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30 years ago, there was such hope in the air | Column
Mideast peace seemed possible. The Soviet Union had imploded. America was preeminent in the world. Most Americans still trusted our government. Most of the media still reported the news as accurately as it could. We still felt invulnerable to terrorism.
 
In 1993, President Bill Clinton presides over White House ceremonies marking the signing of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, in Washington.  (AP Photo/FILE/Ron Edmonds)
In 1993, President Bill Clinton presides over White House ceremonies marking the signing of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, in Washington. (AP Photo/FILE/Ron Edmonds) [ RON EDMONDS | AP ]
Published Oct. 24, 2023

As Israel readies a ground invasion of Gaza — which in my view is likely to be a dreadful mistake, substituting revenge for strategy and killing many more thousands of innocent men, women and children — my mind goes back 30 years to a world that seemed far simpler.

I was in the White House Rose Garden in September 1993 when Bill Clinton hosted the now-iconic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat after they signed the Israeli-PLO peace accord.

Robert Reich
Robert Reich [ Provided ]

We were so optimistic 30 years ago.

Coincidentally, I just had a reunion with about 60 members of my top team at the Department of Labor to mark 30 years since we came together. They’d been assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, other political appointees and senior career professionals.

I was touched that so many showed up from all over the country.

I was moved by their memories of working together — how important it was to them, how much it still means to them. And I was stirred by their affection for one another — still strong after three decades.

I’m heartened by how many have stayed in the fight — one now a member of Congress, another a member of the New York Legislature, several running nonprofits, many of them political activists in their states, a significant number labor union officials and organizers.

Seeing them all together — feeling their warmth and energy, still strong after three decades — reminded me how fortunate I was to have such a dream team. They were talented, dedicated, hardworking and in it for the right reasons — to protect working Americans, raise their wages, improve their well-being.

I was also reminded of how much we got done. We implemented the Family and Medical Leave Act. The School-to-Work Act. We increased the minimum wage. Attacked sweatshops. Forced big companies to police their supply chains against subcontractors that violated labor laws. Improved worker health and safety. Protected worker pensions.

I also remember how unique that time was.

The Soviet Union had imploded. America was preeminent in the world. Most Americans still trusted our government. Most of the media still reported the news as accurately as it could. We still felt invulnerable to terrorism.

Republican lawmakers were mostly sane. They respected the Constitution. It was inconceivable that they’d simply reject an outcome of a presidential election they didn’t like.

The political choice in America was between liberal and conservative views of what should be done, not between democracy and fascism. Although Congress changed hands in January 1995 and Newt Gingrich took over the House, progress was still possible. After all, we raised the minimum wage when both chambers were controlled by Republicans.

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But I also recalled the beginnings of a tempest that would become a terrible storm, posing the greatest threat to democracy since the Civil War.

Part of that storm was brought on by Chinese accession to the World Trade Organization — eventually resulting in a flood of low-cost goods into the United States that gutted much of American manufacturing and the good, unionized jobs that went with it.

Part was brought on by the deregulation of Wall Street, which led to a financial crisis. Deregulation also boosted the Street’s power to demand corporations show ever-higher profits.

Part was the result of corporate bashing of unions, outsourcing jobs abroad and moving to so-called “right-to-work” states, where it was harder to unionize.

A final part was the rising tide of corporate and Wall Street money into politics, which fueled all the other parts.

All of this caused the wages of workers without college degrees to stagnate for the next 30 years.

That stagnation eventually would have grave political consequence.

Soon after the 1994 midterms, I gave a speech in which I warned:

“My friends, we are on the way to becoming a two-tiered society composed of a few winners and a larger group of Americans left behind, whose anger and disillusionment are easily manipulated. Once unbottled, mass resentment can poison the very fabric of society — the moral integrity of society — replacing ambition with envy, replacing tolerance with hate. Today the targets of that rage are immigrants and welfare mothers and government officials and gays, and an ill-defined counterculture. But as the middle class continues to erode, who will be the targets tomorrow?”

At our reunion, my team reminded me that the White House was upset by the speech. Clinton’s political advisers thought it too downbeat and worried it might be interpreted as a criticism of the administration.

The storm I warned of is now upon us.

Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It.” Read more from Robert Reich at robertreich.substack.com.

©2023 Robert Reich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency LLC.