First World advice

Arianna Huffington weighs in on the current state of America's middle class and what the government and its citizens can do to guarantee its survival.

Arianna Huffington 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Arianna Huffington 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Although the last three months have brought almost 250,000 jobs per month on average in the United States, job growth is tepid as unemployment remains high – it now exceeds 9 percent – and small businesses continue to struggle. Those hit the hardest by the global financial crisis, which began in 2008, have been America’s middle class. Jobs for this sector have declined at an alarming rate. Is the “American Dream” still possible? Is the middle class an endangered species? Is its demise inevitable, or can it bounce back?
These are questions that Arianna Huffington, cofounder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, which merged with AOL in February, seeks to answer in her recent, provocatively titled book, Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream. The Jerusalem Post caught up with Huffington to discuss the current state of America’s middle class and what not only the US government, but also its citizens can do to guarantee its survival well into the future.
What propelled you to pen Third World America?
Since my childhood in Athens, when I would walk to school past a statue of president [Harry] Truman, I’ve carried the conviction that America was a place you could go to work really hard, make a good living, and even send money back home – America was a country where you could make a better life.
But in recent years, as the evidence mounted about the road we’re on as a country – one that I was sure would prove disastrous if we failed to coursecorrect in time – I was conflicted. I wanted to believe everything would turn out okay, as it has so often in the past. But the stubborn facts kept nagging at me as the warning signs became more and more numerous. I wrote Third World America as a warning, a way of saying that if we don’t change course – and quickly – that could very well be our future.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama stated repeatedly that he “would not forget the middle class.” However, as Third World America demonstrates, he and his administration have not responded to the economic crisis well. What, in your opinion, have they done wrong?
The Obama administration has done a lot of good things – and also made a lot of mistakes. The biggest mistake was not putting jobs front and center – not directing the same urgency to rescuing the middle class and rebuilding our communities that we directed to rescuing Wall Street and the big banks.
Why is there no sense of urgency coming out of Washington in relation to the serious difficulties middle-class Americans have been experiencing since the global financial crisis began? In your opinion, who bears the greatest responsibility for the lack of urgency regarding their predicament?
There’s shared responsibility. To start, talking about our financial crisis with the Obama administration is like beaming back to the second century and discussing astronomy with Ptolemy. Obama’s senior economic team is convinced we live in a bank-centric universe, which results in a lack of urgency when it comes to addressing the problems of those Americans not on Wall Street.
The media also bear responsibility. For too long, reporters for the big media outlets have been fixated on novelty, always moving too quickly on to the next big score – or the next big “get.”
Paradoxically, in these days of instant communication and 60-minute news cycles, it’s actually easier to miss information we might otherwise pay attention to.
That’s why we need stories like the difficulties facing the middle class to be covered and re-covered, again and again – until they filter up enough to become part of the cultural bloodstream.
In Chapter 5, entitled “Saving Ourselves From a Third World Future,” you offer a number of solutions. Could you outline the three most imperative things America needs to do in order to prevent the demise of its middle class?
First, we need a complete reboot of the way we finance our elections. The most effective means of restoring the integrity of our government – which is to say, ensuring its ability to represent all Americans, not just wealthy special interests – is through the full public financing of political campaigns.
Second, fixing our broken educational system is vital to rescuing America’s middle class and preserving our standing as a First World nation. Education is the most basic tool for changing one’s life and circumstances.
Third, to address America’s job crisis, we should have the federal government offer direct aid to local and state governments. Congress and the president should also push through a muscular plan to create public-service jobs. This would be an opportunity to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure and in the process create millions of high-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced.
Today, all Western democracies are suffering from not only economic problems, but also political ones. Is the underlying cause solely a lack of leadership, or has democratic culture itself changed? In other words, would you go so far as to say that part of the reason America is in such bad shape today is that it’s failing to defend itself by abandoning its founding principles?
I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say we have abandoned our founding principles, but I think it’s impossible to acknowledge our nation’s failings without also acknowledging that we have strayed from the path. The evidence is all around us: Our industrial base is vanishing, taking with it the kind of jobs that have formed the backbone of our economy for more than a century; our education system is in shambles, making it harder for tomorrow’s workforce to acquire the information and training it needs to land good 21st-century jobs; our infrastructure – roads, bridges, water, and electrical systems – is crumbling; our economic system has become corrupted; our political system is broken, in thrall to a small financial elite using the power of the checkbook to control both parties.
You have been pigeonholed by both conservatives and liberals. For example, conservatives claim you’re a liberal who supports the Democratic Party, and liberals like to refer to your conservative, Republican past even though you ran as an independent candidate for governor of California in 2003. While I’ve heard you state repeatedly that America needs to go “beyond Left and Right,” is that a realistic prospect given the polarization of politics in Washington and its foremost players at present? And what initiatives can Americans take to encourage their politicians to go beyond this persisting gridlock?
I’ve made the point that looking at American politics through the Right-versus- Left prism is obsolete and does not really deepen our understanding of what’s happening. One of the most interesting things that has happened in the last few years is that the American public has shifted. What used to be considered left-wing positions – on health care, on bringing the troops home from Iraq, on doing something about global warming, on corporate responsibility – are now solidly mainstream positions. Given that, to continue looking at them through the prism of Left versus Right is lazy.
The answer to the second question begins with what I mentioned earlier: The one reform that makes other reforms possible is campaign finance reform. No more lobbyists sitting in House and Senate offices literally writing tailor-made loopholes into laws. No more corporate welfare giveaways buried in huge spending bills. No more dangerous relaxation of safety regulations that can be traced to campaign donations. Just candidates and elected officials beholden to no one but the voters.
What important lessons – if any – can other nations learn from Third World America?
This moment in history demands that we stop waiting on others – especially others living in Washington – to solve the problems and right the wrongs of our times. There is no doubt: Times are hard. The “new normal” is a punch in the gut, a slap across the face and a pitcher of icy water dumped on our heads. It’s a chill running up our national spine.
The question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to shut off the lights, curl up in a ball and slap a victim sticker on our foreheads? Or are we going to shake off the blows, take a deep breath, hitch up our pants and head back into the fray? We have to ask ourselves: What are we going to do to help ourselves – and one another?