Before You Give up on Democracy, Read This!

by Frances Moore Lappé, September 18, 2013, The Huffington Post

Who doesn’t feel like throwing in the towel… with congressional approval ratings at a pitiful 10 percent? For pete’s sake, even the much-reviled “socialism” has more than double the fans.

Yet a moment’s reflection tells us we can’t solve any of our giant challenges without public decision-making bodies that work. So settling for the best democracy money can buy is not an option.

And just as clear?

That we can’t we fix our broken democracy without a vision of one that could work. Human beings have a hard time creating what we can’t imagine or even name. Of course, our “vision” can’t be some pie-in-the sky, fairy-tale democracy. To be motivating, it has to be hard-nosed: grounded in all we now know — the good, bad, and the ugly — about nature, including our own.

Here’s where we might begin:

First, we stop assuming that the prevailing version of liberal democracy — elections plus markets — is the best we humans can do. Then, we appreciate what ecology has to teach us about democracy. It’s a lot. Simply put, ecology holds these main lessons: that everything’s connected and everything’s changingwith all elements shaping all others moment to moment. We, like all organisms, respond to context.

“Thinking like an ecosystem,” we can see therefore that our inherited notion of democracy as an unchanging, political structure — fixed and finished — is bound to fail. With an “eco-mind,” we realize that democracy’s first questions must be:

What are our species’ essential needs?

And, then, what specific contexts have proven to elicit our species’ capacities to build societies meeting those needs?

Anthropologists, psychologists, and our everyday experience suggest at least three virtually universal human needs: for connection, meaning, and power (understood as the need to “make our mark.”) And to meet these needs, three conditions — increasingly violated in today’s many so-called democracies — appear essential:

• The fluid, continuous dispersion of power.
• Transparency in human relations.
• Cultures of mutual accountability, instead of one-way blame.

If you doubt this short-list, just think where the opposites have taken us!

These three conditions could become our “lodestar,” as we embrace democracy understood as a way of life — not something we build once and for all, but a culture we continuously create together. I call it Living Democracy. It’s not a set system but a set of system values and conditions — the dispersion of power, transparency, and mutual accountability — that bring forth the best and keep the worst in check across all dimensions of public life, from our workplaces to our schools.

Living Democracy builds from the insight that today’s problems are too complex, interwoven, and pervasive to be solved from the top down. People rarely change by fiat. So solutions require the ingenuity, insights, experience, and “buy-in” of those most directly affected by the problems we face.

The term “living democracy” suggests democracy as both a lived experience and an evolving, organic reality — “easily lost but never finally won,” in the words of the first African-American federal judge William Hastie.

But… are we capable, many might ask?

Didn’t human beings evolve within strict hierarchies, vestiges of which linger today in gender, class, and caste power structures? Actually, no. During 95 percent of our evolution, humans lived in highly egalitarian tribes, anthropologists tell us. We kept them that way through “counter dominance” strategies because we humans thrive best when we work together, not under the thumb of one strong man.

And what does an emergent Living Democracy look and feel like?

In learning…we afford “arts of democracy” — i.e., listening, mediation, negotiation, and more — priority equal to reading, writing and “rithmetic.” Students engage in practical community problem-solving through, for example, what the Maine-based KIDS Consortium calls “apprentice citizenship.” From environmental restoration to teaching younger kids bike safety, children in hundreds of schools are getting a taste for how good it feels to make a difference. Now, in dozens of countries, children are also learning the art of mediating disputes among themselves instead of simply running to an authority or fighting.

In economic life… Seeing through the fiction of a mechanical, autonomous “free market,” an “eco-mind” sees the possibility of democratic system-rules creating values boundaries that keep power widely dispersed and markets fair, open, and aligned with nature’s laws. (Perhaps the “free market” could then be redefined as one in which all are free to participate because it is kept accessible by fair rules.).

And we go beyond “fair distribution” to also embrace “fair production“; for it fulfills the core human need for agency. Fair production suggests opportunities for people to participate in co-production via cooperatives and other forms of co-ownership. And, even now, they’re hardly marginal: Coops of all types worldwide enjoy many more members — a billion!–than there are people with shares in publicly traded companies. Cooperatives produce 20 percent more jobs than do multinational corporations. In rural India, for example, they meet 67 percent of consumer needs.

In political life and civic life… Living Democracy means rules that prevent the influence of concentrated private wealth and corporation in campaigns and lawmaking, along with election rules barring advertising and ensuring candidates’ fair access to media. But fair elections and formal political decision-making accountable to citizens — not private interests — are but the beginning. Living Democracy means multiple avenues for rewarding engagement.

One is the “Citizen Jury” that in the Global South has, for example, brought diverse interests together to come to judgment on the direction of agricultural development, leading to strengthening ecological farming. Another, the “Deliberative Poll”: In Japan in 2012 this practice helped move the government to adopt the goal of ending all reliance on nuclear power before 2040; and in Texas, a Deliberative Poll used by utility companies helped the state become a leader in wind power. A great source for exemplars of Living Democracy is Participedia.net.

