By Robert Reich
How did we got on the wrong road, how do we get on the right one?
Happy new year. I hope it’s a safe and healthy one for you and your family.
Over the last few days I’ve shared with you some facts and thoughts about Trump’s continuing attempted coup. I’ve also suggested that an answer to it (and to Trumpism in general) can be found in Frank Capra’s 1946 iconic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the central question it posed: Do we join together, or let the Mr. Potters of America own and run everything?
Today, the first of 2022, struck me as an appropriate one to focus on how and why America came to be Potterized.
It’s not possible to change the future without understanding the past. The American system isn’t just politics or “the market” as we now experience it. It’s an evolving set of laws, rules, and norms that reflect a shifting structure of power. If we want to alter the road we’re on (and we must), we need to see how we got on it. If we want to alter the current structure of power (and we must), we have to realize how it came to be.
Most importantly, we need to see why we made a giant U-turn from the road we were on during the first three decades after World War II — when America was on the way to building a robust democracy and the biggest middle class the world had ever seen, expanding civil rights and voting rights and creating a more inclusive society — to the road that led us to Trump.
If we figure out how we got from “It’s a Wonderful Life” of 1946 to the Pottersvilles that so many Americans are inhabiting in 2022, we have a fighting chance of getting back on the right road.
My personal journey — and the questions that have dogged me for years — parallels this larger one. I was born in 1946, the same year “It’s a Wonderful Life” was released. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s during civil rights, voting rights, women’s rights, and a burgeoning if not wild-eyed youthful optimism about the future.
I witnessed the U-turn. I saw the system change, but didn’t know why.
In the 1970s, I represented the United States before the Supreme Court, and then I ran the policy team in the Federal Trade Commission. In the 1980s, I watched and chronicled what I saw happening under Reagan and Bush I, and I taught brilliant students what I thought they needed to know about the system. In the 1990s, I advised Bill Clinton when he was a candidate for president, then headed his economic transition team and became his Secretary of Labor. Afterwards, I taught another group of terrific students. I advised Barack Obama. When Trump was elected, I became a staunch critic.
Through it all, I kept asking myself: why is this happening? How did we get on the wrong road? What can be done?
I have some preliminary answers that I’ll be sharing with you over the next weeks and months.
For now, here’s video that was my first attempt to answer these questions as simply as I could. Please have a look. I’m interested in your thoughts and comments.