It’s a fight that’s been going on for centuries—and it continues to this day.
From the movement to abolish slavery to the campaign to end child labor, from the Progressive Era push for a fairer tax system to the decades-long quest to create and then strengthen the social safety net, from the effort to protect lives from dangerous cars and chemicals to today’s urgent struggle to curb climate change—much of our history has been a battle between ordinary Americans mobilizing to build a fairer, safer, stronger country, and political or corporate elites resisting reform in order to preserve a skewed status quo that serves their interests. These elites rely on a set of lies that they’ve recycled, sometimes for decades, sometimes longer. Again and again, industries deny problems—smoking doesn’t cause cancer; cars don’t cause pollution; greedy pharmaceutical companies aren’t responsible for the crisis of opioid addiction—long after evidence to the contrary is widely available.
Regular people have won plenty of victories. The core of the New Deal, which created the foundations of social support and economic opportunity we rely on today, has endured for nearly a century thanks to a popular movement that has rallied support behind it. Far fewer Americans die on the roads than used to be the case, because we required automakers to build safer cars. Fewer workers are injured, sickened, or killed on the job thanks to workplace safety regulations, and minimum wage laws mean more workers are economically secure. Our kids breathe cleaner air and drink cleaner water than our parents and grandparents did. We’ve dramatically cut poverty, especially among the elderly, and steadily expanded access to healthcare. We’ve made it much harder for businesses or the government to single out women, people of color, and LGBTQ Americans for unfair treatment.
But all of these advances have been impeded by a set of corporate lies that try to gaslight us, to tell us problems aren’t problems, and if they’re problems, it might be our own fault, and if we try to fix them, we’ll only make it worse. So we wrote a handbook to help you combat these brazen falsehoods. Once you see their game plan, you can’t unsee it.
“The federal government fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”—President Ronald Reagan, 1988
Every advance has been a struggle, and waves of progress have often been followed by periods in which the forces of power and privilege have reasserted control. In the decades after the New Deal and World War II, the United States created an infrastructure of opportunity that built the world’s largest middle class and broadly shared the gains of a long economic boom. Of course, given our country’s despicable history of racism, systemic exclusion, and institutional oppression, communities of color, including Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic Americans were and continue to be largely left out of this prosperity, often by design. For white Americans, the economy during this period was characterized by a striking degree of equality. In the years from 1947 to 1973, under presidents of both parties, real wages for all Americans rose by 81 percent, while wages for the top 1 percent rose by less than half of that.
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By the 1970s, though, corporations and their political allies began to organize aggressively to restore their supremacy. They funded a cadre of “think tanks,” university programs, advocacy groups, and media organizations to flip the script and portray “big government” as the villain and themselves as the true victims. “The federal government fought a war on poverty, and poverty won,” President Ronald Reagan intoned in 1988, influentially but wrongly, as he began weakening the nation’s investments in New Deal policies that for decades had leveled the playing field between corporations and consumers, owners and employees, the very wealthy and the rest of us.
Today, the income and wealth gaps that narrowed after World War II have widened again. Income inequality increased by 20 percent between 1980 and 2016, according to Pew Research. The top 1 percent’s share of all taxable income has surged from 9 percent in 1975, to 22 percent in 2018; the bottom 90 percent have seen their income share fall, from 67 percent to 50 percent. A RAND Corporation study found that a stunning $50 trillion in wealth had been distributed upward, away from the paychecks of the bottom 90 percent of families, between 1975 and 2020, due to tax policies favoring the wealthy and wage stagnation among the non-rich. Racial wealth gaps are particularly staggering. The net worth of a typical white family is 10 times that of Black families, and in 2019, the median wealth of a Latino household was 9 percent of the median white household’s wealth.
In order to redistribute wealth upward, powerful corporate elites have waged an alarmingly successful campaign to establish the terms of the economic debate with a set of now-familiar edicts: The free market knows best and should be left to do its thing; all government regulation is creeping socialism; programs like welfare and the minimum wage tend to hurt, not help, those they aim to benefit. Many of these nostrums weren’t new even decades ago. They were dusted off from the centuries-long tradition of rhetoric used by corporate and political elites to fight off reform.
“Employers do not deliberately allow work conditions to exist which cause injury or illness. Safety is good business.”—US Chamber of Commerce newsletter, 1973
Some of these lies are, frankly, too absurd to take seriously. “Ensuring seniors have healthcare will inevitably lead to communism.” “Global warming is great for the planet!” You get the idea. But most are a little different. Most have been effective because, at least on the surface, they offer a civic-minded, reasonable-sounding justification for positions that in fact are motivated entirely by self-interest. “We’d love to pay our workers a living wage, but then we’d have to lay people off, which no one wants!” “We really want to build safer cars, so it’s best if you just leave us alone to do it instead of requiring it.” And so on. It doesn’t matter much if the argument holds up under scrutiny—just by existing, these false claims can suggest the existence of a good-faith debate. Once that happens, most people don’t have time to figure out who’s right.
