“The faith that anyone could move from rags to riches – with enough guts and gumption, hard work and nose to the grindstone – was once at the core of the American Dream.” –Robert Reich, economist and former U.S. Secretary of Labor
“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” –Dante Alighieri, inscription on the gates of Hell, The Divine Comedy, circa 1321
For those trying to make sense of the horrifying pictures of our neighbors and friends from all over the United States engaged in an armed attack on the U.S. Capitol one should look no further than a topic familiar to this blog. We have witnessed a decades-long, insidious, and relentless erosion of hope among tens of millions of people who no longer have faith in the American Dream. And as Trump’s rise to power demonstrated, hopelessness undermines trust in government, fosters nationalism, fuels division, and may result in further insurrection.
Arresting those responsible for the attack on the Capitol and the masterminds of the well-orchestrated insurrection inside and outside of government would be a first step toward restoring that hope. But it is naive to think that declaring a war on domestic terrorists is enough. President-Elect Biden needs to set aside the conciliatory and centrist instincts that kept both the Man from Hope and the President who promised “hope and change” from living up to their rhetoric. To recapture the imagination of people who have lost faith in government and the Democratic Party, Biden and his party must deliver on big, bold initiatives that address the problems that inspired the insurrection.
A critical first step will sound familiar to readers of our previous WCP posts: the Biden Justice Department must not allow CEOs and corporate officers to walk away scot-free when they break the law. Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump all refused to slap cuffs and orange jumpsuits on corporate miscreants. The Sacklers, who touched off the opioid epidemic that has killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people, the Wall Street CEOs and speculators who devastated Main Streets in working and middle-class communities across the United States, and the Boeing executives responsible for the deaths of 346 passengers flying in planes the company knew were unsafe — all walked away from deeds that would earn street dealers and con men life without parole or even death. Failure to hold them and other white-collar criminals accountable for their actions has undermined public trust in the judicial system and government itself.
To restore that trust, Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland must pursue and prosecute corporate criminals who commit such acts with the same zeal and vigor he used to apprehend, convict, and punish Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The new AG will use his considerable experience and resources to punish domestic terrorists and white supremacists, but he should devote equal attention to the white-collar criminals who have blithely terrorized everyday Americans for far too long. Millions of people who lost their homes since 2008 or their loved ones in the opioid crisis are just waiting for our government to punish the perpetrators of those crimes.
To his credit, President Elect Biden has laid out an ambitious economic stimulus plan that will provide a foundation for the fight to win back the hearts, minds and hopes of working-class America. Income inequality has expanded rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic. As unemployment remains distressingly high, 40 million Americans edge closer to eviction, and another six million are about to lose their homes to foreclosure, but Elon Musk’s wealth jumped $150 billion, making him the world’s richest man. Biden can’t make everyone a billionaire, but he can prevent tens of millions of Americans from being kicked to the curb.
By proposing to extend eviction and foreclsoure protections, he signaled a willingness to address the issue closest to the heart of those who have lost hope. He needs to follow through on his promise to provide financial assistance for renters but also landlords, many of whom have also been devastated by the pandemic nightmare. Unlike Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geitner, who “foamed the runway” on the back end of the last economic crisis for the banks, Biden should focus on easing the landing for homeowners by allowing them to refinance or modify both government-backed and private mortgages. Averting the kind of massive foreclosures and evictions that we saw during the 2007—2009 housing crisis will not only help struggling Americans but also send a loud and clear message to working families that his administration, unlike Obama’s, is on their side.
Biden also offered a strong first step to make work pay by announcing that he would fight to raise the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at an embarrassingly low $7.25 for a decade, to $15 an hour. But he also needs to fulfill a promise that both Clinton and Obama broke, to make it easier for all workers to organize and join unions by instituting card check recognition, banning the use of scabs during labor disputes, and forcing some unions to end discriminatory practices that exclude women and minorities from membership and access to good-paying jobs.
Biden should also support swift enactment of the Warren/Nadler bankruptcy reform legislation. The last time Congress revised the statute, they turned what should be a financial lifeline for consumers, working families, and small businesses into a noose. Biden in fact supported the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform that Limited access to filing, left student loans non-dischargeable and made it tougher on those who wanted to repay part of their debts. Why? Because that’s what the big banks and Wall Street wanted. At minimum Biden should push to allow first mortgage loan modifications during bankruptcy and to make student loan debt dischargeable. These changes would provide hope for students and working and middle-class families buried under the $1.7 trillion in student loan debt that is strangling the economy.
He should also quickly follow through on his promise to create millions of jobs by investing a trillion dollars or more in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Somewhere along the line we forgot that not everyone wants to wear a white collar or sit behind a computer. Millions of men and women want to run back hoes, dig ditches, and sling concrete block. They’re not embarrassed because they get their hands dirty doing backbreaking work. They love it, they want to be respected and honored for it, and they would gladly break their backs for another ten or twenty or thirty years if it meant they could grab their share of the American Dream. Working again will make more disillusioned Americans feel connected again to the rest of us. The bonus is that it would be good politics. After all, if Trump had made good on his infrastructure promises, he might still be president. Biden can’t afford to make the same mistake.
As the 2016 and 2020 elections clearly illustrate, members of America’s working and middle-classes, white, black, and Latinx, are fed up and tapped out. After decades of dashed hopes, they are clearly not in the mood for soaring yet empty rhetoric or bilious bluster. That means Joe Biden can’t just talk about his hardscrabble youth in Scranton, PA, he must deliver on his promises and do it quickly if he wants to improve the lives of those with crushed dreams quickly enough to save the republic.
Marc Dann, DannLaw
Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads DannLaw, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing.