The Outrage Deficit

The Outrage Deficit

After years of fraying, the US social compact is in danger of coming apart altogether. Will Americans fight back?

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It is no exaggeration to say that in 2011 America’s social compact, already frayed by the right’s decades-long assault on its essential elements, is in danger of coming apart.

The Great Recession was caused by the depredations of Wall Street and enabled by a political class captive to its greed. Those same forces have conspired to deprive the recession’s victims—millions of ordinary Americans who have lost jobs, homes and hope—of comfort and justice.

Where is the outrage?

The truth is, it is hard to find—at least on a scale commensurate with the magnitude of the betrayal we have endured. True, the Tea Party’s calls to slash an additional $100 billion from an already crimped 2011 budget elicited jeers across the leftish blogosphere. And next to the GOP’s spreadsheet of cruelty, President Obama’s blueprint for 2012 appears relatively gentle and sane, with its targeted investments in infrastructure and cuts to fossil fuel subsidies. But let’s not forget the human context in which this budget debate is occurring: 25 million unemployed, 50 million without health insurance, 44 million living in poverty.

That Obama’s plan was greeted with barely a grumble from his liberal base—surprising even the White House, which, according to the New York Times, had braced for a backlash on its left flank—reflects our diminished expectations, not only of Obama but of society.

It is time, as Stéphane Hessel reminds us in this issue, to regain a sense of outrage. In the first English translation of a cri de coeur that has topped bestseller lists for months in France, the 93-year-old former diplomat and hero of the French Resistance recalls the ideals of that movement—which not only struggled against Fascism but for “a true economic and social democracy”—and urges a new generation to seek their fulfillment. “The worst possible outlook is indifference that says, ‘I can’t do anything about it; I’ll just get by,’” he writes. “Behaving like that deprives you of one of the essentials of being human: the capacity and the freedom to feel outraged. That freedom is indispensable, as is the political involvement that goes with it.”

In the United States today, one need look no further than our state legislatures to find ample cause for outrage. As Robert Pollin and Jeffrey Thompson detail, states struggling with dropping revenues and spiking demand for social services are not contemplating such reasonable measures as raising taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent of households, who collected a breathtaking 65 percent of income gains between 2002 and 2007. Instead, state officials—including many newly elected Republicans, but also some Democrats—are taking aim at the benefits and jobs of hospital nurses, schoolteachers, firefighters—public servants who are the backbone of the middle class.

And that’s not all. The public sector unions—the last redoubt of organized labor, the first of “five pillars” of Democratic strength, according to right-wing guru Grover Norquist—have been marked for destruction by a longstanding right-wing campaign now coming to fruition, as Jane McAlevey reports. States like Wisconsin, where Republicans won a “trifecta”—control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the statehouse—are moving to take away the fundamental right of government workers to engage in collective bargaining.

The stakes could hardly be higher for unions and for all progressives. Indignez-vous!

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