In Living Democracy, citizens also become active co-creators of knowledge, as, for example, citizen water monitors responsible for gathering water quality data now in 77 countries. Citizens also contribute to community well-being by sharing their knowledge and monitoring well-being, such as Nepal’s community health volunteers.

In these arenas and more, Living Democracy is showing up worldwide. But it can’t spread quickly as long it’s invisible. So, let’s remember that we humans, too, are shaped by our ecological niche — especially our social ecology. To further the world we want, we can start consciously creating forms of democracy creating the conditions proven to enhance species’ thriving — and thus to the well-being of all species.

Adapted from Ecomind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want and from the Solutions Journal article “EcoMind or ScarcityMind: Where Do They Lead?

Copyright 2013 The Huffington Post

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want (Nation Books) and 17 other books including the acclaimed Diet for a Small Planet.

more Frances Moore Lappé


Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/09/18-8

 

A ‘money bomb’ for 2016

By Matt Miller, Washington Post, May 2, 2013

Excerpt

…an idea so simple yet subversive that it offers a glorious ray of hope…Lawrence Lessig’s “money bomb.” It’s an ingenious plan to make the drive for small-dollar publicly funded elections a central issue in 2016. With a little luck, the Harvard law professor’s idea could help save the republic…our leaders are groveling half a day every day to just 150,000 out of the 311 million of us. Forget “the 1 percent.” This is the one-twentieth of 1 percent who can afford to give a couple of thousand dollars to campaigns… He’s working to launch “a super PAC to end all super PACs.” He wants 50 patriotic billionaires to pony up $20 million to $40 million dollars each…Toss in contributions from less well-heeled folks who believe in the cause. Presto: You have a $1 billion to $2 billion dollar war chest devoted to making grass-roots public funding of campaigns a viable path to office…If enough high-net-worth patriots from both parties see past the irony to its potential, Lessig’s money bomb might just be the beginning of a cure.

Full text

 

Just when you were fed up with our petty, craven politics and were ready to write off the next few years as a circus of filibusters, gridlock and investigations, comes an idea so simple yet subversive that it offers a glorious ray of hope.

Call it Lawrence Lessig’s “money bomb.” It’s an ingenious plan to make the drive for small-dollar publicly funded elections a central issue in 2016. With a little luck, the Harvard law professor’s idea could help save the republic.

Here’s why. Everyone knows the ubiquity of big money in politics undermines democracy. But the mechanics of the money chase now warps daily political life so thoroughly that it would seem funny if it weren’t so shocking.

New legislators are told by party leaders to spend no less than four hours a day “dialing for dollars” for reelection. That’s twice the time they’re expected to spend on committee work, floor votes or meeting with constituents. And it doesn’t count the fundraisers they attend in their “free time.”

“Members routinely duck out of the House office buildings, where they are prohibited by law from campaigning,” the Boston Globe recently reported, “and walk across the street to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee offices…. There, on the second floor, 30 to 40 legislators and their staffers squeeze into the ‘bullpen’ … a makeshift call center of about two dozen cubicles, each 2½ feet wide and equipped with two land lines.”

The two parties function “basically like telemarketing firms,” Tom Perriello, a Virginia Democrat who lost in 2010 after serving one term in the House, told the Globe. “’You go down on any given evening and you’ve got 30 members with headsets on dialing and dialing and dialing, trying to close the deal.’”

This is your democracy at work.

“I won’t dispute for one second the problems of a system that demands immense amount of fund-raisers by its legislators,” Rep. Jim Himes (D- Conn.) told the New York Times the other day. “It’s appalling, it’s disgusting, it’s wasteful and it opens the possibility of conflicts of interest and corruption.

“It’s unfortunately the world we live in,” he added.

Well! At least our leaders are ushering in American decline with eyes wide open. As Lessig pointed out in an interview, our leaders are groveling half a day every day to just 150,000 out of the 311 million of us. Forget “the 1 percent.” This is the one-twentieth of 1 percent who can afford to give a couple of thousand dollars to campaigns.

What does this brand of begging do to elected officials? How does it skew what gets on the agenda? What kind of person wants to do this kind of work? How many rhetorical questions are needed to convince you this situation is corrupt and insane?

Enter Lessig’s idea. He’s working to launch “a super PAC to end all super PACs.” He wants 50 patriotic billionaires to pony up $20 million to $40 million dollars each (provided their fellow tycoons do the same). Toss in contributions from less well-heeled folks who believe in the cause. Presto: You have a $1 billion to $2 billion dollar war chest devoted to making grass-roots public funding of campaigns a viable path to office.

The super PAC would champion a short slate of reforms centered around publicly supported small-dollar campaign funding. It would intervene in campaigns to help elect congressional candidates who sign on to this agenda and to defeat candidates who oppose it. Building on recent reforms in Connecticut and New York, the bedrock fix might involve a system of matching grants or tax credits or vouchers that enable average citizens (via public dollars) to be the main source of finance for competitive campaigns.

