Days after the election, Bill Moyers brought together Bob Herbert and Reihan Salam, on the political left and right respectively, to discuss where the United States and its two major political parties are headed.
“Let me ask you a personal question,” Moyers said to Herbert and Salam, giving the two an opportunity to express their fundamental views on American society through the trends of recent history. “As you look at how America has changed over the last 30 years and the elections seem to reinforce those changes and even represent an acceleration of those changes, how do you think about the country right now? What do you think about America?”
BOB HERBERT: I think of it on two tracks. On the one hand I grew up in a time when I thought it was the best time possible to grow up in America. Jobs were plentiful, a college education was affordable. And even though there were a great deal of problems we know that blacks and women had to fight against treatment that was hideously unfair and that sort of thing. You had the feeling that the country was moving in the right direction because you had the civil rights movement, you had the women’s movement. Later you’d have the environmental and the gay rights movement and so forth.
So it was terrific. And so life in America is much better now generally than it was half a century ago, there’s no question about that. But now we’re going backwards. On some of these cultural issues we may be going forward, but if you look at what’s happening, what the controversy was over women’s rights for example and abortion and birth control, and that sort of thing, I just think that the country is in a period of economic decline and it’s declining in other ways as well. And so I think that we need, that there should be an urgency in the effort to arrest that decline.
REIHAN SALAM: I see three different Americas. You have one group of folks who have college educations who are forming families and stable relationships, who have folks who can look out for them, beyond the state, who are really flourishing, who are a big part of why America continues to be such a rich country. And they’re raising children in those stable households.
You have another group of folks who are at the bottom, who really are very socially isolated. They don’t oftentimes have strong connections to each other. And I think that they’re badly in need, of economic and also social uplift.
Then you have this group of folks in the middle, folks who have high school diplomas but not a college degree, you saw a lot of folks in these in the Midwest. These are folks who’ve been really buffeted by economic change. And this is a group of people who are looking more like those folks at the bottom than they are like folks at the top. You’re seeing dramatic changes in family formation.
And I think that that’s what I worry about the most because that broad middle group is the group that has to be the basis of shared growth and prosperity. And when those folks don’t have those social connections they need in order to make investments in their own future, I think that’s dangerous for all of us, and I think it’s not something we think about enough.