Are The Economic Elite Winning Against The 99%?

August 17, 2013
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As much as it pains me to consider this, I have to ask myself; are the Economic Elite–who have benefited the most from American freedoms–winning the war against the 99%, the progressive alliance and its subsets of women, minorities, LGBT, and poor?99

Many points along the timeline in American history exhibit the divergence between the people who have more than they have earned and the people who have earned more than they have is common indicator of evolution. In U.S. history, the struggle has been of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government—in contrast to special interests–who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.

But at every stage along the way, the quintessence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy special privilege to one subset, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible chance to obtain value–both to himself and to the commonwealth. Nothing new there.

Along Came Teddy

From its beginning, America has struggled along a narrow corridor of history toward a result never quite obtained: that being a sincere and meaningful democracy. Progress has been achieved without a doubt, evolving from a nation of privileged elites that championed lofty ideals about all men being created equal—but then enslaved men, women, and children.

But we matured as a nation, and the descendants of those slaves have taken their places as governors, senators, and Supreme Court justices. Yet as the great champion of American advancement, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., reminded us in a time of historic change, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.”

In the Progressive Era when Teddy Roosevelt championed radical reform, genuine democratic progress followed and was written into the Constitution and the statutes of the land. Amidst those amendments?

  1. Eliminating poll taxes and extending the right to women and eighteen- to twenty-year-olds
  2. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts
  3. And finally, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

As substantial as this progress was, it never quite assured that the great mass of people would gain and hold the right of self-government against the special interests.

Moreover, plainly illustrating its fallibility, The U.S. Constitution contains no guarantee of a right to vote. This lack of definition is constantly exploited by political hucksters who would make America a democracy for the few, and a plutocracy in fundamental nature. The malefactors of great wealth continue to entwine the methods of free government into the machinery for defeating the popular will.

And scarcely a hundred years after Roosevelt identified his central condition of progress, the GOP has managed to reverse it; remarkably with court rulings and practices that are contributing to the obliteration of the American electoral system as a tool for realizing the democratic dreams that have given life to American progress across two centuries.

I’m certainly not suggesting that U.S. elections have ever been perfect—far from it—but the United States is now rapidly approaching a point where the electoral process itself ceases to function as a means for citizens to effectively control leaders and guide government policies.

The Hard Facts

It pains me, as a citizen, a veteran, and a liberal, who has spent my life believing in America’s ability to recognize its failings and correct them, to write these words. But there can no longer be any question that free and fair elections—what we were raised to believe was an American democratic birthright—are effectively being taken away from the people by a power-hungry and wealthy elite at the expense of their less fortunate citizens.

Billionaires, corporations, the politicians who do their bidding, and the media conglomerates that facilitate the abuse have sapped elections of their meaning and of their democratic credibility. “The Money Power,” as Roosevelt and his contemporaries termed the collaboration that imposed the will of wealth on our politics, achieves its ends by flooding the electoral system with an unprecedented tidal wave of unaccountable money.

The money that makes a mockery of political equality in the voting booth, and the determination of media companies to cash in on that mockery—when they should instead be exposing and opposing it—completes a vicious circle.

This is certainly not a new experience, but it is an undoubtedly accelerating phenomenon. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United allowing unlimited corporate campaign spending confirmed the court-ordered attenuation of democratic processes that over four decades has renewed the political privileges of the elites.

“The day before Citizens United decided,” Lawrence Lessig wrote, “our democracy was already broken. Citizens United have shot the body, but the body was already cold.”

Economic elites are now exploiting those privileges with an abandon not seen since the era of the robber barons that Roosevelt decried. To enhance the influence of their money, billionaires, corporations, and their political pawns began in the run-up to the 2012 election to aggressively advance policies designed to limit the voting rights of those Americans who are most likely to reject these elites’ continued dominance of the political process. They are grasping for total power, and if they did not succeed in choking off the avenues of dissent in 2012, they will surely return—with increased determination and more insidious tactics—in 2014 and 2016 and beyond.

“There’s been almost a shameless quality to it,” says former U.S. senator Russ Feingold of the demands on politicians to raise and spend exponentially more money since the Citizens United . “It has grossly altered our system of government. We don’t have the kind of elections that most of us grew up seeing.”

The Deterioration of the Fourth Estate

The moneyed interests are secure, even in the face of temporary setbacks, that they will be able to continue their plan because they are well served by the rapid decline of the news media as a checking and balancing force on our politics. Our dominant media institutions do an absolutely dreadful job of drawing citizens into public life, especially elections. The owners of media corporations have made their pact with the new order. For the most part, they do not challenge it, as the crusading editors and publishers of another age did; they simply use it to add to their bottom lines.

Rather, advertising departments position media outlets to garner bonus profits through the broadcasting of invariably inane and crudely negative political campaign advertising, which is the Lingua Franca of American electioneering in the twenty-first century. The corporate media are the immediate financial beneficiaries of our increasingly absurd election system.

Worse, they have become the primary barriers to its reform. To talk about the crisis of money in politics without addressing the mess that the media has made of things is tantamount to talking about a deliberate fire without talking about the arsonist.

The marriage of money and media has become so vast and so dominant that it can best be understood as an entity unto itself. This composite is built on a set of commercial and institutional relationships involving wealthy donors, lobbyists,  giant corporations, politicians, spinmeisters, corporate media, consultants, coin-operated “think tanks,” beltway pundits, and now super-PACs. These relationships are eviscerating democratic elections to their own advantage.

The complex embraces and encourages a politics defined by wealthy funders, corporate media, and the preservation of a new status quo; it is the modern-day manifestation of the identical arrangements that served the robber barons of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and it does not bode well for the foreseeable future.

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