Politicos are helping Lessig develop a more precise, district-by-district estimate of how much money it would take to win a congressional majority pledged to these reforms, but his guesstimate feels like it is in the ballpark.

What we have here, of course, is a plot through which billionaires lead the charge to get money out of politics. “You have to embrace the irony,” Lessig told me.

I agree. If such folks are willing to invest big sums to reduce their own power, more power to them. Jonathan Soros piloted a miniature version of such a super PAC in the last election, and with just $2.4 million helped defeat seven of eight candidates targeted for caving to special interest cash. Lessig said that if this “money bomb” can be up and running even on a modest basis by 2014, it might put a scare into candidates and raise the odds that in 2016 they’ll commit to reform. (A new group, Fund for the Republic, is helping explore the idea).

When I worked in the Clinton White House, I heard Al Gore say something I’ve never forgotten. It was in an early meeting on health care reform in the Cabinet Room. Gore observed matter-of-factly that “we’ll never do health care reform right unless we do campaign finance reform first.” Twenty years later, his point still rings true for every major plank on the agenda for American renewal.

If enough high-net-worth patriots from both parties see past the irony to its potential, Lessig’s money bomb might just be the beginning of a cure.

Read more about this issue: The Post’s View: Hidden campaign cash Katrina vanden Heuvel: Reversing ‘Citizens United’ Bob Bauer and Trevor Potter: A new recipe for election reform Jennifer Rubin: McConnell vs. McCain on campaign finance reform Ron Wyden and Lisa Murkowski: Our states vouch for transparent campaign financing

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/matt-miller-a-money-bomb-for-2016/2013/05/29/c01d0e88-c85c-11e2-8da7-d274bc611a47_story_1.html

Progressive Activism Is Bubbling Up Across the Country -

- Here’s What’s Happening That the Corporate Media Can’t Be Bothered to ReportBy Kevin Zeese, Margaret Flowers, AlterNet, May 23, 2013 

This was a week that exemplified the historic moment in which we live.  We will look back at these times and see the seeds of a national revolt against concentrated wealth that puts profits ahead of people and the planet.

Mike Lux, who authored a history of the movements of the 1960s, wrote this week [4] that when he researched his book he “was struck by the fact that so many big things happened so close together.” Comparing that moment to today he writes, “We are living in such a moment in history right now, that organizers and activists are sparking off each other and inspiring each other, that there is something building out there that will bring bigger change down the road.”

That is how we felt as we watched and participated in this week’s unfolding.  We began the week prepared to focus our attention on the amazing teacher, student and community actions that were occurring in defense of schools.  In Philadelphia, there was a giant walk-out of schools [5] last Friday as students demanded their schools remain open and be adequately funded.  The photos of young people fighting for the basic necessity of education were an inspiration.

That was followed by three days of protests [6] in Chicago that were equally inspiring, students organized [7] and communities came together to fight for education.  Though corporate-mayor Rahm Emanuel’s carefully selected board voted to close 50 elementary schools [8] and one high school (while the city funds the building of a new basketball stadium), the Chicago activists say they are not done. They are just getting started.  It is that kind of persistence that wins transformation.  These school battles are part of a national plan to replace community schools with corporatized charter schools. The battles of Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities are all of our battles.

Then there were the college students, who inspired us with their bravery especially because they were not fighting for themselves but for the students who come after them.  At Cooper Union [9], students are in their second week of occupying the school president’s office. As the sit-in grew [10] to more than 100, they garnered increasing community support.  The school is about to begin to charge tuition, ending the nearly two century mission of its founder for free higher education. The students protesting will get free tuition; they are protesting for the students who follow. While they are sitting in, they are painting the president’s offices black and will continue to do so until he resigns his $750,000 a year job. Thousands have signed a “no confidence” petition [11] against the president and board chairman.

We believe that a country that really believed in its youth and was building for its future would provide free post-high school education, college or vocational school, to young adults rather than leaving them crippled by massive debt [12].

As the week went on, more Americans stood up and showed their power.  On Monday, people who have lost their homes to foreclosure or are threatened with foreclosure, along with their allies, began an occupation of the Department of Justice. Some of them joined us first as guests on our radio show [13] on We Act Radio. Afterwards, we went to Freedom Plaza where they rallied.  The coalition was a great mix of people of different ages, races and regions who were angry, organized and prepared.  They marched down Pennsylvania Ave. to the Department of Justice to demand that Attorney General Eric Holder prosecute the bankers who collapsed the economy and stole their homes.

