When we asked former In These Times staffers to send us their recollections for this anniversary issue, many recalled founder James Weinstein’s infectious optimism. “I came to the paper dismayed and depressed by a polarization in left politics that had pushed many people into politically stupid and dangerous extremism,” wrote former senior editor Pat Aufderheide. “Working with Jimmy Weinstein gave me an understanding of a pragmatic, realistic, but still hopeful politics.”
Weinstein, who died in 2005, apparently held on to that optimism for decades. According to former contributor David Kallick, just after George W. Bush had captured the U.S. presidency, Weinstein tried to convince a skeptical Danish audience that “despite all signs to the contrary, the future of socialism is in America.”
Frankly, it’s hard to know how he kept his spirits up. Indeed, a trip through the ITT archives makes one wonder how the staff of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s didn’t develop full-blown Cassandra complexes. Again and again, we warned of the Trojan horses that would escalate inequality and shred the social safety net: the rise of neoliberalism (a term ITT first used in 1982), the erosion of welfare, the deregulation of banks.
I wish I’d known Jimmy. I was born in 1982, just in time to witness first Reaganomics and then the near-total corporate capture of the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton. Against this tide, socialism taking hold in America seemed as likely as an alien landing.
But with the Great Recession, something shifted. With the help of Occupy, a leftist critique of capitalism began to penetrate the national discourse. Thanks to Thomas Piketty, we know that 2007 marked a new record high in the income gap between rich and poor in this country, previously set in 1928; that record was broken again in 2012. In 2013, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the top 1 percent of U.S. families earned 25.3 times more than the bottom 99 percent. It was apparent the promises of Reaganomics had failed to deliver: Instead of trickling down, wealth had barreled up.
That’s why, in the first presidential debate, instead of triangulating as her husband might have in the 1990s, Hillary Clinton simply mocked Donald Trump’s plan to cut corporate taxes, calling it “Trumped-up trickle-down economics.”
It’s also why Bernie Sanders could win 12 million votes by shouting the same things on the campaign trail that he wrote in In These Times in 1995: “Millionaires and billionaires spend vast sums of money to buy elective office. … The richest 1 percent of the population owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. … The standard of living of the average American worker continues to decline.”
John Judis writes on page 47 that if Jimmy were alive today, he would have been so inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign that he would have given his last cent to it. The campaign is over—and In These Times’ last cent is already committed to next month’s electricity bill—but we can still seize the moment.
First, we can continue to shine an unsparing light on unfettered corporate capitalism, the root of so many of our problems. Systemic rot is not an easy thing to face. People will continue to seek out convenient scapegoats and false solutions unless we gently redirect them.
Take the underpinnings of Trumpism: the tendency to blame white economic woes on black and brown people. If you have striven your whole life to abide by principles of independence and hard work and you have gotten nowhere, then realizing that your hard work failed because the system is designed to fail you is a bitter pill to swallow. It’s far more palatable to imagine that others have cheated. Enter racism and xenophobia, fueled by bigotry and stoked by the Right.
In many ways, In These Times is uniquely positioned to fight the rise of Trumpism. We are the only national magazine that regularly covers stories like coal companies cheating miners of their pensions or bosses skimming from low-wage workers’ paychecks. Such labor coverage gives us unique credibility with the white working class, a rightly skeptical audience. Our Working In These Times labor newsletter reaches tens of thousands of union members every week.
Yet our coverage makes clear that non-white workers, especially migrants, are toiling just as hard as—if not harder than—anyone and sold just as false a bill of goods. If anyone is a paragon of American values, it’s the undocumented chile pepper harvester in New Mexico who wakes up at 2 a.m., waits in the dark for a bus to the fields and picks peppers all day—only to be shorted on her wages, as chronicled by investigative reporter Joseph Sorrentino in a 2013 In These Times investigation. Such stories remind our working-class readers of their common interests and common enemies.
As we debunk convenient scapegoats, we must also debunk false saviors. Americans have been suckled on stories of the plucky innovator swooping to the rescue. Such tales are especially seductive for elites who can cast themselves as the heroes. Neoliberals fancy themselves brilliant technocrats working behind the scenes to apply free-market solutions to all social ills. In practice, this often means privatization—a strategy that incentivizes corporations to skim from the public coffers. In These Times has closely chronicled what happened to Chicago as its Democratic mayors sold the city off piece by piece, resulting in rat-infested schools, shoddy public services and the shedding of middle-class public-sector union jobs. In the coming year, In These Times will investigate and expose some of the opaque financial schemes that enable these public-private sweetheart deals.
Of course, you can’t just pry away people’s safety blankets and leave them with nothing but despair. A commenter on In These Times’ Facebook page recently wrote:
I feel like the whole country has become that dusty Mexican village oppressed by Eli (“if God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep”) Wallace. Except I don’t see any possibility of a Magnificent Seven riding to our rescue. How on earth do we get out of this when they have all the power?
Here is where we can take a page from Jimmy’s optimism, along with his abiding belief in an inside-outside approach to change. No system is impregnable; there are always cracks.
This year, a giant crack formed in the Democratic Party. Democratic policymakers, both progressive and centrist, are scrambling behind the scenes to react to the sudden leftist tide. The inside approach to this moment is to hand them a progressive playbook, to call out those who cling to a corporate agenda, and to help build the growing progressive Democratic bloc. In These Times has been among the first (and sometimes, only) national news outlet to cover the Berniecrats who in 2016, with the help of grassroots activists, ousted conservative Democrats at every level of government. We will continue to do so in 2017 and beyond.
The other half of the inside-outside equation are the left movements to which In These Times is inextricably bound: Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, labor, climate justice, to name a few. Movements aren’t orderly top-down entities, but rather churning masses of ideas and action. They need places to have conversations, whether physical spaces like Occupy provided (or the ITT office’s “big table,” where the taxi drivers’ union, our tenant, debates the best way to take on Uber) or online forums, listservs and conference calls. But at a certain point, you need a forum that can reach millions and remain a space for conversation, not an email blast or an indoctrination. ITT strives to provide such a forum. We also serve as an amplifier, a way to broadcast the messages and demands of movements into the halls of power.
Policymakers live in a bubble subject to the prevailing winds of powerful corporate interests. In partnership with movements and our readers, we offer an unsparing portrait of their complicity, a road map out and a firm kick in the butt.