10 Ways Our Democracy Is Crumbling Around Us

10 Ways Our Democracy Is Crumbling Around Us,  Les LeopoldAlterNetApril 5, 2012 

Excerpt

Our democracy is in grave danger. In fact, it may already be fatally wounded as a financial oligopoly increasingly dominates American politics and the economy. What’s most remarkable about this new form of oligarchy is that it has no face. There are no flesh and blood oligarchs, only unnamed investors… They can set the entire direction of government activity without lobbying at all.

1. Money and Politics Our democracy is supposedly rooted in the idea of one person, one vote. But the introduction of big money into politics distorts, and perhaps, destroys that ideal…

2. Voter Disenfranchisement At the core of modern democracy is voting – we get to choose who governs us.  If that’s the case, then we should be very concerned about how the electorate is being dismantled.

3. Our Skewed Distribution of Income Sometimes we forget that money in politics wouldn’t matter if our income distribution wasn’t so lopsided…Of course, you don’t need to have full equality of income to have a viable democracy. But does there come a point when a skewed distribution of income makes a sham of democracy? If we’re not already there, we may be getting close…we lead the world when it comes to our income gap.

4. Tax Breaks for the Super-rich

5. Wall Street Bailouts

6. Deficit Hysteria

7. Crumbling Social and Physical Infrastructure

8. The Failure to Create Jobs

9. The Revolving Door  Democracy is also in peril when financial personnel slide back and forth between Wall Street and Washington…

10. Worshiping the Market Gods – Perhaps the biggest danger signal comes with the growing worship of financial markets. For nearly 3,000 years there has been an uneasy tension between money-lenders and governments of all kinds. But until recently government usually held the upper hand. Not so today. The financial markets have more power than ever before, and every political leader knows it.

Is It Too Late for Democracy?

The game’s not over yet. We still have freedom of expression and the right to protest – more or less. Occupy Wall Street both showed how the debate could be altered, and how easily the authorities could end the encampments. So, it’s an open question whether we have the will to build and sustain a broad, powerful anti-Wall Street movement.

Full text

Our democracy is in grave danger. In fact, it may already be fatally wounded as a financial oligopoly increasingly dominates American politics and the economy. What’s most remarkable about this new form of oligarchy is that it has no face. There are no flesh and blood oligarchs, only unnamed investors. The big financial sharks can swim among our 401ks. They can flex their awesome power without getting fingered. They can set the entire direction of government activity without lobbying at all.

1. Money and Politics

Our democracy is supposedly rooted in the idea of one person, one vote. But the introduction of big money into politics distorts, and perhaps, destroys that ideal. Unlike most advanced democracies, we have failed to eliminate the destructive impacts of money on politics. The cost of our campaigns are rapidly rising. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision further accelerated this trend so that now there are virtually no limits on how much billionaires can spend on their preferred candidates.

Bankers too are getting into the act. One recent super PAC, “Friends of Traditional Banking [3]” is seeking races where it can “target the industry’s enemies and support its friends in Congress.”

Of course the obvious result is that all candidates, regardless of party, spend most of their time begging for money, not legislating. You can’t get elected without kissing the oligarchs’ rings.

2. Voter Disenfranchisement

At the core of modern democracy is voting – we get to choose who governs us.  If that’s the case, then we should be very concerned about how the electorate is being dismantled. Let’s start with the fact that if you’re a felon, you may not be permitted to vote at all. Since we have the largest prison population in the world, we also have more than 5 million disenfranchised felons, and former-felons. (The voting rules vary by state.)

Equally telling is the tidal wave of new voting laws sweeping through state legislatures.  According to a recent report from NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice [4], “More than 5 million Americans could be affected by the new rules already put in place this year — a number larger than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections.” These new restrictions include tougher laws requiring photo IDs, proof of citizenship, removal of early and absentee voting, and making it harder to restore voting rights after criminal convictions.

The rapid spread of these nearly identical disenfranchise efforts is not accidental. They come directly from the American Legislative Exchange Council [5], which the New York Times reorts is “a business-backed conservative group, which has circulated voter ID proposals in scores of state legislatures.” The oligarchs funding this effort include American Nuclear Energy Council, the American Petroleum Institute, Amoco, Chevron, Coors Brewing Company, Shell, Texaco, Chlorine Chemistry Council, Union Pacific Railroad, Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, Waste Management, Philip Morris Management Corporation, and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. (http://www.alecwatch.org/chapterone.html [6])

Perhaps the most pernicious efforts involve state legislation to discourage voter registration. (You would think that in a democracy we would do everything possible to register voters and to encourage them to vote.) Take Florida for example. The New York Times reports [7] how the state has basically eliminated voter registration drives.

“The state’s new elections law — which requires groups that register voters to turn in completed forms within 48 hours or risk fines, among other things — has led the state’s League of Women Voters [8] to halt its efforts this year. Rock the Vote [9], a national organization that encourages young people to vote, began an effort last week to register high school students around the nation — but not in Florida, over fears that teachers could face fines. And on college campuses, the once-ubiquitous folding tables piled high with voter registration forms are now a rarer sight.

And then of course, there’s Gore v Bush where the Supreme Court ordered the halt of a recount in Florida that would have declared Al Gore, not George Bush, as president [10].

3. Our Skewed Distribution of Income

Sometimes we forget that money in politics wouldn’t matter if our income distribution wasn’t so lopsided. Ever since the Greeks invented democracy, there has been a question about the relationship between political and economic democracy. Is it possible to have political democracy if the income distribution is severely skewed? Of course, you don’t need to have full equality of income to have a viable democracy. But does there come a point when a skewed distribution of income makes a sham of democracy? If we’re not already there, we may be getting close. As this chart shows, we lead the world when it comes to our income gap.