They blocked the doors at the Department of Justice and put up tents [14] emblazoned with “Foreclose on Banks Not on People,” put up a home with “Bank Foreclosed” over it and blocked the streets with orange mesh saying “Foreclosure and Eviction Free Zone.”  As evening came, they moved their tents onto DOJ property, brought in a big couch and prepared to stay the night – and some did.  By the third day of protests, they moved to Covington and Burling [15], the corporate law firm that spawned Eric Holder and where the DOJ official in charge of prosecuting the banks, Lenny Breuer, who did not prosecute a single big bank now gets a $4 million annual salary [16]. In Congress the DOJ could not justify their claim [17] that prosecuting the big banks would hurt the economy.

The Home Defenders League/Occupy Our Homes actions broke through in the media as you can see at the end of this photo essay [14].  We particularly enjoyed the coverage in Forbes – someone claiming to be Jamie Dimon was arrested in DC [18] – reporting on protesters who gave the name of banksters when they were arrested. The police responded aggressively, which often attracts media coverage, including the tasering non-violent protesters [19]. And, we were pleased to see local groups, like Occupy Colorado, highlighting the efforts of their colleagues [20] who came to DC.

But, action in the nation’s capital did not end there.  There was also a massive walkout of food service workers [21] across the city.  The strike began at the building named for the famed union-destroying president, the Ronald Reagan Building, and then moved on, with a particular focus on Obama – the largest employer of low-wage workers [22].  Obama could end poverty federal wages with a stroke of the pen.  Will he?

DC is the sixth city to see low-wage workers striking, New York [23], Chicago [24], Detroit [25], St. Louis [26], and Milwaukee [27], came before the Capital.  Communities have stood with the workers [28] when employers threatened their jobs and people now need to do the same for the DC workers who are being threatened with job loss, please take action to support them [21].  And, coming up is the Wal-Mart workers’ “Ride for Respect” [29] to the annual shareholders meeting on June 7 which emulates the Freedom Riders.

Actions are happening throughout the country. In Illinois, so far two people have been arrested at a sit-in [30] in the capitol building to support a ban hydro-fracking. And, the reaction to the call for a fearless summer by front-line environmental groups [31] has been very strong. They are working together to plan major actions throughout the summer escalating resistance against extreme energy extraction. Pressure is building in the environmental movement [32] which now recognizes Obama is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Groups like 350.org that avoided protesting Obama, are now protesting his “grass roots” group, Organizing for America.

And, more is coming.  At the end of the week people who have been marching to Washington, DC from Philadelphia [33] as part of “Operation Green Jobs” will arrive to protest at the corporate bully of the capital – the US Chamber of Commerce – uniting the masses in opposition to the corporate lobbyists [34].  Their long walk to DC echoes a walk last week by people from Baltimore [35] seeking jobs and justice.

This Saturday will be the worldwide March Against Monsanto in 41 countries and nearly 300 cities.  We published an article in Truthout that explains why we should all protest Monsanto on May 25. [36]  This is a great example of non-hierarchical organizing as this protest was called by young grass roots activists [37] and supported by Occupy Monsanto.

One of the things that let us know the popular revolt is more powerful than we realize is the reaction of the power structure.  The Center for Media and Democracy issued a report this week [38] that examined thousands of pages of documents which showed how the national security apparatus against terrorism combined with corporate America to attack the occupy movement.  And, in Chicago one of the undercover police involved in the NATO 5 case, is still spying, now on students and teachers protesting school closures [39].  If they did not fear the people, would the power structure be behaving this way?

But, when you read reports about police acting in this undemocratic way, don’t forget that many of them do not like doing what they are ordered to do and that pulling them to join the popular revolt is part of our job. A mass movement needs people from the power structure to join it in order to achieve success. We highlight one this week, Officer Pedro Serrano of New York who took the great personal risk of taping his superiors [40] as part of an effort to end the racist ‘stop and frisk’ program of the NYPD.

And, it is great to see people planning ahead.  We got notice this week from activists in Maine planning for an October Drone Walk [41].  The anti-drone movement and Guantanamo protests have had very positive effects. This week, President Obama had to admit that he killed four Americans with drones, mostly by accident – even though the DoD claims drones are accurate.  Also this week, activists filed a war crimes complaint against Obama, Brennan and other officials [42] seeking their prosecution.  And Thursday, Obama was forced to make a public speech at the National Defense University about both the drone program and Guantanamo Bay Prison. Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK, interrupted the speech several times such that the President had to acknowledge her and she asked powerful questions as she was escorted out by security. [See video and transcript [43].] Guantanamo activists responded to the president saying “no more excuses” and vowed to keep the pressure [44] on!

So, just as author Mike Lux saw in the 60s, there is a lot going on, lots of issues coming to a head at the same time and people taking action to confront them.  How do we get to the next phase of popular resistance?

Long time writer on movements and transformational change, Sam Smith, the editor of Progressive Review [45] wrote “The Great American Repair Manual in 1997,” we reprinted a portion of it this week: A Movement Manual [46].  The essence: movements are “propelled by large numbers of highly autonomous small groups linked not by a bureaucracy or a master organization but by the mutuality of their thought, their faith and their determination.” He recommends: organize from the bottom up, create a subculture, create symbols, develop an agenda and make the movement’s values clear. He also recommends becoming what you want to be – become an existentialist – writing “existence precedes essence. We are what we do.”  As far as building community power, we recommend this video from “The Democracy School” [47] on how to use local governance to challenge corporate power.”

