Many Americans have come to see the political system as rigged. They worry that grass-roots political movements are powerless to overcome entrenched interests, whether those interests are self-serving politicians, large employers or dominant social media platforms. And I understand why this cynicism exists.
For most Americans, progress has slowed to a crawl in recent decades. Income and wealth inequality have both soared. The top 1 percent have pulled away from everyone else, while working-class Americans often struggle to afford the best health care and homes in good school districts.
The clearest sign of our problems is this statistic: In 1980, the U.S. had a typical life expectancy for an affluent country. Today, we have the lowest such life expectancy, worse than those of Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Japan or South Korea, as well as some less rich countries, like China or Chile. The main reason is the stagnation of life expectancy for working-class people.
For nearly a half-century, our economy has failed to deliver on the basic promise of the American dream — that living standards meaningfully improve over time for most citizens.
These themes will probably sound familiar to regular readers of this newsletter. The Morning often covers them because I believe that they shape so many parts of American life, including our polarized politics and angry national dialogue. I have just written a book — my first, called “Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream” — that tries to explain how we got here.
(For the New York Times Audio app, I read part of the introduction, including my own family’s story.)
In today’s newsletter, I want to tell you why I nonetheless emerged from writing the book with hope about the country’s future: In short, the American political system helped create today’s problems, and only the American political system can solve them.
When inequality fell
For all the cynicism about politics today, it is worth remembering how often grass-roots political movements in the U.S. have managed to succeed. In the 1920s and 1930s, the country had a highly unequal economy and a Supreme Court that threw out most policies to reduce inequality. But activists — like A. Philip Randolph, a preacher’s son from Jacksonville, Fla., who took on a powerful railroad company — didn’t respond by giving up on the system as hopelessly rigged.
They instead used the tools of democracy to create mass prosperity. They spent decades building a labor movement that, despite many short-term defeats, ultimately changed public opinion, won elections and remade federal policy to put workers and corporations on a more equal footing. The rise of the labor movement from the 1930s through the 1950s led to incomes rising even more rapidly for the poor and middle class than for the rich, and to the white-Black wage gap shrinking.
One big lesson I took from my research was the unparalleled role of labor unions in combating inequality (a role that more Americans seem to have recognized recently).
There are plenty of other examples of grass-roots movements remaking American life. The civil-rights and women’s movements of the 1960s also overcame long odds, as did the disability-rights movement of the 1970s and the marriage-equality movement of the 2000s.
Other examples come from the political right. In the 1950s and 1960s, a group of conservatives, including Milton Friedman and Robert Bork, began trying to sell the country on the virtues of a low-tax, light-regulation economy. For years, they struggled to do so and were frustrated by their failures. Friedman kept a list of newspapers and magazines that did not even review his first major book.
But the conservatives kept trying — and the oil crisis that began 50 years ago last week eventually helped them succeed. A politician who embraced their ideas, Ronald Reagan, won the presidency and moved the U.S. closer to the laissez-faire ideal than almost any other country.
The conservatives who sold this vision promised it would lead to a new prosperity for all. They were wrong about that, of course. Since 1980, the U.S. has become a grim outlier on many indicators of human well-being. But the conservatives were right that overhauling the country’s economic policy was possible.
This history does not suggest that the political system is hopelessly broken. It instead suggests that the U.S. doesn’t have a broadly prosperous economy largely because the country has no mass movement organized around the goal of lifting living standards for the middle class and the poor. If such a movement existed, it might well succeed. It has before.
The central lesson I took from immersing myself in the past century of the American economy is that it can change, sometimes much more quickly than people expect. When it has changed in a major way, it often has been because Americans have used the political system to change it. The future can be different from the past.
(You can read more about the book here.)
The Latest in Israel
Hamas released two more hostages, Israeli women aged 79 and 85 whose husbands remain captive. The older of the two said she was held in a tunnel but given medical care and hygiene products, the BBC reports.
Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, arrived in Israel. He is expected to push for the release of more hostages and aid to Gaza.
Israeli officials showed raw footage from Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack to a group of reporters, including images of bloodied corpses in a bedroom, brutalized young women and soldiers without heads.
The Latest in Gaza
While Israel delays its ground invasion, it continues to attack from the sky. Israeli officials said the military had hit more than 400 targets in the past 24 hours.
The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says more than 5,000 people have been killed there since the start of the war. The Times could not verify the total.
The aid convoys entering southern Gaza include emergency delivery kits for pregnant women who will likely give birth on their own as hospitals shut down.
U.S. officials are concerned that Israel has not sufficiently prepared for a ground war in Gaza, where Hamas maintains intricate tunnel networks under densely populated areas.
House Republicans heard privately from eight candidates for speaker and a ninth dropped out. They plan to pick a nominee today.
All but two of the candidates — Tom Emmer and Austin Scott — objected to certifying President Biden’s 2020 win.
Jim Jordan’s bid for speaker failed, but anti-establishment outsiders like him appear close to becoming the dominant Republican faction in the House, Nate Cohn explains.
Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, pleaded not guilty to a charge that he plotted to act as an agent of Egypt.
Teachers want to give their students high letter grades out of kindness. But tougher grading helps them improve in the long run, Tim Donahue argues.
Here are columns by Nicholas Kristof on Gazan children and Michelle Goldberg on Palestinian authors.
Health: It’s the season of pumpkin flavor everything. But is pumpkin actually good for you?
Call that crazy? She made a TikTok video about pesto. It inspired people to spill their secrets.
Walkout: Women in Iceland are taking the day off to protest gender inequality.
Lives Lived: The historian Natalie Zemon Davis wrote about peasants, unsung women and Martin Guerre, a 16th-century village impostor recalled in a 1982 movie. She died at 94.
World Series bound: The Texas Rangers crushed their in-state rivals, the Houston Astros, 11-4, to reach their first World Series in over a decade.
Sondheim’s final note: Shortly before Stephen Sondheim’s death two years ago, he gave a team of collaborators permission to complete his last, unfinished musical. The show, “Here We Are,” premiered this week in New York, and it’s a worthy send-off for Sondheim’s career, the Times critic Jesse Green writes. The surrealist story, inspired by two Luis Buñuel films, finds a group of obnoxious high-society types searching for an elusive meal. “It is never less than a pleasure to watch as it confidently polishes and embraces its illogic,” Jesse writes.