Ratio of CEO Compensation To Average Employee Compensation in 2000

Japan          10:1
Germany      11:1
Switzerland   11:1
Sweden        14:1
New Zealand 16:1
France          16:1
Spain            18:1
Belgium         19:1
Italy              19:1
Canada         21:1
Australia        22:1
Netherlands   22:1
Britain           25:1
Hong Kong    38:1
Mexico         45:1
Argentina      48:1
South Africa  51:1
U.S.             365:1

(Source: Michael Hennigan, “Executive Pay and Inequality in the Winner-take-all Society,” Finfacts Ireland, August 7, 2005.)

4. Tax Breaks for the Super-rich

You know the oligarchy is rolling along when it wins enormous tax breaks during good times and bad, under Democrats and Republicans. This shows up in two important ways. First, we see a decline in the top marginal tax rate from 91 percent during the Eisenhower years down to 35 percent today. But what matters even more is the 15 percent marginal rate on capital gains and similar kinds of income. That’s how Mitt Romney gets to pay only 13.9 percent of his massive income in taxes.

While we would love to blame it all on the Republicans, the chart below shows that the effective tax rate on the rich (after all deductions) has been plummeting no matter which party holds office. And although President Obama is currently very upset about the Republicans call for even more tax cuts for the super-rich, he was also unable to raise taxes on top income earners when the Democrats controlled Congress. In addition, the Democrats were unable to close the outrageous carried interest loophole that fattens hedge funds. Nor did they get near passing a financial transaction tax on Wall Street. Oligarchs don’t like to pay. And their money makes sure it stays that way. Is that democracy?

5. Wall Street Bailouts

Another sure sign of financial oligarchy is when the national vault breaks open for Wall Street bailouts and stays open. It’s become clear that too-big-to-fail banks remain far too large to fail. In fact, they have grown larger. They can continue to bet with impunity knowing that if they lose big, we will bail them out again. Under democratic capitalism this is called a “moral hazard.” But really it’s the ancient morality of oligarchy.

The sequence of events leading up to and through the financial crash is a stain on our democracy. First the largest banks and investment houses went on a wildly profitable gambling spree. They created and sold fantasy finance instruments that they knew were toxic to the core. They got their lapdog rating agencies to bless them with AAA ratings. And then they peddled the trash all over the world. Along the way housing prices were puffed up to astronomical highs since high-risk mortgages were needed to create the corrupt securities. Government, after years of ideologically informed deregulation, aided and abetted the entire process. The toxic trash created the crash.

For a short time it seemed as if Wall Street would pay for the damage it had caused – that the large banks would be broken up, that homeowners would be bailed out, that the unemployed would be put to work, and that Wall Street gambling would be eliminated with the passage of New Deal-like controls.

But the oligarchs would not stand for it. They got bailed out, not the average American. Too-big-to-fail banks used our bailout funds to get even bigger. And the reforms are weak and yet to be instituted.

That’s not what Americans wanted or expected. But under our financialized democracy, that’s what we’re getting…and more is yet to come.

6. Deficit Hysteria

It’s remarkable to watch how oligarchs shift the national conversation toward debt and away from themselves. By the summer of 2011, both parties where clamoring for cuts (which they call “reforms”) in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. As the Democrats moved to the right, the Republicans went even further, demanding more tax cuts for the rich and more draconian cuts in social programs – from food stamps to Head Start. All of this becomes possible because of the national drumbeat about deficits and debt.

With massive investments in think-tanks and media infrastructure, Wall Street’s minions successfully persuaded Washington that the American people, not Wall Street, should pay for the damage that Wall Street created. That’s the very definition of oligarchic chutzpah.

7. Crumbling Social and Physical Infrastructure

When you’re a financial oligarch, you live in your gated community, you send your kids to private schools, you go to your own expensive healthcare providers, and travel on your private jet which leaves from its own private terminal. You could care less what happens to the rest of America. You have no interest in funding public education. (In fact, the very profitable student loan market depends on rising education costs.) You would think that business leaders would want an educated workforce. But the real oligarchs don’t care. They can get their workers from anywhere in the world. What about the decay of our roads, bridges and public transportation? Doesn’t business need that too? Productive enterprises do, but the financial elites rely almost entirely on a privately controlled electronic infrastructure. Cracked bridges don’t matter.

But financial elites do care deeply about privatization. Turning over the government to the private sector is a thing of beauty for oligarchs. It’s a nice transfer of taxpayer money to firms that can use political muscle to gain contracts. The insecurity of competitive markets is eliminated as you waltz off with military and civilian contracts worth billions. (See Colin Greer’s “The Biggest Engine of Economic Growth? 8 Ways Taxpayers and the Government Are Necessary to Capitalism [11].”)

When America was competing with the USSR, maintaining some semblance of substantive democracy was critically important. It’s not an accident that during the Cold War we invested heavily in higher education, transportation and social programs like Medicare and Medicaid. We even supported unions. Oligarchs were constrained in the name of freedom. No more.

8. The Failure to Create Jobs

Until recently, our democracy would not tolerate high levels of unemployment. In fact it was suicidal for any politician or political party to preside over severe recessions that lasted over a year. And even during the Great Depression, it was expected that government would do everything possible to create jobs and protect the unemployed. That sense of urgency is long gone as the oligarchs have flexed their political muscle.

We are now four years into the crisis and the unemployment rate remains stuck at around 8 percent. In the past, such levels would have forced government to create jobs programs left and right. At the very least, federal money would have gone to state and local governments to prevent more public layoffs. Instead, we are witnessing an on-going human catastrophe, especially for the long term unemployed – those without jobs for 26 weeks or more. These workers will find it extremely difficult ever to find work again. A vital democracy would not stand for it. Instead, we are getting far too used to it.

