And as the capitalist rose in public esteem, the worker fell by the wayside. So did his and her power—the “her” here being more than just a requisite nod to gender equality. Women entered the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s not only because of the feminist revolution but also because many families could no longer get by on the stagnating wages of male breadwinners. The average hourly pay of American workers today remains below 1973 levels, and the power of organized workers has ebbed. In the 1950s, more than a third of American workers belonged to unions. Now, just over a tenth do.
Again, not all of the distemper in our politics can be explained by the combined effects of the disempowerment of working Americans, challenges to their standard of living, and a decline in respect for the contributions they make through their labor. The deterioration of civil society that includes, but goes beyond, the decline of unions is also part of the story. So is the loss of social capital among those in economically ailing places that the conservative writer Tim Carney has described as the “unattached, disconnected, and dispossessed.”
But even here, economics matter. Early on in his campaign, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke of “a kind of disorientation and the loss of community and identity.” A friend of religion, Buttigieg certainly saw religious congregations as part of the solution. But his innovative point was how shifts in the economy aggravated the problem. The “very basic human desire for belonging,” Buttigieg said, had, historically, “often been supplied by the workplace … based on the presumption of a lifelong relationship with a single employer.” The decline of secure and durable employment leads to broken bonds and the sense of dispossession Carney describes.
Yoni Appelbaum: How American ends
No one pretends that the economy can go back to the employment patterns of the 1950s or 1960s—and even then, although many workers found stability, others did not. But simply allowing the social unraveling to continue will only aggravate our stresses and deepen the alienation experienced by so many Americans. This is why we need both a politics and an economics of dignity.
Listen carefully, and you will hear the word dignity invoked regularly by progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren; moderates like Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Buttigieg; and labor liberals like Brown. How can it be advanced through public policy?
Gene Sperling, a top economic adviser to both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has gone further than anyone else in the policy world to describe what it would mean to make dignity “the singular end goal for economic policy.”
In an important article in Democracy that will be expanded into a book this spring, Sperling argued that economic dignity rests on three pillars: “the capacity to care for family and experience its greatest joys”; the “pursuit of potential and purpose”; and “economic participation without domination and humiliation.”