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Over the past few years, it’s become an article of faith among progressives that we’re living through a second Gilded Age — you know, an era in which great fortunes accrue to powerful business leaders and institutions and the nation’s wealth is concentrated at the very top. In the past few months, as Republicans have proposed budgets that would cut taxes still further on the backs of the middle and working class, progressives have hammered away at the statistics — like that the top 1 percent of Americans hold 34.6 percent of the nation’s wealth; the bottom 90 percent, just 26.9 percent.
But the growth in inequality and decline of the middle and working class, though exacerbated by Bush administration economic policies, isn’t a recent phenomenon — it’s been in progress for decades. Which begs the question: why on earth did it take so long for the Left to take notice? How did we end up with inequality reaching levels not seen since before the Depression without waging anything approximating a real fight against it? Surely the trends of decreasing social mobility and increasing social stratification in the supposed “land of opportunity” call for serious resistance — where has it been? As thoroughly reprehensible as the Right’s slavishness to wealth and power is, the fact that it took a financial meltdown for economic justice to even begin to replace welfare reform on the political agenda suggests progressives need to do a bit of navel-gazing.