9. The Revolving Door

Democracy is also in peril when financial personnel slide back and forth between Wall Street and Washington. It’s an unwritten rule that the top Treasury officials must come from Wall Street in order to “reassure” markets. Hank Paulson, Bush’s Treasury Secretary, formerly served as the CEO of Goldman Sachs. Tim Geithner, Obama’s Treasury Secretary previously was the head of the New York Fed, which is considered the informal board of directors for Wall Street. These officials truly believe that what’s good for Wall Street is good for the country.

For example, while Paulson was misleading Congress and the media about the dire situation at Fannie and Freddie in 2008, he then rushed to New York to tell his hedge fund buddies (who once worked for him at Goldman Sachs) that Freddie and Fannie soon would be nationalized. That secret tip was worth hundreds of millions to those hedge funds which then shorted the stocks and made a killing. Paulson obviously believed that the nation was served better by speaking truthfully to the oligarchs while lying to our democratic leaders.

Then there’s Peter Orzag, the former Obama budget director, widely known as a deficit hawk. Orzag was in government throughout the bailout period and was intimately involved in pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into failed banks like CitiGroup. Two years later Orzag leaves his high-level government position to take a multi-million dollar job with…CitiGroup.

Meanwhile congressional members, staff and civil servants also have their eyes glued on lucrative financial jobs in the very industries that are supposed to control in the name of the public good. Some already are auditioning by spending their time in Congress managing their own investment portfolios. Staff members are behaving like day traders [12].

This is what the ugly transition from democracy to oligarchy looks like.

10. Worshiping the Market Gods

Perhaps the biggest danger signal comes with the growing worship of financial markets. For nearly 3,000 years there has been an uneasy tension between money-lenders and governments of all kinds. But until recently government usually held the upper hand. Not so today. The financial markets have more power than ever before, and every political leader knows it. That power translates into the anthropomorphic qualities assigned to markets which now have a range of human emotions: Markets “approve or show their displeasure;” become “jittery or remain calm;” and “show concern or provide support.” They can take down governments, cause debt crises and generally veto policies that get them “uneasy.”

How bad is it? Just think about when the rating agencies – the petty apostles of Wall Street — reduced their ratings on U.S. government debt last summer. Politicians and the media actually took them seriously. How crazy is that? These same rating agencies turned tricks for Wall Street banks and mis-rated thousands of mortgage-backed securities leading up to the crisis. They are the walking embodiment of abject failure and they should have gone under along with their mis-rated securities.

Instead, when the deficit discussion was mounting in Washington, these same rating agencies had the gall to cut U.S. debt ratings….and we took them seriously? The “markets” sure didn’t because interest rates remained at record lows. Yet, pundits asked, “What must we do to get our AAA rating back?” They should have been asking: “How much do those rating agencies owe the American people for damage they did to the economy and how do we get it back?”

Is It Too Late for Democracy?

The game’s not over yet. We still have freedom of expression and the right to protest – more or less. Occupy Wall Street both showed how the debate could be altered, and how easily the authorities could end the encampments. So, it’s an open question whether we have the will to build and sustain a broad, powerful anti-Wall Street movement.

The financial rot is deeply impacting our democratic structures. It should worry us when Wall Street and its political minions warn that we might become the next Greece. They, of course, are referring to the debt crisis. But Greece is also the very place where finance is crushing democracy. Austerity is being rammed down the throats of the Greek people and democratic government can no longer protect the infirm and the unemployed from the onslaught of the oligarchs. It is both sad and frightening that it’s happening at the historical birthplace of democracy.

We all are Greeks.

 

See more stories tagged with:

wall street [13]


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/story/154884/10_ways_our_democracy_is_crumbling_around_us

Links:
[1] http://alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/les-leopold
[3] http://www.americanbanker.com/issues/177_66/SuperPAC-banking-Howard-Headless–Friends-of-Traditional-Banking-1048138-1.html?zkPrintable=1&nopagination=1
[4] http://www.brennancenter.org/content/resource/voting_law_changes_in_2012
[5] http://www.alec.org/am/pdf/InsideALEC/Inside_June09.pdf
[6] http://www.alecwatch.org/chapterone.html
[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/28/us/restrictions-on-voter-registration-in-florida-have-groups-opting-out.html
[8] http://www.lwv.org/
[9] http://www.rockthevote.com/
[10] http://www.commondreams.org/views01/1115-02.htm
[11] http://www.alternet.org/story/154538/the_biggest_engine_of_economic_growth_8_ways_taxpayers_and_the_government_are_necessary_to_capitalism/
[12] http://www.louise.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2623
[13] http://www.alternet.org/tags/wall-street
[14] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