Do not despair when the media says there is no popular resistance.  We have been covering the actions of the movement with weekly reports [48] since 2011 and even before the occupy movement [49] began, we saw Americans beginning to stand up. We knew it was the right time for occupy and we now see it is the right time for a mass  popular resistance.  We will be announcing a new project in mid-June to help bring the movement to a new level.  Sign up here to hear about it [50] and how you can help. To create the transformative change we want to see, we need people to get involved.

We agree with Mike Lux who writes [4]: “just as it took several years for the seeds planted in those 18 months in the early ’60s to take root and begin to bring about the changes of the years to come in terms of civil rights, women’s rights, and the environment, it will take several years for the seeds being planted now to fully take root. But I believe more and more that it will happen.”

The government responds with police force and ignores the demands of the people. Super majorities of Americans agree with the views of the popular resistance [51], even if they are not yet acting. This is a recipe for a mass eruption of movement activity.  We are in the midst of the pre-history of historic transformational change: a transformation, which will end the power of money to ensure that the people and planet come before profits.

(For a listing of upcoming protests see last week’s newsletter [52].)

This article is produced in partnership with AlterNet [53] and is based on a weekly newsletter for October2011/Occupy Washington, DC [54]. To sign up for the free newsletter, click here [50]. If you have actions you want to promote or report on write us at info@october2011.org [55].

 

See more stories tagged with:

protests [56]


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/activism/progressive-activism-bubbling-across-country-heres-whats-happening-corporate-media-cant-be

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/kevin-zeese
[3] http://www.alternet.org/authors/margaret-flowers
[4] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/inspiring-each-other-forward
[5] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/thousands-students-walk-out-philadelphia-schools-protesting-budget-cuts
[6] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/chicago-school-protest-photos
[7] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/chicago-students-organizing-save-our-schools
[8] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/chicago-plans-close-schools-lots-money-stadiums-battle-community-schools-not-over
[9] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/free-cooper-union-continues-occupy-presidents-office-one-week-so-far
[10] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/cooper-union-sit-grows-more-100-student-bloc-solidarity-statement
[11] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/more-2000-sign-statement-no-confidence-cooper-union-president-and-board-chair
[12] http://itsoureconomy.us/2013/05/class-of-2013-student-debt-reaches-new-heights/
[13] http://clearingthefogradio.org/this-monday-may-20-home-defenders-expose-crimes-by-wall-street-banks/
[14] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/homeowner-defenders-protest-doj-failure-prosecute-big-banks
[15] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/third-day-homeonwer-protests-dc-focus-corporate-law-firm-covington-burling
[16] http://itsoureconomy.us/2013/03/dojs-lanny-breuer-cashes-in/
[17] http://itsoureconomy.us/2013/05/too-big-to-jail-dogs-obamas-justice-department-as-government-documents-raise-questions/
[18] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/someone-claiming-be-jamie-dimon-arrested-homeland-security
[19] http://october2011.org/blogs/margaret-flowers/peaceful-protester-tasered-outside-doj
[20] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/three-members-colorado-foreclosure-resistance-arrested-action-department-justice-e
[21] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/low-wage-workers-walk-out-dc-photo-essay
[22] http://itsoureconomy.us/2013/05/hundreds-of-low-wage-workers-go-on-strike-in-d-c/
[23] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/fast-food-workers-plan-surprise-strike
[24] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/fast-food-walkout-planned-chicago
[25] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/largest-fast-food-strike-yet-workers-walk-out-michigan
[26] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/surprise-fast-food-strike-planned-st-louis
[27] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/fast-food-strikes-hitting-fifth-city-milwaukee
[28] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/fast-food-worker-rehired-help-community
[29] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/protesting-walmart-ride-respect-new-freedom-riders
[30] http://october2011.org/blogs/margaret-flowers/two-arrested-so-far-sit-ban-fracking-il
[31] http://wearefearlesssummer.tumblr.com/
[32] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/climate-change-obama-faces-attack-his-left-flank
[33] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/march-operation-green-jobs-philadelphia-washington-dc-beginning-may-18th
[34] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/operation-green-jobs-unite-masses-marching-corporate-lobbyists
[35] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/poor-peoples-campaign-marches-baltimore-washington-dc
[36] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/why-protest-monsanto-may-25th
[37] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/interview-march-against-monsanto-director
[38] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/dissent-or-terror-new-report-details-how-counter-terrorism-apparatus-was-used-moni
[39] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/undercover-police-officer-connected-nato-5-case-still-spying-protest-chicago
[40] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/nypd-officer-who-trying-end-stop-and-frisk
[41] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/plan-ahead-october-drone-walk-maine
[42] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/antidrone-activists-file-war-crimes-complaint-against-obama-brennan-and-others
[43] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/medea-benjamin-interrupts-obama-drone-speech-excellent-questions-drones
[44] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/close-guantanamo-protesters-promise-keep-pressure-after-obama-speech
[45] http://prorev.com/
[46] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/rebuilding-america-movement-not-campaign
[47] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/using-local-governance-challenge-corporate-power-democracy-school
[48] http://october2011.org/pages/weekly-updates
[49] http://october2011.org/blogs/organizer/it-can-be-done-now-time
[50] http://october2011.org/pledge
[51] http://october2011.org/standwiththemajority
[52] http://october2011.org/blogs/margaret-flowers/weekly-update-courageous-and-inspiring-popular-resistance
[53] http://alternet.org
[54] http://www.occupywashingtondc.org/
[55] mailto:info@october2011.org
[56] http://www.alternet.org/tags/protests-0
[57] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

