A New Politics, A New Economics
The major political phenomenon of the past decade has been a popular revolt against the economic arrangements that took form at the end of the twentieth century. The revolt is global. It takes both left- and right-wing forms, and often presents itself as overtly anti-immigrant or otherwise ethnonationalist, but the undercurrent of deep economic dissatisfaction is always there. Inequality in the developed world has been rising steadily for forty years now. The aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 activated the politics of economic populism: in the United States, the rise of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and other politicians on the economic left, plus the Tea Party movement and to some extent Donald Trump and his acolytes who rail against globalization, Wall Street, and the big technology companies. In Europe, there is Brexit, new nativist parties (even in Scandinavia), and the Five Star movement in Italy, among other examples. What all of these have in common is that they took the political establishment utterly by surprise. And all of them regard the establishment, and any consensus that it claims to represent, with contempt.
The dynamic of this moment brings to mind the politics of the early twentieth century. During the nineteenth century, succeeding waves of the industrial revolution created (along with enormous and highly visible wealth) a great deal of displacement, exploitation, and want, which at first manifested itself in radical rebellions — in the United States they took the forms of agricultural populism and labor unrest. This was followed by a series of experiments in translating economic discontent into corrective government policy. Then as now, popular sentiment and electoral politics came first, and the details of governance came later. Most of the leading intellectuals of the Progressive Era were deeply uncomfortable with populism and socialism. The young Walter Lippman, in Drift and Mastery, called William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, “the true Don Quixote of our politics.” But Lippmann and his colleagues shared the view that private and institutional wealth had become more powerful than the state and that the imbalance had to be righted, so they set about devising alternate solutions. We are now in the early stages of a similar period of forging a new political economy for this still young century. It is going to be a large, long-running, and not very orderly task, but those who don’t take it seriously are going to find themselves swept away.
It shouldn’t be necessary, but it probably is, to stipulate that economies are organized by governments, not produced naturally through the operations of market forces. National economies do not fall into a simple binary of capitalist or not; each one is set up distinctively. Government rules determine how banks and financial markets are regulated, how powerful labor unions are, how international trade works, how corporations are governed, and how battles for advantage between industries are adjudicated. These arrangements have a profound effect on people’s lives. The current economic discontent is a revolt against a designed system that took shape with the general assent of elite liberal and conservative intellectuals, many of whom thought it sounded like a good idea but were more closely focused on other issues to pay close attention to the details. To begin the discussion about a new system requires first developing a clearer understanding of the origins of the current one.
In an essay in 1964 called “What Happened to the Antitrust Movement?,” Richard Hofstadter noted that for half a century, roughly from 1890 to 1940, the organization of the economy was the primary preoccupation of liberal politics. Hofstadter meant antitrust to be understood as a synecdoche for a broader concern with the response to industrialism in general and the rise of the big corporation in particular. He was not mourning liberalism’s shift in focus; instead, he was typical of midcentury liberal intellectuals in thinking that the economic problems that had preoccupied the previous generation or two had been solved. And that view of the postwar decades still resonates even all these years later, in the economically dissatisfied political present. During last year’s presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s “Make American Great Again” and Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better,” both backward-looking slogans, share the embedded assumption that at some time in the past, roughly when Hofstadter was writing, the American economy worked for most people in a way that it doesn’t now. But was that really true? And if it was, what went wrong?
Most people would probably say that the economy really was better back in the mid-1960s — that it had earned, through its stellar performance, the conventional view that it was working well — and that what changed was globalization: in particular the rise of the United States’ defeated opponents in the Second World War, Japan and Germany, and previously unimaginable advances in communications and data-processing technology, and the empowerment of Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing Arab countries. But if that is what most people think, it highlights a problem we have now in addressing political economy, which is a belief that economic changes are produced by vast, irresistible, and inevitable historic forces, rather than by changes in political arrangements. That is a momentous mistake. A more specific account of the political origins of the mid-century economy, and of what blew it apart, is a necessary precondition for deciding what to do now.