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The Real Numbers: Half of America in Poverty — and It’s Creeping toward 75%
The Right’s Stupidity Spreads, Enabled by a Too-Polite Left
The Rise and Fall of the American Childhood By Colin Greer
The Rise of the Regressive Right and the Reawakening of America by Robert Reich
The Self-Made Myth: Debunking Conservatives’ Favorite — And Most Dangerous — Fiction
The Sick Social Darwinism Driving Modern Republicans by Robert Reich
The Siren Song Of War: Why Pundits Beat The Drums For Iraq
The Spiritual and Political Warfare of the New Religious Right
The Strange Sexual Obsessions Driving the Tea Party Movement by David Rosen
The Tragic Story of Christianity: How a Pacifist Religion Was Hijacked by Rabid Warmongering Elites By Gary G. Kohls
The Uh-Ohs: A Decade of Conservative Failure by Terrance Heath
The Ungodly Constitution: How the Founders Ensured America Would Not Be a Christian Nation
The Virus of GOP Ignorance: Why Don’t Media Protect Us From the Lies Spewed in the Republican Primary?
The Wild Hypocrisy of America’s Conservative Christians By David Sirota
Tim Wise on White Resentment in a Multiracial Society
Tony Blair [and George Bush] should face trial over Iraq war, says Desmond Tutu
Turned off from politics? That’s exactly what the politicians want.
U.S. Ranks at the Bottom of Child Well-Being
U.S. to Grow Grayer, More Diverse, Minorities Will Be Majority by 2042, Census Bureau Says By N.C. Aizenman
US Poverty Rate Reaching 50-Year High by Common Dreams staff
US Running on Myths, Lies, Deceptions and Distractions by John Atcheson
Us vs Them: A Simple Recipe to Prevent Strong Society from Forming By James Rohrer
Voter Suppression Is Treasonous by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm
Voting Rights Under Attack as GOP Seeks to Overturn Historic Civil Rights Law
Wall Street CEOs are the ‘Faces of Class Warfare’
Wall Street Manipulates Deficit Angst with ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Fear
Was the 2004 Election Stolen? by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Washington Has Been Stopped in Its Tracks by Republican Tea Party Types, and It’s Destroying the Country
We’re Number 88! US Ranked Low on Global Peace Index — Common Dreams staff
What Watchdog? How the Financial Press Has Failed the American Public
What Would Machiavelli Do? The Big Lie Lives On by Thom Hartmann
Who Are You Going To Believe: Karl Rove Or Your Lying Eyes? by Paul Blumenthal
Who Can Take Republicans Seriously?
Who Is The Smallest Government Spender Since Eisenhower? Would You Believe It’s Barack Obama?
Who Really Won the Election? Campaign Consultants
Why are “Wedge Issues” Essential to Republican Rule?
Why Are Americans So Easy to Manipulate and Control?
Why don’t bad ideas ever die?
Why Few Americans View Climate Change as a Moral Problem by Ezra Markowitz
Why Government Should Not Be Run Like A Business
Why Inequality Is Bad for the One Percent
Why Is Poverty, Inequality Growing?
Why It’s Okay to Criticize Fundamentalist Evangelicals by Tom Eggebeen
Why Our Elites Stink By David Brooks
Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control — And Why We’ll Still Be Fighting About it 100 Years From Now
Why sane bargaining looks strange
Why Teaching People to Think for Themselves Is Repugnant to Religious Zealots
Why Ultra-Conservatives Like the Sequester
Will Republican Voters Believe Anything? The Right’s Hyperbolic, Dysfunctional World
With Millions in Assets And Hundreds of Attorneys, Christian Right Is Waging War on the Church-State Wall

Economic Justice – Race

Modern GOP is still the party of Dixie 

What Do We Really Know About Racial Inequality? Labor Markets, Politics, and the Historical Basis of Black Economic Fortunes By Cynthia Thaler, Alternet.org, January 18, 2013 – In 2011, the ratio of employed population to full population among racial groups was 51.7% for African Americans and 59.4% for whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That same year, the ratio between the median wealth (assets minus debts) of white households versus that of black households was the largest since the government started collecting such data in 1984, and approximately twice what it had been before the Great Recession of 2007–2009. The racial economic gap — also present in other measures of economic well-being, such as wage and unemployment gaps — has persisted over time in the United States…racial wage and employment disparities between blacks and whites since the 1940′s have been shaped by both market and non-market factors, including: racial discrimination; political and institutional factors such as social-movement mobilizations; shifting government policies; unionization efforts; and evolving public employment opportunities…“racial economic gains have relied most directly upon momentary shifts in political mobilization, state strategy, and union power rather than on secular trends in human capital or economic restructuring; yet these shifts (perhaps because they have been so momentary) often failed to sustain or build upon whatever gains have been achieved.”……Black voter turnout in 2012 was exceptionally high — and may for the first time have equaled that of whites among eligible voters– suggesting growing political clout, according to the Pew Research Center. A wide variety of contemporary academic literature has also focused on how traditional high-poverty U.S. urban areas are changing in complexion.

The Astonishing Collapse of Black and Latino Household Wealth By Adam Hudson, AlterNet, May 31, 2013  …The Great Recession has increased racial inequality and set back the modest socioeconomic gains of the civil rights movement…while the racial wealth gap has existed for decades, it’s drastically expanded during the last 30 years….The 2007-2009 recession devastated the American economy and all families suffered decreasing wealth. However, African American and Latino families were hit the hardest… the racial wealth gap is not new. It has deep historical roots and current policies perpetuate and exacerbate it….Practices in employment and education also contribute to the racial wealth gap…

History – race

The Long, Sordid History of the American Right and Racism By Robert Parry, Consortium News May 20, 2013 – Racism has been a consistent thread weaving through the American Right from the early days when Anti-Federalists battled against the U.S. Constitution to the present when hysterical Tea Partiers denounce the first African-American president. Other factors have come and gone for the Right, but racism has always been there…Though definitions of Right and Left are never precise, the Left has generally been defined, in the American context, by government actions – mostly the federal government responding to popular movements and representing the collective will of the American people – seeking to improve the lot of common citizens and to reduce social injustice…The Right has been defined by opposition to such government activism. Since the Founding, the Right has decried government interference with the “free market” and intrusion upon “traditions,” like slavery and segregation, as “tyranny” or “socialism.”…This argument goes back to 1787 and opposition to the Constitution’s centralizing of government power in the hands of federal authorities…the Second Amendment was devised to give individual Americans the right to own and carry any weapon of their choice…it was primarily a concession to the states… a Southern state’s ability to maintain slavery by force and defend against slave uprisings… the concerns were not entirely over rebellious slaves, but also over rebellious poor whites…After World War II – with the United States now a world superpower – the continued existence of institutionalized racism became an embarrassment undermining America’s claim to be a beacon of human freedom. Finally, spurred on by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, the federal government finally moved against the South’s practice of segregation. That reignited the long-simmering conflict between federal power and states’ rights…Though the federal government prevailed in outlawing racial segregation, the Right’s anger over this intrusion upon Southern traditions fueled a powerful new movement of right-wing politicians. Since the Democratic Party led the fight against segregation in the 1960s, Southern whites rallied to the Republican Party as their vehicle of political resistance. Opportunistic politicians, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, deftly exploited the white backlash and turned much of the Dixie-crat South into solid Republican Red. This resurgence of white racial resentments also merged with a reassertion of “libertarian” economics as memories of the Great Depression faded. In essence, the late Nineteenth Century alliance between segregationist whites in the South and laissez-faire businessmen in the North was being reestablished.

This right-wing collaboration reached a new level of intensity in 2008 after the election of the first African-American president whose victory reflected the emergence of a multi-racial electorate threatening to end the historic white political domination of the United States. With the election also coming amid a Wall Street financial collapse – after years of reduced government regulation — Barack Obama’s arrival also portended a renewal of federal government activism. Thus, the age-old battle was rejoined…However, the historical narrative that the Right constructed around the nation’s Founding was not the one that actually happened… in the Right’s revisionist version, the Articles of Confederation are forgotten and the Framers were simply out to create a governing system with strong states’ rights and a weak federal government. That fabrication played well with an uneducated right-wing base that could then envision itself using its Second Amendment rights to fight for the Framers’ vision of “liberty.” As this right-wing narrative now plays out, Barack Obama is not only a black Muslim “socialist” oppressing liberty-loving white Christian Americans but he is a “tyrant” despoiling the beautiful, nearly divine, God-inspired Constitution that the Framers bestowed upon the nation — including, apparently, those wonderful provisions protecting slavery.

 

Fear of a Black President By Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, Sep­tem­ber 2012…The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most suc­cess­ful black politi­cian in Amer­i­can his­tory by avoid­ing the radioac­tive racial issues of yes­ter­year…This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the coun­try he leads. For most of Amer­i­can his­tory, our polit­i­cal sys­tem was premised on two con­flict­ing facts—one, an oft-stated love of democ­racy; the other, an unde­mo­c­ra­tic white supremacy inscribed at every level of gov­ern­ment. In war­ring against that para­dox, African Amer­i­cans have his­tor­i­cally been restricted to the realm of protest and agi­ta­tion.…Barack Obama gov­erns a nation enlight­ened enough to send an African Amer­i­can to the White House, but not enlight­ened enough to accept a black man as its president…This is a func­tion not only of Obama’s elec­tion to the White House but of the way his pres­i­dency broad­casts an easy, almost mys­tic, black­ness to the world. The Obama fam­ily rep­re­sents our ideal imag­in­ing of ourselves—an ideal we so rarely see on any kind of national stage. What black peo­ple are expe­ri­enc­ing right now is a kind of priv­i­lege pre­vi­ously withheld—seeing our most sacred cul­tural prac­tices and tropes val­i­dated in the world’s high­est office. Through­out the whole of Amer­i­can his­tory, this kind of cul­tural power was wielded solely by whites, and with such ubiq­uity that it was not even com­mented upon. The expan­sion of this cul­tural power beyond the pri­vate province of whites has been a tremen­dous advance for black Amer­ica. Con­versely, for those who’ve long trea­sured white exclu­siv­ity, the exis­tence of a Pres­i­dent Barack Obama is dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing, even ter­ri­fy­ing…In Amer­ica, the rights to own prop­erty, to serve on a jury, to vote, to hold pub­lic office, to rise to the pres­i­dency have his­tor­i­cally been seen as belong­ing only to those peo­ple who showed par­tic­u­lar integrity. Cit­i­zen­ship was a social con­tract in which per­sons of moral stand­ing were trans­formed into stake­hold­ers who swore to defend the state against threats exter­nal and internal…The idea that blacks should hold no place of con­se­quence in the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal future has affected every sec­tor of Amer­i­can soci­ety, trans­form­ing white­ness itself into a monop­oly on Amer­i­can possibilities…After Obama won, the longed-for post-­racial moment did not arrive; on the con­trary, racism inten­si­fied. At ral­lies for the nascent Tea Party, peo­ple held signs say­ing things like Obama Plans White Slavery…While [Glenn] Beck and [Rush] Lim­baugh have cho­sen direct racial assault, oth­ers choose sim­ply to deny that a black pres­i­dent actu­ally exists… The goal of all this is to dele­git­imize Obama’s pres­i­dency…Thus the myth of “twice as good” that makes Barack Obama pos­si­ble also smoth­ers him…Race is not sim­ply a por­tion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Amer­i­cans view all his politics…No one knows this bet­ter than Obama him­self, who once described patri­o­tism as more than pageantry and the scarf­ing of hot dogs. “When our laws, our lead­ers, or our gov­ern­ment are out of align­ment with our ideals, then the dis­sent of ordi­nary Amer­i­cans may prove to be one of the truest expres­sions of patri­o­tism,” Obama said…Part of Obama’s genius is a remark­able abil­ity to soothe race con­scious­ness among whites. Any black per­son who’s worked in the pro­fes­sional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been prac­ticed at such a high level, and never have its lim­its been so obvi­ously exposed. This need to talk in dul­cet tones, to never be angry regard­less of the offense, bespeaks a strange and com­pro­mised inte­gra­tion indeed, reveal­ing a coun­try so infan­tile that it can coun­te­nance white accep­tance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard…

