Hedrick Smith to discuss ‘Who Stole the American Dream?’ at the Toadstool in Milford on Thursday

MILFORD – When Hedrick Smith discusses his book “Who Stole the American Dream” at the Toadstool Bookshop Thursday evening (Jan. 23) he fully anticipates a lively discussion.

And he doesn’t expect every word of it to be praise, nor would he want that.

In the almost two years since the book’s release, Smith, a former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, has traveled the country discussing his work, a book that shows how the nation has changed since the days when America was a land of “shared prosperity” to one of great economic and political dichotomy.

“We are today a sharply divided country,” Smith wrote, “divided by power, money and ideology. … Constant conflict has replaced a sense of common purpose and the pursuit of the common welfare.”

It sounds like the kind of manifesto that would have liberals cheering and conservatives jeering, leaving Smith, at his talks around the U.S., preaching to the choir.

Absolutely not true, he said in a telephone interview with The Cabinet last week, and he gave some examples:

He recently spoke to the Conference Board about why Americans have lost faith in corporations, and it was “because of the book that they invited me.”

“They’re interested in getting my views to corporate leaders,” he said.

In Chicago, he spoke to the Council on Global Affairs, “a very establishment group,” featuring Chicago businesspeople, lawyers and stockbrokers.

“They audience was very enthusiastic and the woman who introduced me wrote me an email afterwards saying the response to the speech had been extraordinary,” Smith said.

And then there was his appearance in Nebraska, not a hotbed of liberalism. More than 1,000 people showed up and when he finished speaking, “they gave me a standing ovation, and it was not for me. They appreciated straight talk, somebody willing to level with them.”

That, Smith said, is the essence of his book: An honest appraisal of what’s going on in America today, why so few have so much and so many have so little, at least in relative terms.

“In our New Economy,” he wrote in ”Who Stole the American Dream?” which has just been released in paperback, “America’s super rich have accumulated trillions in new wealth, far beyond anything in other nations, while the American middle class has stagnated.”

And the nation has become incredibly politically polarized. Where once we seemed to have a common goal – general prosperity – we now seem to have retreated from that.

“In today’s bitterly partisan political climate,” Smith wrote, “people often forget that one hallmark of the 1950s through the mid-1970s was the bipartisan consensus.”

A few pages later, he wrote that “most Americans today feel ignored by the powers-that-be in Washington,” whereas before the mid-1970s, “average Americans felt confident that they counted politically.”

It changed in the ’70s, Smith insists, because of Lewis Powell, whom most would remember for his tenure as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. But that, wrote Smith, is not where he had his greatest impact upon the country and especially upon ordinary people. Instead, that impact came when, as a corporate attorney practicing law in Virginia, he wrote a memo to corporate America “designed to spark a full-scale rebellion by America’s corporate leaders … to change the political and policy mainstream in Washington and to put the nation on a new track, a track more favorable to business.”

Smith argues that it worked, leading the nation to the economic and political situation in which it finds itself today.

This will be the central point of his talk at the Toadstool starting at 4 p.m. He expects a lively discussion.

“I’m on an issue that people care about,” he said. “Those who show up care about this. Getting them there and interested is the problem. My challenge is to give them something they can think about and do something about.”

To that end, his book includes a 10-point strategy he calls a domestic Marshall Plan involving ideas like making the tax code fairer, fixing the corporate tax code to promote job creation at home, rebuilding the political center, and mobilizing the middle class, among other ideas.

And he believes there’s hope for change, at least in part because he’s not a lone voice in the wilderness.

“There are a lot of other voices in this debate,” he told The Cabinet, “a lot of people who share the same understanding of history – we were somewhere else that was better and the inequalities of our political system were caused by human decisions, not by the marketplace or technology or globalization.”

There is great enthusiasm for change, he said, including in New Hampshire where, after a previous visit, people began circulating online petitions calling for, among other things, new ways to finance elections.

At least, before the website was hacked.

“There were about 20 (New Hampshire) towns in which people were circulating these petitions,” Smith said. “Will they pass? I don’t know. Will they have an impact on presidential candidates as they come through? I don’t know.”

But he has hope.

“I’ve been a catalyst for something,” he said. “I can tell simply by the dialogue when I’m done talking. People really want to do something, people are fed up. I’m astonished by that.”