It's a jarring phrase, one that is deeply contrary to our national conviction that America is the greatest nation on Earth — as well as the richest, the most powerful, the most generous, and the most noble. It also doesn't match our day-to-day experience of the country we live in — where it seems there is, if not a chicken in every pot, then a flat- screen TV on every wall. And we're still the world's only military superpower, right?
So what, exactly, does it mean — "Third World America"?
For me, it's a warning: a shimmering foreshadowing of a possible future. It is the flip side of the American Dream — an American nightmare of our own making.
Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream
By Arianna Huffington
Hardcover, 288 pages
List price: $23.99
I use it to sum up the ugly facts we'd rather not know, to connect the uncomfortable dots we'd rather not connect, and to articulate one of our deepest fears as a people — that we are slipping as a nation. It's a harbinger, a clanging alarm telling us that if we don't correct our course, contrary to our history and to what has always seemed to be our destiny, we could indeed become a Third World nation — a place where there are only two classes: the rich ... and everyone else. Think Mexico or Brazil, where the wealthy live behind fortified gates, with machine gun-toting guards protecting their children from kidnapping.
A place that failed to keep up with history. A place not taken down by a foreign enemy, but by the avarice of our corporate elite and the neglect of our elected leaders.
The warning lights on our national dashboard are flashing red: Our industrial base is vanishing, taking with it the kind of jobs that have formed the backbone of our economy for more than a century; our education system is in shambles, making it harder for tomorrow's workforce to acquire the information and training it needs to land good twenty-first-century jobs; our infrastructure — our roads, our bridges, our sewage and water and transportation and electrical systems — is crumbling.
And America's middle class, the driver of so much of our creative and economic success — the foundation of our democracy — is rapidly disappearing, taking with it a key component of the American Dream: the promise that, with hard work and discipline, our children will have the chance to do better than we did, just as we had the chance to do better than the generation before us.
Nothing better illustrates the ways in which we have begun to travel down this perilous road than the sorry state of America's middle class. So long as our middle class is thriving, it would be impossible for America to become a Third World nation. But the facts show a different trajectory. It's no longer an exaggeration to say that middle-class Americans are an endangered species.
"The middle class has been under assault for a long time," President Obama said early in 2010 while announcing a series of modest proposals to bolster what he called "the class that made the twentieth century the American century."
During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama's guiding principle was that he "would not forget the middle class." Indeed, David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, told me after the election, "We held that North Star in our sights at all times. We made many mistakes along the way, but we always remembered that we were running because, as Barack put it, the dreams so many generations had fought for were slipping away." Well, you'd need a pretty powerful telescope to see that North Star these days.
According to Plouffe, Obama and his team decided that he should make a run for the White House because "the core leadership had turned rotten" and "the people were getting hosed." But the extent to which the people have continued to be hosed and the middle class assaulted becomes shockingly clear when the baby steps taken to bail out Main Street are compared to the all-hands-on deck, no-expenses-spared bailout of Wall Street. In fact, the economic devastation of the middle class is a lot more threatening to the long- term stability of the country than the financial crisis that saw trillions of taxpayer dollars funneled — either directly or through government guarantees — to Wall Street.
The middle class is teetering on the brink of collapse just as surely as AIG was in the fall of 2009 — only this time, it's not just one giant insurance company (and its banking counterparties) facing disaster, it's tens of millions of hardworking Americans who played by the rules. This country's middle class is going the way of Lehman Brothers — disappearing in front of our eyes. A decline that began decades ago has now become a plummeting free fall.
Just how bad things have gotten was succinctly — and bracingly — summed up by Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel charged with monitoring the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP): "One in five Americans is unemployed, underemployed or just plain out of work. One in nine families can't make the minimum payment on their credit cards. One in eight mortgages is in default or foreclosure. One in eight Americans is on food stamps. More than 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month. The economic crisis has wiped more than $5 trillion from pensions and savings."
The Bush and Obama administrations bailed out America's big banks because it suddenly became imaginable that the financial system might collapse. When we take a hard look at what's happening to America's middle class, its disappearance suddenly becomes not only imaginable but, unless drastic action is taken, inevitable.
Excerpted from Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream. Copyright 2010 by Arianna Huffington. Reprinted by Permission of Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc., New York.