We Made This Economy, and We Can Remake It: Natalie Foster on Building a Better America

It’s hard to remember how total the refusal was, before 2011, to hold the economic system accountable for the damage it was causing. For decades, wages and the economic wellbeing of average Americans had stagnated or dwindled, while the pundits—using measures such as housing prices, gross domestic product, and the stock market—boasted of an economy that was doing just fine, was often in fact “booming.” Everyone seemed to be enthralled by the success story of financialization, where investment banks and hedge funds profited spectacularly based on rampant speculation.

In 2003, 2004, 2005, our mailboxes and airwaves were filled with offers from banks to expand our credit. It didn’t matter if you were financially strapped, you could still qualify for a loan, they told us. You can afford a house beyond your wildest dreams, they insisted. Yes, it seemed too good to be true, but they were so reassuring.

Of course they were— they were being paid to make these deals, and they weren’t the ones left holding the bag: they were passing the risk on to Wall Street, which repackaged it as a form of high-yield investment. Wall Street even took bets on our likeliness to fail to pay back the loans, and sold those bets to fancy investors. We regular Americans thought we were finally achieving the dream, when, in fact, speculators were just using us as pawns.

In late 2007 the house of cards toppled, a slow-motion wreck that spread over the ensuing years. Rates of unemployment and home foreclosures reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. Ten million Americans lost their homes. Black and Latino Americans lost half their collective wealth.

Rather than taking action to address the majority of people’s losses and pain, our government instead invested billions to prop up the system, bailing out the profiteers and speculators. Then politicians used these bailouts as an excuse to cut back further on programs that provided us with essential things like support in old age and higher education, instead letting corporations make more money providing them through privatization.

The free market was untouchable and blameless, because neoliberal ideology, pervasive as the air we breathed, made it unthinkable to blame the free market.

And even after all of this, to call the economic system into question was to be un-American. The free market made America what it was; it powered the American Dream. It was a foregone conclusion; no alternatives existed; no politicians dared to do anything but serve and bolster it. The free market was untouchable and blameless, because neoliberal ideology, pervasive as the air we breathed, made it unthinkable to blame the free market.

In her 2010 book about consumerism and waste, The Story of Stuff, the environmentalist Annie Leonard called capitalism the “Economic-System-That-Must-Not-Be-Named,” a riff on the villain Voldemort. (It resonates with me, as my kids are deep into Harry Potter.) As late as 2010, even using the word “capitalism”—let alone talking about inequality or neoliberalism—marked you. Complicit silence was the first rule of the every-man-for-himself Fight Club of our economy: we don’t talk about it.

On the heels of the Great Recession, the 2010 midterm elections had been brutal for Democrats, who lost state houses and governorships, six seats in the Senate, and sixty-three seats in the House. Much of the credit was given to the Tea Party—the angry, decentralized group of right-wing populists who showed up all summer at town hall meetings across the country to undermine Obamacare, shouting about “death panels,” “big government takeover,” and communism.

Looking back, it’s clear there’s a direct line from then to today, from the Tea Party’s aggressive antics to the bizarre tantrums and unapologetic racism of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Donald Trump; there’s another line straight from the “birthers” (who alleged that Obama was ineligible to be president on account of his birthplace) to QAnon.

Van Jones, then best known as a criminal justice reformer and environmental and civil rights leader, wrote about that moment and the Tea Party’s success, in his 2012 book:

As Americans continued to suffer the ongoing consequences of the financial crisis, and as the nurturing aspects of [Obama’s] hope-and-change campaign dissolved, the pain in America’s heart intensified. Everyday people needed their sense of loss and fear acknowledged. People needed a story that made sense of that pain. Into the vacuum, the Tea Party swooped. But rather than trying to restore hope, the Tea Partiers were promoting a different emotion…fear.   

Van had served as President Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009, and we stayed in touch while living in Washington, DC, and working in the administration. By the end of 2010, he had a vision for an organization that would offer Americans a different story to make sense of their pain. He wanted to call it Rebuild the Dream (which was also the name of that 2012 book). Van had teamed up with veteran political organizer Billy Wimsatt, and he needed someone to run the organization who understood digital organizing. When he asked, I didn’t hesitate.

So, late in 2010, I left my role as head of digital at President Obama’s grassroots army, Organizing for America. I remember a friend saying to me that I could literally write my own ticket to anywhere. The Obama brand was the most recognizable in the world at that point, and we’d built something powerful. I decided that teaming up with Van and Billy to build a counterweight to the Tea Party, and lay claim to an economy that works for everyone, was my next mission. We might fail, probably would, but that was a risk worth taking.

We co-organized “Save the Dream” rallies in February 2011 to support the protests against union-busting legislation proposed by Tea Party governors in Wisconsin and Ohio. Fifty thousand people turned out. Then we crowdsourced a new economic agenda for the country called the Contract for the American Dream. More than 131,000 Americans came together online and in their communities to write and rate 25,904 solutions for our economy and our democracy, which led to the creation of a ten-point agenda. Over three hundred thousand people formally endorsed it.

It was critical that folks understood that the economy is not like the weather—something that just happens to us and is outside of our control—it’s more like a house that we build.

By the end of the summer, we had a half a million members across the country, ready to engage around student loans, #jobsnotcuts, higher taxes on the ultra-wealthy, and progressive candidates to challenge the rash of Tea Party wins.

In an email dated June 23, 2011, I wrote to our network:

The idea [of Rebuild the Dream] is this: The American Dream—the fundamental idea that people who work hard should be able to keep their jobs, stay in their homes, and build a better life for their children—is being stolen from us as the economy gets worse. And for many of us, it never existed.

Movements need support hubs, and they need storytellers. The goal isn’t to build the next big thing, but rather, to join all of our allies who’ve been doing movement building work for a long time and help connect the big things already happening. We want to inspire a swarm, not build an empire. We have some ideas on how to do this, but it’s going to take the movement’s best thinking to do this right.

Having spent the summer listening to the experiences of Americans across the country, it was clear that we needed to spread a story about how the economy worked that would challenge the prevailing narrative and the claims from Capitol Hill that the country was too broke to invest in its people.

Heather McGhee, one of the most talented economic thinkers of our generation, who was then at the think tank Demos, also knew we needed a new economic story. In the coming years, she’d write her bestselling book The Sum Of Us that would recast our understanding of what was possible.

But in 2011, Heather and I teamed up to produce a simple slideshow telling the story of the American economy. The central thesis of the story was that economic policy was something that people had constructed, with choices made along the way. It was critical that folks understood that the economy is not like the weather—something that just happens to us and is outside of our control—it’s more like a house that we build. The slideshow was designed so that Rebuild the Dream members, meeting in church basements, college lecture halls, and living rooms across the country, could take it and use it to unpack the story of our economy.

The three keys to the prevailing story—total faith in the market, zero faith in the government, and each of us as individuals pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and responsible for our own success—were billed as inescapable truths, like gravity or algebra. But actually, they weren’t like the laws of science; they were the stuff of myths.

Seeing the myths is the essential first step in building something new.


The Guarantee: Inside the Fight for America's Next Economy - Foster, Natalie

Copyright © 2024 by Natalie Foster. This excerpt originally appeared in The Guarantee: Inside the Fight for America’s Next Economy, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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