In the presidential election of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt ran on a program he called “The New Nationalism,” and Woodrow Wilson on “The New Freedom,” with the third major candidate, William Howard Taft, having a less defined position. This was the heart of the period when economic arrangements were the major topic of presidential politics. (The perennial Socialist candidate, Eugene Debs, got his highest-ever total, 6 per cent of the vote, in 1912.) Advised by Lippmann and other Progressive intellectuals, Roosevelt proposed a much bigger and more powerful federal government that would be able to tame the new corporations that seemed to have taken over the country. Wilson, advised by Louis Brandeis, called for a restoration of the economic primacy of smaller businesses, in part by breaking up big ones. It is clear that Hofstadter’s sympathies, as he looked back on this great debate, were on Roosevelt’s side; he considered Wilson’s position to be sentimental, impractical, and backward-looking, in much the way that Lippmann had thought of Bryan’s economic inclinations as quixotic. Wilson won the election, but Roosevelt probably won the argument, at least among intellectuals. (Politicians, because they represent geographical districts, have a build-in incentive to be suspicious of economic and political centralization.) The years immediately after the election of 1912 saw the advent of the Federal Reserve, the income tax, and the Federal Trade Commission — early manifestations of the idea that the national government should take responsibility for the conduct of the American economy.
The argument between Roosevelt and Wilson never entirely went away. During the New Deal, when the economic role of the federal government grew beyond Theodore Roosevelt’s wildest dreams, there were constant intramural debates within economic liberalism, between centralizers such as Adolf Berle, the highly influential Brain Truster-with-out-portfolio, and de-centralizers such as Thurman Arnold, the head of the antitrust division of the Justice Department. Despite major defeats, notably the Supreme Court’s striking down of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1935, the centralizers generally had the better of it, especially after the American entry into the Second World War, when the federal government essentially took over industrial production and also set wages and prices, with an evidently happy result.
After the war, Berle and his younger allies, John Kenneth Galbraith among them, celebrated the taming of the once menacing industrial corporation, thanks to the forceful and long-running intervention of government. Big corporations remained economically dominant, but because they were now answerable to a higher authority, they no longer ran roughshod. It is important to note that these were not the benign, socially responsible corporations one hears touted today — they were forced to be socially responsible, by govern-ment legal and regulatory decree. The liberal debate about corporations in the postwar years was primarily sociological and cultural, over whether they had eroded the American character by engendering a pervasive “conformity” — not over whether they exploited workers or dominated government. The economy was growing in ways that — in sharp contrast to today’s economy — conferred benefits at all income levels. As Hofstadter put it, “The existence and the workings of the corporations are largely accepted, and in the main they are assumed to be fundamentally benign.” Only conservatives, he asserted, with their resistance to modernity, failed to accept the reality of corporate dominance.
Partly because the main economic problems seemed at that point to have been solved, and partly because mainstream midcentury liberal thought was almost unimaginably unaware of national problems such as race, women’s rights, and the environment that demanded urgent attention, most liberals turned their energies toward those neglected non-eco-nomic topics. Hofstadter wrote that antitrust “has ceased to be an ideology and has become a technique, interesting chiefly to a small elite of lawyers and economists.” But that glosses over a crucial element in the development of economic liberalism.
Keynesian economics, which was in its infancy during the heyday of the New Deal, had become so prestigious by the 1960s as to have become the conventional way of thinking about government’s role in addressing economic problems — not just among economists, but by anybody who had ever taken an undergraduate economics course. For Keynesians, the most potent economic tools at government’s disposal were adjusting the money supply, tax rates, and overall government spending — not directly controlling the economic activities of corporations, through antitrust, regulation, and other means. (Adolf Berle used to boast that half the industries in America were regulated by federal agencies, and it was inevitable that the other half would be soon.) So the kind of government economic role advocated by a long line of liberal intellectuals, even as they squabbled over the details, fell out of the conversation.
It is always easy to see the vulnerabilities of a regime in retrospect. The mid-twentieth-century economic order depended on the corporation to provide a range of social benefits — good wages and salaries, employment security, pensions, health care, social services, and a measure of personal identity — that in most other developed nations would likely have come from government, or the church, or a stable local community. The American political system didn’t seem willing to expand the New Deal into a full-dress social democracy, and corporations were available to perform these quasi-state functions — but that meant they were bearing a lot of weight. They did not command the loyalty of those whom they did not enfold in their warm embrace, so they had a limited number of political allies.
