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Taking the Fight for the Middle Class to the States | Commentary

By Nick Rathod and Howard Dean Too many families across this country are struggling to make ends meet. They are patriotic Americans, they work hard and all they expect in return is the opportunity for a decent living and the chance for their children to do the same or better. That is the promise prior generations of American politicians committed to. That promise is now being broken.  

It’s no longer true that America has the largest and most prosperous middle class in the world. We used to be proud of that, and rightly so. But, over the past several decades, we have allowed middle-class wealth to be redistributed to the upper echelon of our society, while wages for the majority have stagnated or actually decreased. The typical American household is now worth 36 percent less, adjusted for inflation, than it was a decade ago. Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. children live in poverty.  

In 1965, CEOs at the 350 largest public U.S. firms made 20 times what typical workers made. As of 2013, they made almost 300 times as much. And the trend is only increasing. Since the latest economic recovery began in 2009, 95 percent of the income growth in the economy has gone to the wealthiest 1 percent.  

None of this is happening by accident. Social inequality and the attacks on the American middle class are the consequence of policy changes hatched on behalf of corporate interests and successfully sold to economic think-tanks, politicians and policymakers over a period of decades at the expense of the rest of us.  

For almost forty years, we’ve been hearing how wealth generated at the top will “trickle down” to working Americans, how cuts in the capital gains tax and taxpayer bailouts for public and private corporations would grow the economy and benefit all of us. That has turned out to be a self-serving lie. It’s a cleverly concocted sales job that has already largely gutted the promise of the American dream and threatens to do even more damage if we don’t reverse course now.  

In Washington and in states across the country, we are seeing a full-on assault on middle-class families. In Wisconsin this month, the state legislature called an “extraordinary session” to make it more difficult for working Americans to bargain for fair wages, benefits and workplace safety. In other states, we are seeing an effort orchestrated by far right-wing groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council  and Americans for Prosperity (the Koch brothers) to halt the nationwide push for higher minimum wages, and to attack basic environmental protections, as well as renewable energy. Basic workplace protections like paid sick days and secure retirement accounts are also under assault.  

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama laid out a robust vision for economic protections for working- and middle-class families. But he can do only so much with a Congress in perpetual gridlock. The true battleground for middle-class values is shifting instead to the states, where progressive legislators are fighting tooth and nail to protect wages, ensure gender parity in the workplace, provide good schools for our children and protect the environment.  

The measures these legislators have been working on are popular – as proven by a slew of progressive ballot initiatives that prevailed even in red states in the midterm elections last year – but they have faced relentless opposition from a massively-funded and well-organized network of corporate-backed conservative organizations.  

It is these organizations that have helped cement Republican majorities in many state legislatures – in many cases, spending millions to elect officials whose policy positions do not reflect the will of the citizens whom they represent.  

It’s no longer enough for progressives to simply complain about this. We need to fight back in an organized way. We need to stop ignoring the needs of state legislators fighting on the front lines for the issues we care about most, while we divert funds to the federal campaigns that seem more glamorous and headline-worthy in the short term. We need to match the organizational skill of our opponents and level the playing field so the best ideas win in states both big and small, instead of being buried in an avalanche of special-interest money.  

That’s one reason why the organization I founded over ten years ago, Democracy for America, has long provided early support to progressive state legislative candidates. And it’s why the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) was created: to provide policy, communications and messaging support to state legislators around the country.  

This week, with SiX’s support, state legislative leaders will be traveling to Washington to talk to the White House and members of Congress about how to move forward with their efforts on behalf of the middle class.  

The goal is to inspire a restoration of what was once the greatest and most prosperous middle class in the world. This goes beyond partisan politics. It’s about how we define ourselves as a nation. It’s time for citizens to drown out the special-interest apologists who speak only the language of money. It’ll be a tough fight, and they can’t do it alone. But at least we know what help they need. We owe it to ourselves to make their efforts successful.  

Nick Rathod currently serves as the executive director of States Innovation Exchange (SiX). Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean founded Democracy for America.

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