conditions. If previous generations had not fought to organize unions, we never would have had a middle class. Even nonunion workers benefited from unions because unions pulled up wages for everyone.

Unfortunately, today less than 7 percent of the U.S. private sector work-force is unionized, down from one-third. This is not because workers don’t want to join unions. It is because they fear for their jobs if they try to exercise their rights, and they do not have meaningful protection from the federal labor laws.

This means that our generation of trade unionists must rise to meet the challenge to preserve our democracy for coming generations. It is not just our economic well being at stake, but our very democracy.

Each one of us has an obligation to take action. We have to remember our history of courageous, nonviolent, direct action like the Flint Sit Down Strike. We have to remember that only mass action, demonstrations, rallies and marches won workers the right to organize and collectively bargain, won women the right to vote and won the struggle for civil rights for African Americans.

While we certainly have to register and vote, while we certainly have to contribute to and volunteer for political campaigns, we must remember that real progress only comes when we also are willing to build a broad justice movement to fight for justice for all.

We have to fight back against the growing power of the 1 percent in order to rebuild the America we all love: a nation with opportunity and fairness for all.


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