Even more important, the corporation-based social order rested on the assumption of their economic invulnerability. Corporations had to be able to afford the social burdens being imposed on them by government. What could cut into the economic resources that would require? Three possibilities come to mind: a demand by shareholders that they get a higher return; a weakening of customer loyalty; or competition from other businesses. Adolf Berle’s classic work (with Gardiner Means) The Modern Corporation and Private Property, which appeared in 1932, declared that corporations’ shareholders, their supposed owners, had no power because they were so widely scattered: how could the hundreds of thousands of individual owners of stock in AT&T force management to do anything? After the Second World War, Berle only increased his estimate of the power and stability of the largest corporations, and of the irrelevance of their shareholders. So that was one potential threat assumed away. Galbraith agreed, and made the claim of corporate immortality even more capacious by observing that corporations were also invulnerable to fluctuations in consumer taste, because advertising had become so effective. There went another threat. And much of the rest of the world was still flat on its back after the Second World War, which took away the threat of competition, at least from abroad. Berle and others regular predicted the demise of Wall Street — heavily constrained by regulation since the advent of the New Deal — as a force in the American economy, because big corporations, ever larger and more powerful, would have so much capital of their own that they would no longer need access to the financial markets. Another common claim in that era was that innovation would, and could only, come from large corporations, because only they had the resources to operate substantial research divisions.
The corporate social order, taken for granted by many millions of people who lived within it, and not particularly appreciated by political thinkers on the left or the right, began to come apart spectacularly in the 1980s — which was also, not coincidentally, when the rise in inequality began. The forcing mechanism for this was the “shareholder revolution” — a great reorienting of the corporation’s priorities toward increasing its asset value in the financial markets (and therefore its shareholders’ wealth), and away from the welfare of its employees or of society. Most people credit Milton Friedman with launching the shareholder revolution, specifically with an article in the New York Times in 1970 called “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” This suggested an ideal for corporations that was almost precisely opposite to Adolf Berle’s, but it didn’t propose specific techniques for achieving it. The true chief theoretician of the shareholder revolution was Michael C. Jensen, a University of Chicago-trained conservative economist, who neatly reversed Berle’s life’s work by making the re-empowerment of the shareholder his own life’s work.
Jensen proposed such mechanisms as putting a corporation under the control of a single purchaser, at least temporarily, instead of a widely dispersed body of small stockholders (that’s the private equity business), and paying chief executives primarily in stock options rather than salary, so that they would do whatever it took to increase their companies’ share prices. Such measures would permit the corporation to attend to its new sole purpose. Jensen ceaselessly promoted these and related ideas through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, with highly influential publications (he is the co-author of one of the most cited academic papers of all time), his popular teaching at Harvard Business School (whose graduates shifted from being corporate employees to corporate dismantlers), and public appearances before Congressional committees and elsewhere. This coincided with a great wave of mergers, acquisitions, and buyouts that remade corporate America in ways that stripped out the social and political functions that had been imposed on it since the New Deal.
Since his work had large political as well as economic implications, Jensen may stand as the most under-recognized public intellectual of the late twentieth century. But his influence, like that of anyone whose ideas have consequences, was substantially a matter of context. He arrived on the scene at a time when the kinds of institutional arrangements on which the midcentury political economy rested had fallen deeply out of fashion. The large economic disruptions of the final quarter of the twentieth century, when they are not attributed to inevitable market forces, are often laid at the feet of an organized corporate-conservative effort to remake the political economy, beginning, perhaps, with the future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s famous memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1971 suggesting the building of a new conservative infrastructure of think tanks, publications, and campus leadership training institutes. But this misses a couple of important elements. One is the tension between corporations and finance — that is, between Main Street and Wall Street. When a company like IBM or General Electric dropped its de facto guarantee of lifetime employment and its company-paid defined benefit pensions, this was “corporate” only in the sense of corporations were now being run for Wall Street investors, not in the sense of benefiting Organization Man-style corporate employees.
Also liberalism was changing, and many of these economic rearrangements happened with liberal (or at least elite liberal) assent. For one of many possible examples, consider that the crusade against the airline-regulating Civil Aeronautics Board, now of blessed memory, which had to approve every route and every fare (and one of whose creators was Adolf Berle), was led by Senator Ted Kennedy, with another future Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Breyer, as his chief advisor. It had the enthusiastic support of Alfred Kahn, the liberal economist who was Jimmy Carter’s appointee as the euthanasiast chairman of the CAB. (Ralph Nader, then probably the leading liberal activist in Washington, was another participant in this crusade.) There was little or no liberal opposition to the supersizing of Wall Street, which mirrored the downsizing of the industrial corporation; the shareholder revolution would not have been possible without dozens of regulatory changes that enabled it, which didn’t attract much notice because at that moment economic deregulation was seen as an uncontroversial good cause. Much of the newly emerging economic Brahmin class was populated by elite liberals: graduates of Ivy League univer-sities who worked at McKinsey or Goldman Sachs or Google, proudly and profitably “disrupting” the old economy for a living. People at such companies became an important part of the funding base of the Democratic Party, playing the role that political machines and unions had previously played. The old instinct that the way to solve problems is by making corporatist bargains among government, labor, and business had faded away. A fluid, fast, transaction-oriented society, which proposed instead to solve problems by dismantling institutional arrangements and putting more innovative, efficient ones in their place, was now the ideal.
I don’t want to sound facilely dismissive of these ideas. I was entranced by them when I was young. In those days one still saw people who had served in the New Deal strolling through downtown Washington — Tommy Corcoran, Ben Cohen, Joe Rauh. They appeared to me not as honored participants in a supremely successful political and economic order, but as ghosts, men who had outlived their times. “Neoliberal” had not yet become a dirty word. Books proposing to save liberalism by jettisoning its traditional formations, such as Theodore Lowi’s The End of Liberalism and Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations, were mesmerizing. Liberal heterodoxy was in the air. Why couldn’t liberalism off-load all those clunky appurtenances of its past, the labor unions and the interest groups and the government agencies, and just solve problems? Why did we have to defend to the death vast, wasteful, expensive programs such as Social Security and Medicare? Why couldn’t we be less political, more efficient, smarter, more attuned to real needs and less to powerful constituencies? Didn’t the sluggish economy need the kind of jump-start that deregulation and a general embrace of markets could provide?
Maybe the Civil Aeronautics Board had indeed outlived its usefulness. The problem was that this broad antinomian logic was applied everywhere. With hardly a peep except from self-interested industry groups, the United States ended broadcast regulation, ushering in the age of hot-blooded talk radio and cable news. It set up the Internet to be an unregulated information platform that enriched a handful of immensely wealthy and powerful companies and made no effort to distinguish between truth and falsity. It declined to regulate the derivatives markets that brought down the global economy in 2008. In all those cases, policies that sounded good by the standards of the newly dominant form of economic liberalism wound up having old-fashioned libertarian effects that should have been predictable: more inequality, greater concentration of wealth and power, more disruption of social and economic arrangements that had been comfortable and familiar for many millions of people. The flaws in the new system were not immediately evident to its designers, because they were prospering. But many of the less well educated, more provincially located, and less securely employed eventually made their vehement dissent known through their voting behavior. That is where we are now.
People get to choose how to involve themselves in politics, as participants and as voters. It would be wildly unrealistic to demand that everyone’s politics be “about” some topic that seems preeminent to you, or that their politics align with an outsider’s balance-sheet determination of their interests. If you are reading this, it’s likely that Donald Trump cut your taxes. Did you vote for him? Or did you vote because of longstanding party loyalty, or your values, or the way the candidates struck you, or what you think the American government should stand for at home and abroad? It is especially foolhardy to imagine that politics can be about economics rather than, say, race, or gender, or religion, or culture — or that it can be rigorously empirical, based on meticulous scientific determinations of the truth. Still, because democratic politics is meant to deter-mine the activities of the state, and much of what the state does is allocate resources, in the end economics runs through just about everything in politics, including matters that do not present themselves as economic.
Racism would not command the public attention it does if blacks and whites were economically indistinguishable, and most of the proposed remedies for racism entail big changes in how governments get and spend their money. Nativism may express itself as hatred of the other, but it takes root among people who see immigrants as competitors for jobs and government benefits. The bitter controversies over the pandemic have been powered by the highly different ways it has affected people’s health and employment depending on where they stand in the class system. So, even when politics is not obviously about economics, it is still about economics. To address the deep unfairness of the current economic order requires political solutions, but they have to be political solutions that meet people where they are — that do not seem distanced and abstract. That will be the only way to build popular support strong enough to enact them.
The fundamental test of the American political economy ought to be whether it can offer ordinary people the plausible promise of a decent life, with a realistic hope of economic progress and their basic needs met: health care, a good education, protection from want, security in old age. The country has failed that test for a generation. Until it succeeds economically and socially, it will not function well politically. And to function well politically requires addressing an enormous economic problem, which can come across as dry and statistical, in ways that feel immediate and palpable enough to inspire passionate engagement.
I am proposing a great remaking of the political economy as a primary task over the next generation. At this moment the most useful next step in that project is not to produce a specific policy agenda, but instead to outline an approach to politics that could create widespread popular support for the larger project. In recent years the gap between voters and technically oriented policymakers who are genuinely concerned about inequality has been very wide — wide enough for pure grievance to take up the political space that ought to be devoted to fixing the problem. I will suggest three guiding principles for how to proceed.
Work through institutions. Consequential human activity takes place through institutions. It has been an especially self-destructive element of recent thought to exaggerate the disadvantages of “bureaucracy” and other aspects of institutional life and to overestimate how much can be accomplished without them. This turn has coincided with the severe deterioration of the traditional bulwark institutions of American liberalism, such as labor unions and churches. Media and messaging meant to influence public opinion, organizing campaigns conducted only on social media — these are the snack foods of politics, far less effective over the long term than building institutions that have more conventional functions like structured meetings, ongoing rituals, and planned campaigns aimed at specific government policy outcomes.
It is a familiar irony that the opponents of an inclusive economy have often used anti-institutional rhetoric while building up powerful institutions of their own. During the twenty-first century, we have seen a great consolidation of one economic sector after another, always made possible by favorable political arrangements, which only become more favorable as the sector gains more economic, and therefore political, power. To curb the power of big tech, big finance, big pharma, and big agriculture will require countervailing institutions. Institutions (which are not the same thing as communities) are necessary to achieve change, and also to instantiate change. Awakening consciences and changing minds is noble and necessary, but such advances lack staying power unless they lead to the creation of consequential new laws and institutions.
Address inequality upstream, not downstream. It is deeply ingrained in our economic thinking that the solution to inequality is redistribution. That way, in theory, a society can have the best of both worlds: the efficiency, flexibility, and growth associated with unimpeded markets, plus the corrections to markets’ inequities that only the state can provide. The master tool for redistribution is a progressive income tax system, but there are plenty of more specific tools that address economic injustice in the same spirit: unemployment benefits for people who lost their jobs, food stamps for the hungry, retraining for people whose workplace moved abroad. All of these instruments have in common that they offer a remedy after something bad has happened to people, rather than trying to prevent something bad from happening to them in the first place.
A decade ago the political scientist Jacob Hacker suggested “pre-distribution” instead of redistribution as a model. In this way of thinking, the aim is to throw some sand in the gears of pure market function, so that it cannot so easily disrupt people’s lives. Strong labor laws are a good example: they boost workers’ pay and benefits and make it more difficult to fire them, which is far more dignity-promoting than the Silicon Valley model of economic justice, with no unions, a gig economy, and the cold solace of a universal basic income for those who experience misfortune. Another is restrictions on absolute free trade and outsourcing of employment. Another is making it more difficult for private equity companies to load expenses onto the companies they acquire, which puts them under irresistible pressure to break whatever compact they had with their employees.
Most working people are focused on the particular place where they live and the particular company where they work. A politician’s signal that she understands this and will try her best to keep those arrangements in place will be far more meaningful than a promise to pursue abatements after people’s lives have been pulled apart. Economic policymakers for years have regarded policies with this goal as the province of petty rent-seeking politicians, the kind who created the Smoot-Hawley tariff back in the 1920s: all they can accomplish is to create a static, declining society; real economic policy has to be redistributionist and Keynesian. It is a longstanding part of conservative lore that liberals scored a landmark and unfair victory when they torpedoed the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 — but during the borking of Bork, his liberal opponents barely mentioned what was by far his most influential belief, which was that economic efficiency and consumer benefit were the only proper concerns for government as it regulated companies’ economic activities. They barely mentioned it because they had accepted it. That same year, the New York Times published a lead editorial titled “The Right Minimum Wage: $0.00.” (On the day this essay is going to press, the Times’ lead editorial is titled “Let’s Talk About Higher Wages.”) The economic program on which Joe Biden successfully ran for President, heavily emphasizing saving jobs and keeping small businesses open, was by far the most pre-distributionist by a Democratic candidate in decades. The tide is only just beginning to turn, and the Democrats’ relatively new economic constituencies are not going to be pushing the Biden administration to reinvent the party’s notion of an ideal political economy.
