For half a century beginning with Franklin Roosevelt, there was a direct connection between the problems that afflicted American society and the remedies on offer from our democratic system.
High unemployment? The New Deal, the World War II mobilization, and the postwar boom took care of that.
Stagnant wages? With unions, growing productivity, minimum wage laws, and other regulation of labor standards, American real wages tripled.
Education? The G.I. bill, massive investment in public universities, community colleges, and later in public elementary and secondary education produced a better educated and more productive population. And until the 1980s, public higher education was practically free.
The exclusion of blacks from the American dream? A mass movement and a revolution in civil rights law made a big down-payment on redeeming the promise of Lincoln.
Women as second-class citizens? We're a long way from full gender equality, but the civil rights laws dating to the 1960s, including Title IX, and the women's movement cracked a lot of glass ceilings. Today, the gender divide among new graduates entering the elite professions is close to 50/50, and the pattern of the girls excelling in grade school only to fall behind the boys because of limited opportunities and sex-based tracking is a thing of the past.
I could go on, but you get the point. In the last century, democratic politics addressed real problems. The solutions were far from complete, but there was real progress.
Now take a look at today's social and economic problems. There is a chasm between the ills and what the political system is even willing to debate. What's being offered are pathetic tokens—or the claim that we should just leave everything to the genius of the free market (that brought us the financial collapse and the climate calamity.)
Wages have been stagnant for a generation. Corporations are on a tear, turning stable payroll employment into casual labor. Unions are being pummeled. Republicans in Congress have blocked even a modest increase in the federal minimum wage, and a few bold cities like Seattle with its new $15 minimum wage are outliers.
We face a catastrophe of global climate change, as well as several trillion dollars in deferred investment in decaying public infrastructure. A serious effort at a green transition combined with modernization of public systems would cost something like 5 percent of GDP per year—maybe $750 billion. No mainstream politician is even talking about this for fear of being ridiculed. (We spent six times that relative to GDP in the mobilization to win World War II.)
Too many politicians of both parties would rather talk about deficit reduction. Jesus wept!
Young adults face diminishing horizons, sandbagged with student debt and vanishing steady jobs. You have to go to the edges of mainstream politics to find leaders willing to propose a return to debt-free higher education.
Mothers, as well as fathers, have been in the paid workforce for two generations now. But the systems of the society and the workplace still operate is if it were 1954 instead of 2014. A few brave politicians like New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio are willing to take real risks to get one year of public pre-kindergarten education.
The broader agenda of high-quality, universal child care, paid family leave, early-childhood education for kids younger than four years of age, is stalled.
You wonder why people give up on politics? You wonder why people are turning away from the Democrats' proposition that affirmative government can buffer people from the vicissitudes of the marketplace? You wonder why millennials are attracted to the libertarian proposition that we're all on our own anyway?
It's because our political system has disconnected from the society's ills. Every remedy that would actually make a major difference, like the serious remedies of the 20th century, is at the far fringes of public debate.
If we are to fix what's broken in this society, if we are to restore the promise of democracy—we need to bridge this chasm between the ills and what the political system has on offer.
How will that happen? The usual way—uncommon leadership connected to energized mass movements. Leaders and movements need to embrace solutions that seem impossibly radical, just as equal rights for women and for African Americans once did.
But the chasm between real problems and solutions on offer has never been wider.