Turned off from politics? That’s exactly what the politicians want.

By Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post, April 20, 2012

If you asked Americans to identify the most noticeable change in U.S. politics over the past two decades, they’d probably answer that politics has become more polarized and that this has made it harder for the government to address the problems the country faces.

To say politics has become polarized is another way of saying that the politicians we nominate and elect have moved away from the ideological center, that the Democratic Party has become more liberal and the Republicans more conservative, with little or no overlap. Liberal Republicans are all but extinct, and conservative Democrats aren’t far behind. Genuine bipartisan compromise has gone from standard practice to quaint anomaly. In Washington and increasingly in state capitals, once a majority of the party in control of a chamber decides what it wants to do, everyone else in the party is expected to line up behind it — and everyone in the other party lines up to oppose it.

Public opinion polls consistently report that Americans aren’t happy with these developments — they don’t like partisanship or gridlock — and that their views on issues are closer to the center than to the extreme positions in either party. And it’s not just the voters. Politicians themselves are frustrated at not being able to get things done; they chafe at their loss of independence and public respect; they loathe the endless fundraising needed to wage unending partisan warfare.

So if voters and politicians don’t like it, why does this polarization persist? In a democracy, like in any open market, having everyone pursue their own self-interest is supposed to generate the best outcome for society. What is causing this political market failure?

In the vision of politics that many of us carry around in our heads, it is the “median voter,” at the center of the ideological spectrum, who ultimately is supposed to determine the long-term course of government policy. In this model, the best way — the only way — for a party to increase its political market share is to moderate its views to attract such independent swing voters. When either party has tried a different strategy (Barry Goldwater in ’64, say, or George McGovern in ’72), it has failed.

But something fundamental seems to have changed in the political marketplace. The winning strategy is no longer to be more moderate than your opponent, to offer a bigger tent. Instead, it is to be more zealous and committed to your party’s ideology.

This transformation has its roots in what has become the dominant reality of American politics: the arms race in campaign finance. Candidates and parties now raise and spend enormous sums, well beyond what would reasonably be needed to provide for a well-informed electorate and well beyond what is raised and spent in other advanced democracies.

These days, the average Senate candidate raises and spends $9 million to win election, which works out to slightly more than $4,000 for each day of a six-year term. For the average House candidate, it’s $1.4 million, or just under $2,000 per day in office (including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays). These sums are several times what they were 25 years ago.

Given this dramatic increase in campaign spending by those with the most intimate knowledge of campaigns, and with the most at stake in the outcomes, it’s probably safe to conclude that this spending must work — that it can determine the outcome of close contests. In fact, it appears to work so well that it has now been embraced by a growing legion of “independent” entities with their own fundraising and campaign spending.

And how is the money spent? Anyone with a telephone, TV set or Internet connection has surely noticed that it is mainly used to produce an ever-increasing volume of negative, distorting and ideologically tinged advertising about opposing candidates and parties.

Contrary to what many believe, the central effect of such negative advertising isn’t to move voters from supporting another candidate to backing yours, as Mitt Romney and his allies have discovered during this primary season. The main effect is not even to move undecided voters into your column. No, the real effect of negative advertising is to energize and solidify support among your ideological base while turning everyone else off to the other candidate, the campaign and the entire electoral process. Negative advertising isn’t about changing minds; it’s about altering the composition of the voter pool on Election Day by turning moderate voters into non-voters.

This is particularly true in low-turnout elections such as primaries and midterm contests. But it is even true these days in high-turnout elections.

Peter Hart, the dean of American political pollsters, notes that President George W. Bush won Ohio in 2004 by boosting voter turnout among conservatives in exurban and rural areas. If turnout in those areas had been the same as in the rest of the state, Bush would have lost Ohio and the election. And a key to the strategy was massive amounts of negative advertising.

Similarly, in 2008, Barack Obama was able to use negative advertising to move the traditionally Republican states of North Carolina and Virginia into the Democratic column, increasing turnout of reliably liberal voters around Charlotte and in Northern Virginia while dampening enthusiasm for the GOP candidate, Sen. John McCain, everywhere else.