Decentralize power. In 1909, in The Promise of American Life, which is still as good a framing device for twentieth-century American liberalism as one can find, Herbert Croly proposed that the country tack away from the political tradition of Thomas Jefferson and toward the tradition of Alexander Hamilton. In the present, it is necessary to be reminded of what Croly meant by that: to his mind, Jefferson was not primarily a plantation slaveholder, but an advocate for farmers, artisans, and other smallholders, and for localized government, and Hamilton was not primarily an immigrant who took his shot, but an advocate for centralized and nationalized government, and the father of the American financial system. For Progressives such as Croly, it was axiomatic that the world had become far too complex for a Jeffersonian approach to work. Like Theodore Roosevelt a few years later, Croly believed that the national government had to become bigger and more powerful — and also to employ technical, depoliticized expertise that would be beyond the capabilities of local governments. This way of thinking about government has an irresistibly powerful face validity for members of the category of people who would staff its upper ranks. Think about the coronavirus: wouldn’t you want trained public health professionals to have been in charge nationally, rather than governors of highly variable quality?
Yet Croly’s position is a temptation to be avoided, for a number of reasons. Expertise is not, pace the insistence of the social-media mob and Fox News, merely a pretext for the exercise of power. Experts have both knowledge in their domains, and an obligation to set aside their pure, unruly human instincts and attempt to approach the world more dispassionately. They marshal evidence. They answer, rather than insult or stereotype, people who do not agree with them. That they operate with some degree of honor doesn’t make them infallible or supra-human, of course. Like everybody else, experts live in their own enclosed worlds, and they often operate on distinctive, non-universal, and not fully conscious assumptions that nobody they encounter ever challenges. Technocracy is not a guarantee of truth or wisdom. No matter how smart and epistemologically sophisticated they are, experts miss things. Over the past few decades, the list has been long: the collapse of the Soviet Union; the 2008 financial crisis; the dramatic rise and political empowerment of evangelical religion; the rise of populism. The problem with centralized, elite expert rule is not only that it creates an inviting target, but that it also requires a check on its power, a system built to incorporate alternative views. To paraphrase James Madison, expertise must be made to counteract expertise; and, in a democracy, experts must be prepared to respect and honor what the great majority of citizens who aren’t experts think.
It is impossible to separate economic and political power in the way that the Progressives envisioned, and their present-day heirs still do. Great economic power, of the kind that the major technology and financial companies have today, requires favorable political arrangements; in return, it uses its economic power to enhance its political power. The gentle treatment that big finance and big tech have gotten from government, including from Democratic administrations, is closely related to their role as major political funders and employers of past and future high government officials. The federal government is no longer capable of functioning as a countervailing force to all elements of economic plutocracy at all times: a Democratic administration may be able to stand up to Koch Industries, but not to Google or Goldman Sachs.
A far better vision for liberals should be of a pluralistic society that does not assume that one major element will be so automatically good that it should be super-empowered. Super-empowerment may be the ill that ails us the most. Over the past few decades, inequality has increased substantially not just for individuals, but for institutions. The top five banks control a higher percentage of assets than they ever have in American history. The gap between the richest universities and the struggling mass is greater. The great metropolitan newspapers of the late twentieth century — the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chicago Tribune and so on — aren’t great anymore. Book publishing is in the hands of the “big four” houses. Five big companies dominate the technology business. If all these arrangements are working nicely for you personally, you should not take too much comfort from that. Think about what it would feel like if people you find abhorrent had control of these institutions — it is a much better guide than thinking about the system you would want when the good guys, by your lights, are in charge.
Politics is the arena that allowed these inequalities to flourish, and politics will be how they can get corrected. You should think in particular about what kind of political system you would want, if the bad guys were winning. You would want checks on the power of the President and on the more politically insulated parts of the federal government, such as the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve. You would want good state and local governments to have room to do what the national government can’t do or won’t do. You would want to prevent economic royalty, individual or corporate, from being able to control political outcomes. You would want Congress to have more power than the President, and the House of Representatives to have more power than the Senate. You would want minority groups to be organized enough to be able to impress their distinctive point of view on a majority that ignores it. In other words, squabbling, bargaining, self-interest, partisanship, and “gridlock” would be signs of political health, not dysfunction. Influence would come from the sustained effort it takes to be effective through democratic means, not from finding workarounds to open, participatory politics.
That these are ways of structuring politics, not of assuring the victory of one side or of arriving at a policy, ought not detract from their urgency. Politics should make people feel heard and attended to. It should address pressing problems successfully. Politics manifestly is not doing those things now. If the way it is framed and conducted does not change fundamentally, democratic politics, which is to say, democratic society, will not be able to function properly. Tasks that are essential to powerful interests will get accomplished, but not tasks to which they are indifferent, even if they affect the welfare of vast numbers of people. Building a new politics will take a long time, because there is a lot to undo.