The loss of democracy is an inevitable result of the ascension of unelected political power. Over the past 40 years in the US. we have witnessed the return of this cyclical phenomenon of our capitalist economic system–the gradual rise of corporate control of government–which has occurred every 70-80 years since the founding of the nation. Paralleling the increase of corporate power, and directly related to it, is the widening of the income/wealth inequality gap between the 1% and the balance of the population. Economists tracking that gap found that it peaked in 1928, the year before the Crash of 1929, the Great Depression. It peaked again in 2007, the year before the onset of the recession we have not fully recovered from — an amazing concordance. Of course, for people of wealth, those crises were special opportunities to become even richer. Failing businesses were bought by the vultures for fire-sale prices; and homes in foreclosure were scooped up for pennies on the dollar.
It is commonly believed that Congress does the bidding, not of those who elected them and pay their salaries, but of those who donate to their campaigns–corporations and the wealthy. In 2014 two Princeton researchers published a study proving the accuracy of that folk wisdom. They found that what ordinary people wanted and what the government actually did had essentially no relationship. On the other hand, the preferences of the economic elites had quite a significant impact on actual policies.
Thus, the essence of our democracy, an elected representative government, basically does not exist today. It is a charade. Every two and four years we are urged to “go out and do the most important thing a citizen can do: vote.” Yet the Senators and Representatives that we put in office feel little responsibility to work for us once in Washington (or in the State Houses). Money, not loyalty to our wishes, or to the Constitution, for that matter, is what animates them. Having gained a lock on the nation’s chief policy-making body (and high-level appointed officials as well via offers of high paying jobs and the revolving door), the 1 percent achieved a bloodless coup and seized de facto control of our government. We are living under an oligarchy.
Historians and economists attribute the trigger for the current oligarchic period, which is now some 40 years old, to the infamous “Powell Memo” . Written in 1971 by Lewis Powell, a Virginia attorney affiliated with the US Chamber of Commerce, the memo was a manifesto (some have called it a “call to arms” ) urging the US business community to launch an aggressive, comprehensive political campaign in Washington, DC in order to resurrect the dominance they enjoyed until FDR’s New Deal took them down a few notches. The pro-social policy effects of the New Deal stretched through the 1960s into the 70s, when a new spate of government regulations implemented by Lyndon Johnson and even Richard Nixon had businesses fuming.
It was against that backdrop that the Powell Memo was received with great interest by the business community. Corporations and smaller businesses got quickly to work, forming organizations such as the Business Roundtable, and developing a plan of attack, including greatly expanding lobbying forces and cozying up to politicians. They used their vast financial resources to put together a multi-layered program and worked it tirelessly to beat back the government’s intrusion into what they saw as their profit-maximizing prerogatives. The more the strategy was successful, the higher these business elites set their goal.
The facts that this take-over occurred gradually, and ostensibly through the legitimate processes of government, seem to explain the absence of much more serious outrage on the part of the people who have lost the most in the economy. Over the decades corporations, through their lobbyists and paid-for politicians, have systematically had laws and regulations implemented or changed for their economic benefit in industry after industry. They have perfected techniques for separating us from our money in the most varied, exquisite, unethical yet still “legal” ways. It is a fact that much legislation is actually written by industry lobbyists. One very salient example is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This nonprofit organization of industry representatives and conservative state legislators drafts model legislation which promotes all manner of laws favoring the interests of corporations, the free market and other conservative causes. These draft bills are circulated widely to the many Republican controlled State Houses and are regularly adopted, at times with little revision.
The coherent strategy for seizing power that emerged involved a multi-pronged assault on democratic governance. One element has been to weaken, even eliminate public education. A favored route has been through the more general corporate practice of starving State treasuries of tax revenue through a combination of winning lower tax rates through lobbying and bought off politicians, demanding greatly discounted or waived property taxes for bringing a business to a location, off-shoring taxes to lower tax nations and stashing profits in tax havens to avoid paying tax at home. Starving governing entities of tax revenue has a negative impact principally on public services, from maintaining infrastructure to Medicaid to public education.
Once those public authorities are vulnerable due to insufficient revenue and even deficits, and educational outcomes are shown to be mediocre, the big boys move in with proposals to privatize public education, ostensibly to make it better. The trend toward charter schools has been one answer to the manufactured crisis, but their outcomes have been poor as well, partly due to profit taking and absent accountability. The cutbacks to education have resulted in a citizenry that is poorly prepared for employment or to exercise its civic responsibilities generally, and defending and maintaining a healthy democracy, in particular. This is not a recent phenomenon. Many of us remember Jay Leno out on the streets of LA asking passersby questions of general knowledge, and being shocked by their amazing ignorance. The poor and undereducated comprise a powerless underclass that are in no position to challenge the rulers. A fortunate coincidence?