As Americans try to fight their way through this blizzard of lies, it can help to notice that myriad falsehoods can be categorized into some common, overlapping stories. False stories, fake stories, but sometimes beguiling stories nonetheless. Soothing but toxic fairy tales.
Our book identifies the Big Six. First: It’s Not A Problem!
“It is but the natural course of mining events that men should be injured and killed by accidents.”—West Virginia Governor G.W. Atkinson, 1901
The first step is denial. For whatever harmful practice they want to defend, from slavery to smoking to global pollution, defenders of the status quo simply say the problems don’t exist, or are overblown, or that we don’t really know for sure. Sometimes they go further, claiming that it’s not just not a problem, it’s actually a good thing:
“Never before has the Black race of Central Africa…attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”—Senator and former vice president John Calhoun of South Carolina, 1837
Yes, that John Calhoun.
When finally forced to admit a problem, they default to a few reliable comebacks. One favorite: The Free Market Can Fix It! Sure, sometimes … stuff happens. But our free enterprise system ensures that businesses will make things right. No need for worker safety laws, since “safety is good business,” the US Chamber of Commerce told Congress in 1973. Civil rights laws applied to private business? No need! Patrons would put places that discriminated out of business. (Spoiler alert: In the Jim Crow South, those places flourished.)
“What collectivists refuse to recognize is that it is in the self interest of every businessman to have a reputation for honest dealings and a quality product.”—Future Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, 1963
Or, they say It’s Not Our Fault—It’s Your Fault! On-the-job injuries? Blame it on worker carelessness. Consumer safety issues? All about lazy, bargain-hunting consumers. The 2008 housing crash? The fault of greedy people who wanted homes they couldn’t afford and do-gooder advocates who forced banks to make loans to people who didn’t deserve them.
“Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?”—CNBC host Rick Santelli, 2009
If reform efforts begin to gain traction, they focus on what they say would be the catastrophic consequences of actually taking action to fix the problem. For instance: It’s a Job Killer! From the earliest efforts to improve workplace safety and pay levels, going back to the nineteenth century, industry leaders have lamented, insisted, threatened, or howled that any proposal will wind up costing jobs and tanking the economy. Public health and environmental protections that we today take for granted would have killed whole industries by now if the wolf-crying opponents had been correct. Remember what they said about the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act?
“It is a job killer…It makes it more expensive to hire people, so businesses say we won’t hire people.”—Oklahoma Representative Ernest Intook, 1992
Here’s a related objection: You’ll Only Make Things Worse! Trying to fix the problem, they warn, will backfire, bringing unintended consequences that often hurt the people you’re trying to help. Welfare hurts the poor. The minimum wage is bad for workers. Women’s suffrage will lure women out of the home, meaning men won’t like them anymore—and children will die! And so on.
“The consequences of minimum wage laws have been almost wholly bad, to increase unemployment and to increase poverty.”—Economist Milton Friedman, 1970s (exact date unknown)
If all else fails there’s the old reliable: It’s Socialism! As you’ll see, every president going back to FDR who has pushed for a fairer society has been trashed as a socialist, or at the very least, a dupe imposing a socialist agenda driven by others. Likewise, almost any major effort to protect workers or the public from dangerous, dirty, or unhealthy products or practices has earned the socialist label.
“Don’t ask me to get inside the mind of a liberal, progressive, socialist, Marxist like President Biden.”—Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, 2021
Times are changing. The 2008 financial crash and the Great Recession that followed, not to mention the existential threat of climate change, have permanently and fundamentally undermined the notion that corporations and the free market can be left to regulate themselves. A series of massive corporate tax cuts has done little to spur jobs and broad-based growth, discrediting trickle-down economics. Meanwhile, decades-long economic inequality and the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed a badly frayed safety net. It’s now clearer than ever that these arguments—some advanced by corporations and their allies for over a century—almost never held water. Over and over, the disasters they predicted somehow never came to pass.
All of this has ignited a new movement for a government that does more to level the playing field and ensure everyone has a chance to prosper—one that can update the New Deal and the Great Society for the 21st century. For that movement to succeed, we need to bury these lies once and for all. To do that, we need to understand how they work: how the same clever-sounding myths that have been hammered into our heads almost since the Founding are constantly updated and recycled; how they use denial, uncertainty, blame-shifting, and a phony pose of civic responsibility; and how they have almost always been proven false by reality.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Building a fairer, stronger country is urgent for its own sake. At a time when our democracy is under assault, it may also be the only way to restore faith that our system can still respond to big problems and improve Americans’ lives in concrete ways.
If we can see through these howlers once and for all, we can rob them of the power they’ve held for much too long to shape public opinion. Once that happens, we can start building a country that truly provides a fair chance for everyone.