by Andrew Hanauer
In a fascinating article in The Atlantic, Matthew Stewart writes about “The 9.9%,” which he agues are a powerful force in American society that may be perpetuating income inequality as they cluster in wealthy zip codes with good schools and other advantages that they pass on to their own children. As the director of an organization that fights polarization in American society, this passage caught my eye:
“The raging polarization of American political life is not the consequence of bad manners or a lack of mutual understanding. It is just the loud aftermath of escalating inequality. Wealth always preserves itself by dividing the opposition.”
Stewart is right on both counts: when you graph polarization and income inequality over the past 100 years, they rise and fall together, and intentionally divisive politics have been a hallmark of American history. From Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1600’s to Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, certain powerful actors have always divided poorer Americans across racial lines to preserve power. “White landowners were terrified to see black and poor white workers united in any cause,” reads the plaque on Bacon’s Rebellion at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. In “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander dedicates significant attention to this phenomenon in her concluding chapter, arguing that the lack of a bottom-up cross-racial coalition in the aftermath of the civil rights movement was the movement’s biggest failure.
These dynamics lead us to where we are today: increased racial tension, a disappearing middle class, a struggling woking-class (both black and white), record levels of income inequality and a hyper-polarized electorate.
The way out is to build a new movement that breaks down these intentionally created divides – not by whitewashing the racism of our past or praising ourselves for disagreeing with civility over political issues, but by meaningfully addressing the serious challenges our country faces: opioids, poverty, racism. That’s what my organization – the One America Movement – is doing, with the partnership of amazing organizations like Beyond Conflict.
“We are the 100%” sounds trite, but it may be our only way forward. Income inequality is a daunting challenge but recognizing that it is deeply linked to polarization helps show us the path ahead. We must build a movement that welcomes everyone to the table, so long as they’re willing to work for the needs of all of us, and not just the 1% or the 9.9% of the people who look, worship, live or vote like they do.
Andrew Hanauer is the Director of the One America Movement. You can follow him on twitter – @AndrewHanauer