Another institution essential to the oligarchy’s offensive strategy is the main stream media. It is their propaganda wing, which plays a key role in misdirecting the public and obfuscating political, economic and international realities. Of course, media corporations are part of the oligarchy. Six corporations own 90% of all media outlets of every type in the US. So, they are uniquely positioned to filter and edit what information the public is exposed to. Issues which are of great import to the public but may be harmful to the bottom line of one or another industry receive very little coverage, or coverage which favors the industry’s side of the story. Election coverage became a representation of the network owners’ political biases, a shameless quest for ad revenue, or both.
Some years ago, the term “infotainment” gained currency in broadcast media. This occurred after an FCC regulation called The Fairness Doctrine was abandoned in 1987. That regulation had “two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters”.(Wikipedia) By spawning right wing talk radio and partisan cable channels like Fox News and MSNBC, the demise of The Fairness Doctrine had a significant polarizing affect on the political attitudes of the public and on the major parties themselves. Newsrooms were decimated and infotainment replaced hard news, which became a quaint thing of the past.
In the past, one could genuinely consider the news media the primary mode of “continuing education” for adults who were beyond their school years. Newspapers and news magazines were the main sources of civic information for citizens, the place they learned about what their government was doing at the local, state and national levels in an objective, non-partisan manner. These media often played a “watchdog” role, that is, scrutinizing the behavior of public officials when untoward activities were suspected. Through investigation and documentation, journalists exposed illegal and unethical behavior to their readers, performing, as a routine function at larger papers, an invaluable public service offered by no other societal institution.
In contemporary America, newspapers have become largely unviable, as people have turned more and more to television and the internet for their news. Consequently, many papers have failed. Those that remained, pared down their reporting staff, especially the more expensive investigative reporters, and were scooped up by large media conglomerates that put profits before responsible, quality reporting. Infotainment replaced news. The biases of the corporate owners replaced objective reporting. The public has been robbed of their only accessible, reliable source of civic information, which, together with a diluted public education, renders them seriously unprepared to fully understand and knowledgably participate in the civic life of their community and nation.
The insidious plan of the oligarchs to dumb down and divide and conquer a large segment of our population has been wildly successful. One can see the evidence in people “voting against their own interests” ; in the large number of people who simply do not vote; in the ease with which voters are manipulated by politicians and the media when it comes to racial, national, religious and sexual preference issues; in the unjustified degree of hyper-partisanship among the rank and file, when the truth is that the Democratic and Republican Parties are merely two sides of the same coin; AND in the election of Donald Trump.
The pervasiveness of corporate dominance throughout American governing structures is arguably greater today than during any previous period when the oligarchs were in control. This is because of a deliberate and highly successful effort by those forces (e.g. the Koch Brothers and their allies) to select and support the election of candidates sympathetic to their values to local school boards, city councils, state legislatures, governorships and even to the governing bodies of universities.
Considering this reality, the progressive task of taking down the oligarchs so that we may regain popular control of our political and economic systems, is a mighty one. It will not happen overnight. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are under corporate control. The Democrats, formerly the party of working families, began abandoning the middle class during Bill Clinton’s presidency. With few friends inside Washington and the State Houses, progressives must organize large numbers of people to apply strong and consistent pressure from the outside on politicians at all levels and on powerful institutions such as major banks, corporations and universities to force them to meet our demands. We must be confrontational, disruptive, persistent and clever in our tactics. We must make it clear that we are not going away until the necessary structural changes to the system are accomplished and official, effective means of public oversight are in place.
A relevant historical question is, is the Left up to the task and the opportunity that they have been handed by both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump? Bernie’s presidential campaign aroused and invigorated the left as it has not been in decades. And In his first month in office Trump has awakened formerly passive segments of the populace and driven them to active resistance because of his outrageous Executive Orders and stated policies and plans. These folks are protesting right alongside progressives with whom they now share a common objective but not necessarily a common ideology. If we play our cards right, progressives will be able to win some of the strictly anti-Trump forces over to our broader goals of re-structuring the US political and economic systems.
Not since the New Deal has the American Left been able to achieve and maintain the unity, collaboration and cohesiveness necessary to bring about the sea change we have set as our goal. The large number of new left of center organizations that sprang up during and after the 2016 primaries, and which continue apace, is reason to wonder whether the Left has yet learned its lesson. I have observed for at least a year Araquel Bloss and the Progressive Independent Party working feverishly to bring progressive organizations together under a single umbrella, recognizing the unbeatable power in unity. PIP has achieved only modest success. New organizations announce themselves every few days, justifying their necessity but failing to address the unity question. I do not know whether the presence of these various groups reflects political sectarianism, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that their independence and separation will only weaken the overall movement.
The corporate coup must be reversed, and permanently so. The Left needs to quickly recognize that they will only ride the current wave of a righteously angry and aroused population to a successful political revolution if they forge themselves into a huge, united force.