Energizing the base has another important advantage: It increases campaign contributions from both small donors and rich zealots. That money can be plowed back into yet more negative advertising along with sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day. This self-reinforcing cycle creates a strong incentive for politicians to abandon the center and move permanently to the ideological extreme. You do not energize the base through moderation and compromise.

What makes this an effective and rational strategy, of course, is the phenomenon known as “free riding.” When you think about it, it’s pretty irrational for any of us to vote. During these endless campaigns, it takes an extraordinary amount of time and energy to inform yourself about the candidates and their positions. And it takes time and energy to interrupt your daily schedule and vote. And for what? Rarely, if ever, does any single vote make a difference in the outcome. The rational thing is to just stay home and let everyone else do their civic duty while we still enjoy the full benefits of democracy.

Unfortunately, if everyone follows that individually rational strategy, the political market fails, democracy doesn’t work, and we end up with a far-from-optimal outcome. And that is precisely the market failure that shrewd political campaigns seek to turn to their advantage.

There is a vigorous academic debate over whether negative advertising depresses or increases voter turnout. I suspect it does both, depressing turnout among moderates and independents while stimulating it at the ideological extremes. In that process, what has changed is the composition of the turnout rather than its overall level.

So, if this is such a winning strategy, why is it taking hold only now?

The most obvious reason is that American politics has gone through a gradual realignment since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which finally ended the Democratic hold on the South. The economic decline of the Midwest Rust Belt and the rapid growth in the Sunbelt were also big parts of this process. One result of this geographic shift has been that states and congressional districts became more politically and ideologically homogenous and thus more heavily tilted toward one party or the other — and all the more susceptible to aggressive redistricting strategies. In such an environment, appealing to moderate swing voters has become far less important.

Technology has also played a role. It is much easier today to pursue a strategy of energizing the base and suppressing the moderate vote when you can tailor your messages to different groups. Because of the Internet, sophisticated databases and cable television networks that hew to one ideology or another, such targeting is now easier and more effective.

More recently, the rise of “independent campaigns” run by PACs, unions, business organizations and other special interest groups has also heightened the polarization. These groups tend to air ads that are even more negative and more ideologically charged than the ones from the candidates themselves. And the candidates have been all too happy to reap the benefits while distancing themselves from such tactics.

The irony is that the politicians who prevail in these gladiator contests inherit a system so bitter, so partisan and so ideologically polarized that they can’t accomplish anything. They know that they and their constituents would be better off if they cooperated and compromised more, but they just can’t. If they try, they face a serious risk of being run out of office, either in the next primary by someone who better appeals to the party’s political base, or in the general election by an opponent whose extremism has allowed him or her to energize the other side’s core voters.

Politics has become a tragedy — a tragedy of the commons, that is. The individual pursuit of rational self-interest by parties and politicians, which in political and economic theory is supposed to generate the best outcome, has instead led to a cycle in which extremism, partisanship and stalemate all beget more of the same. We keep thinking it can’t continue like this, but it only gets worse.

Some may complain that this analysis falls into the trap of moral equivalency, failing to note that Republicans practice the politics of extremism and suppression of the moderate vote and that Democrats offer more moderation and compromise. But while it is true that the move away from the political center has been asymmetric and probably began with the Republicans, the success of that strategy has now forced everyone to play the same game.

These days, congressional Democrats and Obama campaign strategists make no secret of their belief that previous attempts at moderation and compromise have not been to their benefit and that they have no choice but to energize their base with a tougher, more left-leaning campaign.

And to those who now expect Romney to move to the center as he shifts from primary- to general-election mode, I’d point out that didn’t happen with either John Kerry or Bush in 2004, or Obama or McCain in 2008. The problem with Sarah Palin wasn’t that she was too ideologically extreme — that part of her selection as McCain’s running mate is still considered a base-energizing, game-changing masterstroke. The problem was that her hard-edged ideology was not matched by a hard-core understanding of the issues.

We know the solutions to escalating polarization: A disarmament treaty for the campaign finance arms race involving spending caps and contribution limits. A ban on campaign spending by independent groups. A requirement that all broadcasters and cable networks provide free advertising time to all candidates. A requirement that everyone vote or face a fine. Transferring redistricting powers from party leaders to unelected, nonpartisan experts. And that hardy perennial, a third-party movement.

Simply to list these ideas, however, is to acknowledge how unlikely it is that the system can correct itself.

Arms races, free riding, tragedies of the commons — these failures in economic markets are well understood. The solutions usually involve some form of government action or regulation. But when similar failures occur in political markets, there are no institutions capable of stepping in and forcing the necessary collaboration or collective action.