Conservative Southern Values Revived: How a Brutal Strain of American Aristocrats Have Come to Rule America By Sara Robinson, AlterNet, June 28, 2012 - It’s been said that the rich are different than you and me. What most Americans don’t know is that they’re also quite different from each other, and that which faction is currently running the show ultimately makes a vast difference in the kind of country we are. Right now, a lot of our problems stem directly from the fact that the wrong sort has finally gotten the upper hand; a particularly brutal and anti-democratic strain of American aristocrat that the other elites have mostly managed to keep away from the levers of power since the Revolution. Worse: this bunch has set a very ugly tone that’s corrupted how people with power and money behave in every corner of our culture. Here’s what happened, and how it happened, and what it means for America now. North versus South: Two Definitions of Liberty

Michael Lind first called out the existence of this conflict in his 2006 book, Made In Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics. He argued that much of American history has been characterized by a struggle between two historical factions among the American elite — and that the election of George W. Bush was a definitive sign that the wrong side was winning.

For most of our history, American economics, culture and politics have been dominated by a New England-based Yankee aristocracy that was rooted in Puritan communitarian values, educated at the Ivies and marinated in an ethic of noblesse oblige (the conviction that those who possess wealth and power are morally bound to use it for the betterment of society). While they’ve done their share of damage to the notion of democracy in the name of profit (as all financial elites inevitably do), this group has, for the most part, tempered its predatory instincts with a code that valued mass education and human rights; held up public service as both a duty and an honor; and imbued them with the belief that once you made your nut, you had a moral duty to do something positive with it for the betterment of mankind. Your own legacy depended on this.

Among the presidents, this strain gave us both Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Poppy Bush — nerdy, wonky intellectuals who, for all their faults, at least took the business of good government seriously. Among financial elites, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet still both partake strongly of this traditional view of wealth as power to be used for good. Even if we don’t like their specific choices, the core impulse to improve the world is a good one — and one that’s been conspicuously absent in other aristocratic cultures.

Which brings us to that other great historical American nobility — the plantation aristocracy of the lowland South, which has been notable throughout its 400-year history for its utter lack of civic interest, its hostility to the very ideas of democracy and human rights, its love of hierarchy, its fear of technology and progress, its reliance on brutality and violence to maintain “order,” and its outright celebration of inequality as an order divinely ordained by God…these elites have always feared and opposed universal literacy, public schools and libraries, and a free press…perhaps the most destructive piece of the Southern elites’ worldview is the extremely anti-democratic way it defined the very idea of liberty. In Yankee Puritan culture, both liberty and authority resided mostly with the community, and not so much with individuals. Communities had both the freedom and the duty to govern themselves as they wished (through town meetings and so on), to invest in their collective good, and to favor or punish individuals whose behavior enhanced or threatened the whole (historically, through community rewards such as elevation to positions of public authority and trust; or community punishments like shaming, shunning or banishing).

Individuals were expected to balance their personal needs and desires against the greater good of the collective — and, occasionally, to make sacrifices for the betterment of everyone. (This is why the Puritan wealthy tended to dutifully pay their taxes, tithe in their churches and donate generously to create hospitals, parks and universities.) In return, the community had a solemn and inescapable moral duty to care for its sick, educate its young and provide for its needy — the kind of support that maximizes each person’s liberty to live in dignity and achieve his or her potential. A Yankee community that failed to provide such support brought shame upon itself. To this day, our progressive politics are deeply informed by this Puritan view of ordered liberty.

In the old South, on the other hand, the degree of liberty you enjoyed was a direct function of your God-given place in the social hierarchy. When a Southern conservative talks about “losing his liberty,” the loss of this absolute domination over the people and property under his control — and, worse, the loss of status and the resulting risk of being held accountable for laws that he was once exempt from — is what he’s really talking about. In this view, freedom is a zero-sum game. Anything that gives more freedom and rights to lower-status people can’t help but put serious limits on the freedom of the upper classes to use those people as they please. It cannot be any other way. So they find Yankee-style rights expansions absolutely intolerable, to the point where they’re willing to fight and die to preserve their divine right to rule.

Once we understand the two different definitions of “liberty” at work here, a lot of other things suddenly make much more sense. We can understand the traditional Southern antipathy to education, progress, public investment, unionization, equal opportunity, and civil rights

The Civil War was, at its core, a military battle between these two elites for the soul of the country. It pitted the more communalist, democratic and industrialized Northern vision of the American future against the hierarchical, aristocratic, agrarian Southern one. Though the Union won the war, the fundamental conflict at its root still hasn’t been resolved to this day. (The current conservative culture war is the Civil War still being re-fought by other means.)…

post-war Southerners and Westerners drew their power from the new wealth provided by the defense, energy, real estate, and other economic booms in their regions. They also had a profound evangelical conviction, brought with them out of the South, that God wanted them to take America back from the Yankee liberals — a conviction that expressed itself simultaneously in both the formation of the vast post-war evangelical churches (which were major disseminators of Southern culture around the country); and in their takeover of the GOP, starting with Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and culminating with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.

They countered Yankee hegemony by building their own universities, grooming their own leaders and creating their own media. By the 1990s, they were staging the RINO hunts that drove the last Republican moderates (almost all of them Yankees, by either geography or cultural background) and the meritocratic order they represented to total extinction within the GOP. A decade later, the Tea Party became the voice of the unleashed id of the old Southern order, bringing it forward into the 21st century with its full measure of selfishness, racism, superstition, and brutality intact.

