Local Democrats: We’ve yet to achieve greater equality Lincoln envisioned
Last November marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln began his address by looking back at the American Revolution, which he said was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Then, in commemorating the men who died at Gettysburg, he referred to “the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
The equality that Lincoln and those who died at Gettysburg were fighting for was racial equality. But the abolition of slavery was only an important step toward the more complete equality that was the “great task remaining before us.”
With the exception of the imposition of Jim Crow laws on the freed slaves in the South, subsequent history moved in the direction of fulfilling the more complete equality that Lincoln envisioned. The Progressive Era brought such reforms as trust busting, the eight-hour day, and the graduated income tax. The New Deal brought Social Security, the Glass-Steagal Act to control banking and, most important, the Wagner Act, which encouraged the organization of unions. The Great Society, besides its civil rights legislation, initiated the War on Poverty and Medicare.
As a consequence of these enactments, between World War II and the 1970s, income inequality declined greatly. This was in large part due to the impact of unionization, which succeeded in raising the income of working people to a height they had never enjoyed before, and to the success of such New Deal legislation as the Glass-Steagal Act in controlling the excesses of Wall Street.
Unfortunately, this all changed in 1980. Ronald Reagan’s election signaled the rise of an extreme conservative agenda. The goal of this far-right program was to reverse the successes of the accumulated reforms of the past century. This meant attacking unions, reducing taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, and passing trade agreements such as NAFTA that shipped well-paying jobs overseas, decimating unions that had represented those workers.
The results were as intended. Today the U.S. ranks fourth highest in wealth inequality. Only Russia, Ukraine and Lebanon have greater inequality. The wealthiest 400 Americans own as much wealth as the lower 62 percent of the nation. According to the Congressional Budget Office, between 1979 and 2005 middle incomes went up 21 percent while those of the top 100th of 1 percent increased 480 percent. In Japan, CEO pay is 11 times that of a worker. In Germany, it is 13 times. The U.S. rate is 475 times that of the average worker. Today 46 million Americans live in poverty.
This concentration of wealth is made even worse by these same people using their riches to buy lobbyists and politicians who are paid to assure that tax laws, corporate and financial regulations, and trade agreements are written to increase their wealth and power even more.
All this was made even worse by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Lincoln succeeded in freeing the slaves, but the larger equality that he foresaw has yet to occur.
Ted Kinnaman of Janesville is vice chairman of elections for the Democratic Party of Rock County. Readers can contact him by email at email@example.com.