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Richard Barringer is emeritus professor in the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

It is timely that we consider the state of our nation that, in two and a half centuries, has gone from the embrace of a republic and the general welfare to the pursuit of autocracy and corporatism. In the absence of fundamental reforms, America’s founding principles – and the nation, itself – are today at risk.

John Adams, our second president, believed that all societies produce social and economic elites that, left unchecked, will seek political domination at the expense of everyone else. These aristocracies must be controlled to protect democracy, Adams argued; the marketplace, regulated to avoid its inevitable concentrations of power; and a strong executive branch, created to provide balance, stability, and equity in a continent-wide republic.

Adams’s view finally prevailed in the 20th century, and a “Grand Bargain” was forged from the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt to the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. Free market regulations were created to meet the egalitarian expectations of democracy; and social programs, to distribute the nation’s wealth and power more equitably. Since the early 1980s, this Grand Bargain has been jettisoned by successive governments in Washington. The diamond-shaped income distribution of the Grand Bargain has been replaced by the old, aristocratic European triangle, with exceedingly few at the top of the income and power distribution, and the many – the rest of us – holding up the bottom.

A recent report from the conservative Rand Corporation documents that the “elephant in the room” today is extreme income inequality. And just how big is the elephant? A whopping $50 trillion! Had the more equitable income distribution of the three decades following World War II held, the aggregate income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in 2018 alone, enough to pay every working American in the bottom 90 percent an additional $1,144 a month – every month, every year!

From the late 1940s through the late ‘70s, those at the bottom and middle of the distribution saw their incomes grow at about the same rate as those at the top. It was a time when America built the world’s largest “mixed economy” and most prosperous middle class, an era during which income inequality among income groups shrank steadily.

Economics and policy are all about choice. Today’s upward distribution of income, wealth, and power is the direct result of policies our governments have chosen since the early ‘80s. We chose to cut taxes on billionaires and deregulate the financial industry; to erode the minimum wage, the overtime threshold, and the bargaining power of labor. “For four decades,” Nick Hanauer and David M. Rolf wrote in a Time magazine essay about the Rand report, “we elected political leaders who chose to put the material interests of the rich and powerful above those of the American people. We could build a more equitable, resilient, and prosperous America by choosing to include every American in it!”

In 1863 at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln spoke of preserving “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” In 1981 Ronald Reagan declared, “In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” There is a through-line from Barry Goldwater to Milton Friedman, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Tucker Carlson, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, and to the January 6th desecration of our capitol, the Cathedral of American Democracy.

It is a through-line in terms of their shared policy positions on government, public service, labor, the environment, public health, climate change, rule by minority, control of the courts, racial gerrymandering and injustice, women’s rights, and voting rights; from concern for the general welfare and common good to individual acquisitiveness and corporate aggrandizement.

No dearth exists of thoughtful reforms to this system if only we will act in good faith and with good effect. Most needed today is that the national government must do all it might to demonstrate anew its ability to make a difference in the lives of America’s working and middle class families.


“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln said. And the great British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, author of “A Study of History,” warned that “civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” May heaven help us!