It seems to me that the only question regularly given complete attention in Connecticut’s political and media culture is — “What are the conditions that will allow us a competitive edge to create more growth and more wealth?” Just as regularly are reports from the Economic Policy Institute, Connecticut Voices for Children and others pointing out our state’s position as the most sharply unequal in the distribution of wealth, income and the tax burden.
This is nothing new.
New is the widespread recognition that concentrated wealth accrues political power to elites, distorts policy outcomes, and is inconsistent with democratic values. What is new is optimism— the unexpected and exciting sense that the time for despair has passed.
Critical constructive voices, many of them young and loud, are being heard asking instead “What are the conditions that allow people to create lasting mutual bonds as citizens of a democracy and as family members and neighbors in healthy sustainable communities?”
These questions are being forcefully posed: How is it okay that the state cuts higher education while hedge fund billionaires pay taxes at a lower rate than school teachers? How is it okay that corporations get tax breaks while the state reduces funding for mental health and addiction services? How is it okay that investment bankers — who gained unimagined wealth and then, through greed, fraud, and willful blindness crashed the world economy — are now taking over public education systems?
Gov. Dannel Malloy, for example, consistently looks for ways to advance a corporate sponsored “education reform” agenda. Consider his overloading the Board of Regents for Higher Education with officials from the worlds of finance and technology over those with academic, activist, or community perspective.
Malloy’s spirited defense of wealthy residents from paying marginally higher tax rates, that he claimed would “punish their success,” came at the same time he would have allowed the Meriden Center of Middlesex Community College to close. College students at the Meriden Center stood up, and in just as spirited a fashion as the governor, unified local politicians behind them, and kept the college open. These students passionately demonstrated the value of the college in Meriden and in the process reframed the question of whose success was actually being punished.
Precarious and contingent, not secure and valued, are the terms of the day for these bright young people. Most are destined to enter the middle-class professions that they seek; but not with the middle-class standard of living they desire . Many will live pay check to pay check with little or no savings as student debt payments crowd out home ownership. They will hustle multiple and mobile part time jobs while keeping an anxious eye on securing health benefits. Caring for aging parents and their own children, while still paying off student debt, is a squeeze many can anticipate.
A resurgent Connecticut labor movement, responsive to these conditions and often led by millennials, has burst on the scene.
We are raising wages and gaining security for adjunct faculty, fast food and other low- wage workers in child care and home health care services. Meanwhile climate justice and renewable energy activists are being heard on campuses and town halls all over the state just as the Students for a Dream won state legislation on college admissions and access to financial aid for undocumented immigrants. Criminal justice reform linked with anti-racism initiatives have brought a new generation to street protest and civil disobedience in our state as it has across the country.
The youthful character, vibrancy, and success of the Bernie Sanders campaign’s historic challenge to the status quo symbolizes and enacts much of this. Connecticut students, including some of mine from Middlesex, have been active in the democratic socialist’s high visibility, high impact, quest to be President of the United States.
“Preserve and create high wage jobs in ways that reduce inequality, are ecologically sustainable, and strengthen democracy,” read a strikingly comprehensive, if tweet-like, hand-lettered placard resting on the shoulder of a young man at the April Sanders rally on the New Haven Green.
“Only connect!” novelist E.M. Forster’s timeless exhortation to join “passion and prose” and to “live in fragments no longer” came over me as I left the Green after Sanders’s speech with 10,000 others in a casual twilight stroll feeling very social and very empowered.
A 2011 Pew poll reported a higher opinion of socialism than capitalism among those aged 18 to 30. I doubted it, must be a fluke, and paid no attention. Five years later on the New Haven Green, on college campuses, in workplaces and neighborhoods I see this opinion taking positive shape.
Bob Reutenauer is a labor activist, independent scholar, and adjunct instructor of History at Middlesex Community College’s Meriden Center. He lives in Middletown. He joined the youth section of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) while a UConn student in 1982.