The rallying cry among millennials is that the last 40 years of policy have been a disaster. We find ourselves on the precipice of climate catastrophe, inequality has roared back to early 1900s Gilded Age-levels and America is by all objective standards, not the country it promises itself to be. What makes this situation extra frustrating is that the last 40 years of conservative hyper-capitalist policy are largely an aberration in our much more liberal history. One of the legacies of the Baby Boomers is creating a false status quo where the last 40 years are assumed to be emblematic of longstanding American policy. They’re not. This is how we arrive at a situation where one of America’s most respected journalists (a literal Vanderbilt—a family famed for their excess in the Gilded Age) goes on 60 Minutes and asserts that a plan to tax the top income bracket at 20% less than a wildly popular Republican president did in the 1950s is “radical.”
Which brings me to the great congressman John Dingell Jr., who passed away last night at the age of 92. He was the longest serving United States representative in history—serving on behalf of Michigan for 60 years in the House of Representatives. In 1944, he enlisted in the army at the age of 18, and was slated to be a part of the first wave of a Japanese invasion in 1945 that never happened—Dingell even said that Harry Truman’s decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan probably saved his life. Dingell then attended Georgetown University, earning his Juris Doctor in 1952. He served as a research assistant to U.S. District Court Judge Theodore Levin, worked as a congressional employee, a forest ranger and then as prosecuting attorney for Wayne County until 1955, when he won his first election to represent Michigan’s 15th District. Dingell would spend the rest of his professional career in congress, and his accomplishments and conduct are living proof that politicians can be true public servants, as well as the fact that the last 40 years of policy are indeed an outlier in the context of the 20th century.
Glass-Steagall was one of the first laws passed in the wake of the Great Depression in 1933. It established a firewall between investment and commercial banking, meaning that Wall Street cannot gamble with your FDIC-insured bank account. Aided by powerful allies like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi in Congress, Democratic president Bill Clinton repealed two of the four planks of Glass-Steagall in 1999. Nobel Prize laureate for Economics Joseph Stiglitz, famously said in 2008 as the economy began to crumble under the weight of Wall Street’s unchecked greed that “when repeal of Glass-Steagall brought investment and commercial banks together, the investment-bank culture came out on top.”
In 1999, John Dingell expanded on the Nobel laureate’s 2008 words by rebuking his own party’s disastrous policy, arguing against the deregulation vote:
I think we ought to look at what we are doing here tonight. We are passing a bill which is going to have very little consideration, written in the dark of night, without any real awareness on the part of most of what it contains.
I just want to remind my colleagues about what happened the last time the Committee on Banking brought a bill on the floor which deregulated the savings and loans. It wound up imposing upon the taxpayers of this Nation about a $500 billion liability …
Having said that, what we are creating now is a group of institutions which are too big to fail. Not only are they going to be big banks, but they are going to be big everything, because they are going to be in securities and insurance, in issuance of stocks and bonds and underwriting, and they are also going to be in banks.
And under this legislation, the whole of the regulatory structure is so obfuscated and so confused that liability in one area is going to fall over into liability in the next. Taxpayers are going to be called upon to cure the failures we are creating tonight, and it is going to cost a lot of money, and it is coming. Just be prepared for those events.
This contrast between a man who was first elected in the middle of the Baby Boom, and a new group of extremely pro-Wall Street/Corporate America Democrats explains a lot in modern politics (to give you an idea of how alarmed Dingell had become with the status quo, he advocated abolishing the Senate in an essay this past December in The Atlantic). The late 20th century was viewed by the incoming class of politicians as something like the end of history, and after “winning” the Cold War, a common theme emerged in the 1990s: we won so we don’t need to keep doing the things that got us here. The political legacy of the Baby Boomer generation is bucking the post-Great Depression and post-WWII status quo—all while claiming that their way is how it’s always been—despite older folks like John Dingell raising the alarm about repealing policies which have proven to work. The result of the last 40 years of policy is that things have become much better for the richest among us, while the status quo has deteriorated for most everyone else.
Medicare was enacted in 1966—when the oldest Baby Boomer was 20 years old—and John Dingell wielded the gavel when the United States passed one of the largest social insurance programs in human history. His father helped write Glass-Steagall, and they both introduced a national health insurance system every year they both served in congress. The Dingells are living proof that America can do big things, and we don't need to confine our policymaking to the extremely narrow mindset of tax cuts, tax credits and regulatory repeals.
The two defining policies of the millennial generation are Medicare for All and the Green New Deal—both built on the progress that Dingell helped to create—but that's not how millennials were introduced to this elder statesman. You think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is good at Twitter? Check this out.
John Dingell embodied the spirit of a public servant better than any politician I have ever seen, and he is the reason why I oppose term limits. If congress were filled entirely with John Dingells, this country would be the just and equal place it purports to be. We are a much smaller nation today than we were yesterday, as a titan of humanity has left us for another realm.
That said, John Dingell is gone only in body, not spirit. Poll after poll demonstrates that millennials (even Republican millennials) and Gen Z either identify with or are sympathetic to Dingell’s old-fashioned social democratic politics. The Green New Deal and Medicare for All have gone from pipe dreams to the center of the 2020 Democratic Party platform in the last year, and that is thanks to the work of activists like Sunrise Movement and their allies in congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who are standing on the shoulders of giants like John Dingell. If it feels like politics in America is changing, that’s because it is—we’re becoming more like John Dingell, and that’s an unimpeachably good thing.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.