Steve Israel: How to save the middle class

Story highlights

  • Steve Israel: Many middle-class Americans have lost faith in government, cultural institutions, feel left behind in changing country
  • He says they want new security, reach for candidate who promises something different, but that difference is ugly, divisive
  • Israel: America must reinvest in infrastructure: build, share new national purpose, level voting playing field. U.S. has done this before

Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, is the sixth-ranking member of the House Democratic leadership and chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)There's always an overarching word or theme that defines an election year. It taps into hidden undercurrents and intuitions. This year's electoral undercurrent is a loss of faith in safe institutions.

The erosion of faith in the institution of government began building nearly a decade ago. Many people supported President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq because we were told there were weapons of mass destruction — and then we found out it was false information. A few years later, we watched the government fail to protect its citizens from a hurricane in New Orleans.
    Steve Israel
    Then, in 2013, congressional Republicans shut down the very institutions of government. Most recently, the state of Michigan failed its basic responsibility to provide citizens with safe drinking water in Flint. Now we're about to add an example of government failure as the Republican Senate refuses to perform its constitutional duty to consider nominees to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
    It is small wonder that so many Americans worry that the country's greatest days are behind it. This is not true, of course; we can, as we always have, pour our vast energies into real solutions that will not only restore our faith, but also rebuild our country — just as we did in the critical years that followed World War II.
    But first we must give new hope to the middle class, many of whom feel their lives unmoored; in the past, when government failed, average, middle-class Americans had other safe harbors. They could put their trust in the Catholic Church, for example, but its moral authority has been diminished by scandal. Or sports, now tainted by "Deflate Gate," steroid use and high-profile cases involving the abuse of women.
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    And Wall Street was at one time the ultimate symbol of thrift, stability and the long view. Now, it's viewed by many as an institution felled by the fast buck — one that took America down with it.
    To add to this distrust in institutions, we have an economy that is changing radically before people's eyes. No more can we easily run to a Radio Shack to pick up batteries or replace a dying wall-mounted phone; or a local bookstore to feel, read, and buy a book. And while it used to be as easy as sticking your arm out to hail a cab, now we're told it's all about Uber, an application that needs to be downloaded on a smartphone.
    These traditions and touchstones, falling by the wayside one after another, were ones many of us counted on to represent economic stability and comfort.
    As they disappear, people wonder: "Will I be obsolete next?"
    In fact, many intuitively sense that America has changed. A new statistic casts this idea strikingly: According to Pew, the middle class, once the majority in America, is now a minority, with the upper and lower classes surpassing it.
    Voters are also surrounded by 360 degrees of new national security anxieties: bombings, beheadings and the rising fear of home-grown terrorism. As Thomas Barnett explained in his 2004 book, "The Pentagon's New Map," war used to be like a football game with rules, regulations, offense and defense. Now it's a soccer game with different rules and ways to play the game -- and we're still trying to learn how to play.
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    Without a sense of safety and security for themselves and their families, people look for a saving grace: something different. But what looks different can actually lead to a more dangerous outcome of xenophobia and divisiveness. That's what we're seeing now in the presidential campaign, especially with one candidate who never seems to shy away from the offensive --and it's ugly. This is not the America we pledge allegiance to, and it doesn't represent the future we want for our children.
    There is a better way.
    Renewing faith in institutions is possible. In fact, it's more than possible because we've done it before. The answers are actually quite simple.
    First, just build. Shortly after World War II, everywhere people looked, they saw vitality. There were new schools for their children, new roads on which their cars could drive and bridges they felt confident crossing. Now they see decay and deterioration. Physical icons produce confidence in the future. It's time we built again by investing in infrastructure.
    Second, we need a new national purpose, something big and bold. In 1962, faced with losing our technological edge to the Soviets, John F. Kennedy promised that we'd send a man to the moon. It wasn't simply a matter of technology, it was about national mission. We can recreate the feeling of achieving the unthinkable by accelerating a manned mission to Mars and finding a cure for cancer.
    Third, we must level the playing field. People don't simply feel insecure, they believe their voices are irrelevant. It's not just income inequality that agitates people, it's democracy inequality. The only way to restore their faith in the system is to fundamentally change the system.
    That means a constitutional amendment reversing the Citizens United decision, requiring all federal contractors to disclose their political contributions, and passing the Government by the People Act (I am a co-sponsor), which would provide federal matching funds for congressional races, similar to models in Maryland, Michigan, Florida and elsewhere.
    These things won't be easy, but it's better that way. JFK understood that when he said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."
    We are in an environment where people feel we have lost our talent and ability, where the institutions that are supposed to keep us safe are on thin ice. Our priority must emphasize rebuilding, revitalizing and reforming, rekindling a sense of optimism in America that is built on pragmatism, and can-do.