…Buttressed by the arguments of Ayn Rand — who updated the ancient slaveholder ethic for the modern age… — it has been exported to every corner of the culture, infected most of our other elite communities and killed off all but the very last vestiges of noblesse oblige…

 

We are withdrawing government investments in public education, libraries, infrastructure, health care, and technological innovation — in many areas, to the point where we are falling behind the standards that prevail in every other developed country.

Elites who dare to argue for increased investment in the common good, and believe that we should lay the groundwork for a better future, are regarded as not just silly and soft-headed, but also inviting underclass revolt. The Yankees thought that government’s job was to better the lot of the lower classes. The Southern aristocrats know that its real purpose is to deprive them of all possible means of rising up against their betters.

The rich are different now because the elites who spent four centuries sucking the South dry and turning it into an economic and political backwater have now vanquished the more forward-thinking, democratic Northern elites. Their attitudes towards freedom, authority, community, government, and the social contract aren’t just confined to the country clubs of the Gulf Coast; they can now be found on the ground from Hollywood and Silicon Valley to Wall Street. And because of that quiet coup, the entire US is now turning into the global equivalent of a Deep South state.

As long as America runs according to the rules of Southern politics, economics and culture, we’re no longer free citizens exercising our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as we’ve always understood them. Instead, we’re being treated like serfs on Massa’s plantation — and increasingly, we’re being granted our liberties only at Massa’s pleasure. Welcome to Plantation America.

Divide and conquer

Us vs Them: A Simple Recipe to Prevent Strong Society from Forming By James Rohrer, AlterNet.org, July 27, 2012 …We humans are by nature social creatures, even the most introverted of us, and we tend to trust and follow the thinking of the groups with which we identify…Our groups define “us” and exert powerful influence on how we think, even how we feel, and how we behave in society. By definition, of course, every group creates “Them”— they are all the ones who are not in our group…most groups have some set of outsiders—some particular slice of the vast population that is “them” –that serves a very special symbolic function in their cosmos. These are members of other groups that believe things or advocate things that our group opposes. They are the enemy. Many groups, in fact, are formed specifically in opposition to some other group, and thus are defined precisely by their competition or conflict with “Them.” In this case, between “us” and “them” there can be nothing but implacable hostility. Conflict, often low level, but sometimes violent, is endemic to human social life.…Throughout history, political elites have manipulated social groups to achieve and maintain power.… in the last two generations Republicans have masterfully used wedge politics– pitting us against them — to gain and keep power and to implement policies that a clear majority of the populace dislikes, but apparently cannot find any effective way to change.…Although we live in an irreducibly pluralistic world, we have yet to learn how to function as a pluralistic democracy…To restore civil discourse and bring down the level of polarization, we need to learn new ways of relating together as us and them.….…The fundamental questions need to be raised, because what we imagine—no matter how inchoate it may be—influences the way that we act and the choices that we make every day. Nothing is more immediately practical and political than imagination…We have a lot of rehumanizing to do. There are powerful political and economic interests that want to keep us fragmented and at one another’s throats rather than working together to establish a more inclusive democracy. They will do all they can to stir continued discord between groups and to use wedge politics to defeat our aspirations for meaningful change. Can progressives of all persuasions, no matter what our primary interest groups may be, at least agree that we will stop doing their job for them?

Why are “Wedge Issues” Essential to Republican Rule? Buzzflash News Analysis, July 23, 2006 – While they have the public and the media distracted with red hot emotional topics, they go off and make the wealthy wealthier, increase our national debt, dismantle the Constitution, and take away government social services. Wedge issues are a powerful distraction — and allow the right wing to accomplish their goals while the public is preoccupied with some trumped up emotional issue that the Busheviks could care less about… wedge issues are emotional in appeal. They bypass the cognitive function of the brain and go right to a subconscious emotional response. Name any Republican wedge issue from immigration, to abortion, to gay marriage, to flag burning… “the war on terrorism” … and you run head into an emotional, not a reasoned, hook…. Basically, the Republican “rule by emotional appeal” boils down to a big brother elitism whose message to Americans is simply this: “Don’t think. We’ll do the thinking for you. Just follow.”

Overview – Crises

“The only answer can be denial. When you are sur­rounded by some­thing so big that requires you to change every­thing about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the nat­ural response. We are head­ing for a crisis-driven choice. We either allow col­lapse to over­take us or develop a new sus­tain­able eco­nomic model. We will choose the lat­ter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.” Paul Gild­ing

The Big The­o­ries Under­writ­ing Soci­ety Are Crash­ing All Around Us — Are You Ready for a New World? by Ter­rence McNally, Alter­Net, Jan­u­ary 27, 2010…Many of the ideas and institutions that define our culture are breaking down — and that’s a good thing, say Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman. In their new book, Spontaneous Evolution: Our Positive Future and a Way to Get There from Here, they write that today’s crises are part of a natural process — clearing out what no longer serves us to make room for a new way of being…We can no longer afford to indulge outdated worldviews. In order to deal with the crises we now face, we’ve got to act on the new realities and understandings revealed by science…. we want people to understand that this crisis makes it possible to move to a much higher level of evolution….Every human counts.

Humanity Imperiled – The Path to Disaster by Noam Chomsky, Huffington Post, June 4, 2013For the first time in the history of the human species, we have clearly developed the capacity to destroy ourselves… The question is: What are people doing about it?It’s not because the population doesn’t want it…It’s institutional structures that block change.  Business interests don’t want it and they’re overwhelmingly powerful in determining policy, so you get a big gap between opinion and policy on lots of issues, including this one…It’s not that there are no alternatives.  The alternatives just aren’t being taken. That’s dangerous.  So if you ask what the world is going to look like, it’s not a pretty picture.  Unless people do something about it.  We always can.

