America is in crisis — and it’s not just from the coronavirus that is plaguing our communities.
We are in the midst of an epidemic of hatred that has left most of us feeling hopeless and exhausted. There are social, cultural and racial explanations for our predicament. But evidence suggests that a feeling of economic humiliation, which manifests as fear and a politics devoid of empathy, is at the core of our divisions.
The American Dream is dying for the average worker, and the middle class is shrinking. At the same time, special interests are increasingly able to rig the economy in their own favor, stockpiling wealth like dragons sitting atop piles of gold. That leaves us susceptible to a hate industry that gains influence by stoking hyper-partisan contempt and division.
To help Americans understand how we came to this troubling state and how to escape it, David began researching the source of this burning hatred. The result is "Stars and Strife," a documentary that is available today on demand. It will premiere at 9 p.m. EDT Sept. 21 on STARZ and will be available on the STARZ app for download or streaming that same day.
Contrary to election-year claims, the story about our bitter polarization isn’t just about the candidates’ personalities and deficiencies. It is about how for decades we abandoned Main Street Capitalism for a system that more closely resembles a kind of corporate socialism that leaves an unsustainable number of Americans behind.
When we were growing up in working-class neighborhoods in Baltimore, it was possible for a wage-earning parent to provide for a family. Not a life of luxury, but enough to ensure kids had reliable food, housing and education — and the opportunity to climb the economic ladder of success themselves.
Contrast that to the American experience today. Nearly half the country lives one paycheck away from insolvency. And this was the case even before the coronavirus slowdown battered the economy. “The traditional route to wealth and success,” says Amy Chua, the best-selling author and Yale law professor, “has been cut off for many Americans.”
Global economy left workers behind
In some respects, our current predicament is not entirely of our own doing. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the rise of a globalized trade and financial system set the stage for today’s climate of economic humiliation. After the Cold War, interest rates dropped to historic lows.
In this disinflationary environment, with nearly limitless capital flooding into the American economy, the stock market and economy boomed. But wage growth became almost nonexistent because of foreign competition. The problem is that only about half of the country owned stocks, leaving the average wage-earner behind.
Economic security and identity are deeply intertwined. The ability to earn a living wage isn’t just about money; it’s correlated with self-esteem, optimism and civic involvement. Gene Sperling, former economic adviser to President Barack Obama, says economics is about “the promotion of dignity.”
The end of economic stability for wage earners has deeply damaged the American psyche, driving cynicism about our ability to change our circumstances. That becomes a dangerous, self-fulfilling prophecy.
Political leaders ignore the problem
With economic disillusionment the root of a paralyzing divisiveness, you would expect economic transformation to be a leading priority for our elected officials. Why then, do we see so little progress for infrastructure modernization that would lead to an economy of greater opportunity?
During this decades-long period of stock market growth, why weren’t both parties concentrating laser-like on ways average working families could ride that giant financial wave?
In "Stars and Strife," Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff, director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense, gives a simple answer: Politicians today too often “put party before country.” The current system may not work for most Americans, but it works just fine for politicians who capitalize on our divisions to hold onto power.
The American economy is at a watershed moment. People rightly recognize that top-down corporate capitalism isn’t working for them, and their hopelessness and fear are crippling our politics. We can change course, but only if we demand a new Main Street capitalism that approaches business activity from the bottom up, not the top down.
Main Street capitalism would remove entrenched advantages for special interests and empower wage earners. It would eliminate corporate tax carve-outs and rules that stifle competition. It also would eliminate racist barriers to capital and wealth creation.
An inclusive entrepreneurial spirit is at the beating heart of Main Street capitalism. Business start-ups are the economy’s great equalizer. Women have started firms at twice the rate of men in recent years and their empowering is transforming the economy. Immigrants account for one quarter of all American entrepreneurs.
The solution to our economic and political malaise is not tossing capitalism aside. It is to rediscover a Main Street capitalism that leverages the best parts of our economy to make the American Dream possible for average working families. Both of our political parties need to stop the food fight and work to break this cycle of disillusionment that crushes the spirit of so many Americans.
David Smick, who wrote and directed "Stars and Strife," is a global financial strategist and author of the best-selling book "The World is Curved."
Barry Levinson, the film’s executive producer, is an Academy Award-winning director of films that include "The Natural," "Good Morning Vietnam" and "Rain Man," which won the Oscar for Best Picture.
You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: David Smick, Barry Levinson: How to end America's politics of hate