We need to acknowledge the role of economic inequality in creating an environment where many citizens doubt if our democratic institutions are concerned about their plight.
While America has always had problems with elites trying to control wealth and resources, there have been efforts to counter this.
Unions formed to keep workers from being exploited, while legislators developed antitrust laws to keep monopolies from conspiring to suppress competition and laws to combat racism that gave minorities more opportunity to succeed.
Since the economic crisis of 2008, many Americans feel they live in a system where the opportunity only belongs to the few.
The Economic Policy Institute notes that since 2009 average annual wage growth for nominal wage jobs has been less than 4%, and often less than 2%. The annual inflation rate has been about 1.74%. So, adjusted for inflation, wages have been essentially flat.
The same is not true for Wall Street. Corporate income since 2009 has been higher than for most of the time from 1980 to 2008.
In such an environment of economic inequality, resentment and anger can arise. Opportunistic individuals, both politicians and leaders of radical groups, can then try to focus that anger on politically convenient groups, often taking advantage of existing prejudice.
They tell us, "Your economic woes are due to. . . ": immigrants (legal or otherwise), minorities, liberals, intellectuals or fill in the blank with whatever other group to scapegoat. The incendiary speech sprinkled with misinformation over the last four years by the White House stirred resentment in many.
Add the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns where workers and small-business people (those workers who took the chance to be local entrepreneurs) have seen their wages and savings evaporate, and you had a potential powder keg.
All it took to ignite it was the lie that the election was stolen (in the absence of credible evidence). The result is a portion of the public that doesn't believe our economic system works for them wanting to overturn the election results. The assault on Congress Jan. 6 was the outcome...so far.
What is the solution? There are no easy fixes, but one step is legislation that supports working people and small business directly, rather than assuming benefits will trickle down if large corporations and the economy do well as defined by Wall Street. Many people are tired of being trickled down upon.
A few examples of actions that could help:
In the short run, we need a stronger COVID-19 economic stimulus package that puts more money directly into the pockets of low- and middle-income Americans and small business owners.
For a major economic power, the U.S. stimulus packages at 18.3% of this year's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are lower than in weaker economies like Slovenia (24.5%), Sweden (20.9%) and Finland (20.8%). Japan's stimulus amounted to 42.2% of its 2020 GDP.
In the long run, we need a minimum wage that is high enough to assure that a person working 40 hours a week is making a salary above the poverty line. Right now individuals in minimum-wage jobs may need public assistance like food stamps to make ends meet.
Critics may counter that raising the minimum wage will raise unemployment, as businesses will employ fewer workers. The counter to that argument is that employment statistics that count people who are working, but not at a living wage, create a false impression that the economy is doing better than it really is.
Another solution is to stop the steady movement towards right-to-work (for lower wages) laws and other anti-union legislation. The struggles of unions in the early 20th century resulted in many working-class individuals having better incomes with benefits like health insurance and pensions that contributed to the prosperity of our country in the last century.
It is not too late to reverse the tide of resentment. But it will take bold legislative action in support of the average working American and small-business owner to do so. Otherwise we will continue to live in dangerous times because there will be politicians who try to exploit citizen discontent to their own advantage.
Stephen Soltys of Springfield is a retired physician who still teaches medical students at SIU on a voluntary basis.