It’s even worse than it looks – Stever Inskeep, Host, NPR, April 30, 2012 MANN: (Reading) However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become a resurgent outlier, ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Global economic crisis also values crisis - Davos poll — by Tom Henegan, Religion Editor, New Frontiers, Reuters, January 27, 2010 – Two-thirds of people around the world think the global economic crisis is also a crisis of ethical values that calls for more honesty, transparency and respect for others, according to a World Economic Forum poll. Almost as many named business as the sector that should stress values more to foster a better world, said the poll…

Overview – Opportunity

A Turning-Point We Miss at Our Peril by Johann Hari, The Independent/UK, May 26, 2011 — …Some­times, there are hinge-points in human his­tory – moments when we have to choose between an exu­ber­ant descent into lunacy, and a still, sober voice offer­ing us a sane way out. Usu­ally, we can only see them when we look back from a distance.

“What is missing I think from the equation in our struggle today is that we must unleash radical thought. … America has never been moved to perfect our desire for greater democracy without radical thinking and radical voices being at the helm of any such a quest.” Harry Belafonte

“We have an opening in this crisis for a deep transformation in American politics…But it requires people — this is the hard part — to get out of their sort of passive resignation…and engage among themselves in a much more serious role as citizens…to force the changing values of the system.” William Grieder being interviewed by Bill Moyers, July 24, 2008

The Trayvon Martin tragedy

The Zimmerman Verdict Is a Wakeup Call to Address the Deep and Structural Injustices in America By Makani Themba,  AlterNet, July 15, 2013   Makani Themba is executive director of The Praxis Project.- …The legal argument that led to this verdict, which is centuries old, could not exist without de facto acceptance of racism as legitimate motive and Blackness itself as life threatening…law is so much more than cases.  Law is a fluid amalgamation of principle – ideals like freedom, liberty, equality; public perception and meaning – how we come to understand what principles mean in our current context; code – the nitty gritty words and technicalities that make up how these principles are implemented to and for whom; and coercion and intimidation – we follow laws that don’t work for us because we’d rather not deal with the consequences. The Right understands the importance of all these elements in the forging of law and social norms…Yes, we should support efforts to bring Zimmerman up on civil rights charges. Yes, we should support efforts to bring Zimmerman up on civil rights charges and boycott the companies that fund groups like ALEC that are responsible for the law that made his acquittal possible.  We also need a DOJ investigation and suit to address the blatantly racist patterns in the application of stand your ground type laws and extrajudicial killings in general.  .….…. We must also be more adept at leveraging human rights tools at our disposal to take our efforts beyond the limited framework of the Constitution  and reimagine remedies at a macro-systemic level including, yes, even reparations. Ending this tragic history of murder and mayhem; ensuring that there are no more Trayvons or Oscars or Vincents or Addie Maes requires an upending of the deeply entrenched structures that led to their deaths in the first place.  Let’s hope that this latest wakeup call will inspire more of us to take on the deeper work of structural transformation to make tragedies like these a thing of the past. full text

The Zimmerman Acquittal: America’s Racist God by Anthea Butler, ReligionDispatches.org,  July 14, 2013 - The lamentation of the African-American community at yet another injustice, the surprise and disgust of others who understand, stand against this pseudo-god of capitalisms and incarceration that threaten to take over our nation…While many continue to proclaim that the religious right is over, they’re wrong. The religious right is flourishing, and unlike the right of the 1970s, religious conservatism of the 21st century is in bed with the prison industrial complex, the Koch brothers, the NRA—all while proclaiming that they are “pro-life.” They are anything but…As a historian of American and African-American religion, I know that the Trayvon Martin moment is just one moment in a history of racism in America that, in large part, has its underpinnings in Christianity and its history. Those of us who teach American Religion have a responsibility to tell all of the story, not just the nice touchy-feely parts. When the good Christians of America are some of its biggest racists, one has to consider our moral responsibility to call out those who clearly are not for human flourishing, no matter what ethnicity a person is. Where are you on that scale? I know where I am. Full text

The Spiritual and Political Warfare of the New Religious Right by Bill Berkowitz for Buzzflash at Truthout, July 9, 2013 — …the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), the charismatic evangelical political and religious movement… …  [Lou Engle] and his organization have also become deeply involved in U.S. politics, especially in anti choice and antigay organizing,” …Engle calls for massive “spiritual warfare” that will result in a complete worldwide “political and social transformation” …To achieve its goals, the NAR aims to have its apostles seize control over every important aspect of society, including, the government, military, entertainment industry and education.” If the NAR falls short of world denomination, it intends, as a minimum, to “turn America back to God.”… full text

The American Legislative Exchange Council Is Hard at Work Privatizing America, One Statehouse at a Time, BillMoyers.com By Bill Moyers, June 22, 2013 - A national consortium of state politicians and powerful corporations, ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council — presents itself as a “nonpartisan public-private partnership”. But behind that mantra lies a vast network of corporate lobbying and political action aimed to increase corporate profits at public expense without public knowledge. In state houses around the country, hundreds of pieces of boilerplate ALEC legislation are proposed or enacted that would, among other things, dilute collective bargaining rights, make it harder for some Americans to vote, and limit corporate liability for harm caused to consumers — each accomplished without the public ever knowing who’s behind it. Using interviews, documents, and field reporting, “United States of ALEC — A Follow-Up” explores ALEC’s self-serving machine at work… full text