An author does not ordinarily stay on tour two years after his book is published, but Hedrick Smith is no ordinary author, and Who Stole the American Dream is no ordinary book.
Hedrick Smith is an acclaimed journalist; during his tenure at the New York Times he covered stories from the civil rights movement to the end of the cold war, winning two Pulitzer prizes. During his talk for students and faculty at St. Petersburg College, Clearwater campus as a guest of the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions, Smith revealed that he spent a year researching Who Stole the American Dream, and another year getting the book ready for publication before it went to print in 2012. His book tells the story of how our society went from lifetime employment to temps, from a government by the people to a plutocracy. For the last two years, Smith has been speaking around the country on the issues raised in his book and what Americans can do about it.
At his talk at Clearwater campus, Smith emphasized that this change was not brought on by partisan politics. “This started under the Carter administration with a Democrat controlled Congress,” Smith said. Beginning in the 1970s the balance of power shifted from the middle class and labor to business interests on Capitol Hill. He referred to it as a “revolt of the bosses,” ignited by Lewis Powell in a letter to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Education committee two months before he was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Nixon.
According to Smith, the result of this shift is less social mobility, Americans working harder for less money in real dollars than their grandparents did, and a rigid, polarized political system in which citizens are becoming increasingly disengaged. Smith used a short political quiz to engage his audience. They learned that the United States has fallen behind countries like Germany and Sweden in social mobility, and that America had its highest economic growth rate when the tax rate on top earners was 92 percent. Smith pointed out that business interests have more lobbyists and spend more on elections than labor, environmental, and consumer groups combined. Most importantly, in this election year, Smith revealed that it is now possible to predict election results for more than 90 percent of Congressional districts in the United States because they are so heavily gerrymandered.
Despite the disturbing trends shown by his book, Smith is optimistic. During his talk he pointed out that 16 states have called for Congress to amend the Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a decision that allowed unlimited spending on elections by corporations. He believes that people can take back the American dream.
In his book, Smith outlines a ten step plan to bring back the American middle class. It is an ambitious plan that covers rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure, encouraging innovation, tax reform and more. The most important parts of Smith’s plan is ending money’s grip on American politics and reigniting the spark of civic engagement. These issues represent the biggest challenges to rebuilding the middle class, as voter turnout numbers in the 2014 midterms hit a record low of 36.4 percent nationally, down 5.6 percent from the 2010 midterm elections in the most expensive midterms in history. Nationwide 3.67 billion was spent on the election, in Florida more than 104 million dollars were spent on television ads in the governor’s race alone. The question of how to reignite the civic spark was on the minds of the audience as the floor was opened for questions.
“What can we do?” a student asked. Smith responded that beginning a campaign to add Florida to the list of states asking to amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United would be a great place to start.
This reporter asked Smith, “How do you motivate people to vote?” Smith replied, “You have to persuade people that it is in their self interest to vote. It affects their pocketbooks, and their children’s future.”
Another student asked if voter ID laws are providing a disincentive for young people to vote. “Voter ID laws are tilted against young people. Look at the identification that is accepted versus what they don’t accept. The system is stacked against participation, there should be weekend voting, and allow students to vote on campus,” Smith replied.
A student in the audience asked how Occupy differed from the civil rights movement. Smith explained that “Occupy started the conversation about income inequality; before Occupy the press did not cover the issue. Unlike the civil rights movement, it did not have clear leadership or goals. It took Dr. Martin Luther King eight years from the start of his work in the civil rights movement to his speech in Washington, D.C. You have to hang in there and work hard.”
This reporter asked, “When the president attempted to address the issue of income inequality, he was shouted down with cries of ‘class warfare.’ How should he have combated that narrative?” Smith said, “Tell them that a tax on the rich will not slow growth. Show them the way our country shared prosperity in the 1950s. Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in America, tells us ‘there’s been class warfare, and we’re winning.’ President Obama should have stuck with it.”
“How did the media miss the income inequality story?” this reporter asked. Smith stated, “The income inequality story is a trend story, and today’s media are geared towards event stories. Trend stories evolve over a long period of time, in this case decades. The media failed to make the connection between the individual stories that led to where we are today. Reporting the news requires you to take the long view, and put all the pieces together for your readers. The shorter news cycle, from cable television and the Internet, has affected reporters’s ability to cover big stories. The focus is always on attracting eyeballs or clicks; that’s how they train journalists now. Today’s media cannot see the forest for the trees, and this is very damaging to quality news.”
Smith stayed after the event to talk to students and answer questions. He invited students to follow him into the parking lot and signed bookplates for them before leaving to prepare for The Village Square event on Seminole campus later that evening. See Hedrick Smith speak on income inequality, and how to save the American Dream on the college YouTube page, and read our coverage of the event here.