Government can’t be the solution when it is the problem.

pearlstein@washpost.com

Steven Pearlstein is a Washington Post business and economics columnist and Robinson professor at George Mason University. This essay is adapted from the Harold Gortner Lecture he delivered at the university on April 16.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/turned-off-from-politics-thats-exactly-what-the-politicians-want/2012/04/20/gIQAffxKWT_story.html

Want to end partisan politics? Here’s what won’t work — and what will.

By Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, Washington Post, May 17, 2012

Excerpt

Washington is broken, that our political system can’t grapple with the nation’s big, long-term problems. So what can be done about it? Unfortunately, the cures that get tossed around are often misguided, sometimes even worse than the disease. Here are five much-praised solutions we should avoid, followed by four that have a chance to make a meaningful difference.

1 A third party to the rescue

2 Term limits will save us

3 A balanced-budget amendment can fix the economy

4 Public financing of elections will restrain special interests

5 Stay calm — things will get back to normal eventually…it is not exactly comforting to compare what’s going on now to the years leading up to the Civil War. And an examination of the Obama presidency suggests that we are experiencing neither politics as usual nor an odd blip. We are witnessing unprecedented and unbalanced polarization of the parties, with Republicans acting like a parliamentary minority party opposing almost everything put forward by the Democrats; the near-disappearance of the regular order in Congress; the misuse of the filibuster as a weapon not of dissent but of obstruction; and the relentless delegitimization of the president and policies enacted into law.

…a more sensible and promising reform agenda, one more focused on fixing the party system and addressing the roots and the weapons of political partisanship.

1 Realistic campaign finance reform

2 Converting votes into seats

3 Restoring majority rule in the Senate

4 Expanding the electorate…In the United States, such near-universal voting could eliminate the parties’ incentive to diminish the turnout of their opponents’ supporters and to mobilize the ideological extremes. Boosting overall turnout would help tilt the balance back toward where most Americans actually are: closer to the middle.

Full text

Political dysfunction. Partisanship at record levels. Attack politics run amok. And public approval of Congress scraping the single digits (Sen. John McCain is fond of saying it’s down to blood relatives and paid staff).

We’ve all heard the laments — we’ve made some of them ourselvesthat Washington is broken, that our political system can’t grapple with the nation’s big, long-term problems. So what can be done about it? Unfortunately, the cures that get tossed around are often misguided, sometimes even worse than the disease. Here are five much-praised solutions we should avoid, followed by four that have a chance to make a meaningful difference.

1A third party to the rescue

Ah, if only we had a third force, an independent movement that could speak plain truths to the public and ignite the silent, centrist majority around common-sense solutions.

Sound familiar? In recent decades, Ross Perot, John Anderson and George Wallace have pursued a serious third-party route, although only Wallace managed to win any electoral votes. But that hasn’t stopped high-profile columnists such as Tom Friedman of the New York Times and Matt Miller of The Washington Post from singing this siren song, along with former elected officials such as Republican Christine Todd Whitman, Democrat David Boren and many others. The much-hyped Americans Elect group — which was to harness the democratic spirit of the Internet to find a centrist third-party presidential candidate for the 2012 race — is a prime example of this approach.

One problem: Despite Americans’ disgust with our politics, about 90 percent of us identify with — or at least lean toward — one of the two major parties. Among Americans who call themselves independent, two-thirds lean to one of the parties, and behave at the polls just like the partisans. So the core audience for a third party is perhaps 10 percent of the electorate. So-called independents are classic referendum voters; when times are bad, they want to throw the bums out rather than carefully attribute responsibility or parse alternatives.

The third-party fantasy is of a courageous political leader who could persuade Americans to support enlightened policies to tax carbon; reform entitlements; make critical investments in education, energy and infrastructure; and eliminate tax loopholes to raise needed revenue. But there is simply no evidence that voters would flock to a straight-talking, independent, centrist third-party candidate espousing the ideas favored by most third-party enthusiasts. Consensus is not easily built around such issues, and differences in values and interests would not simply disappear in a nonpartisan, centrist haze.

Just ask Americans Elect, which was unable to coalesce around a single candidate, despite spending $35 million.

2 Term limits will save us

This is the quintessential bromide for curing American democracy. The case seems self-evident: Career politicians in safe seats lose touch with their constituents, become beholden to the Washington establishment and stop acting in the public interest. Term limits, we’re told, would replace them with citizen-lawmakers who cared less about reelection and more about acting on behalf of their fellow citizens — thus restoring Congress to its intended role as the citadel of deliberative democracy.

Does it work? Term limits of some sort have been implemented in 21 states since 1990 (in six of them, the limits were ultimately overturned), and the experience has given scholars time and opportunity to evaluate them. But instead of channeling ambition in the right, public-interest direction, term limits have the opposite effect: New lawmakers immediately begin planning for ways to reach the next level, or to find lucrative lobbying jobs when they are term-limited out. They have no incentive to do things for the long-term and no regard for maintaining their own institutions. With the loss of expertise among senior lawmakers, power devolves to permanent staff members and to lobbyists.

If anything, voters should look to candidates with a stake in the regular order, an understanding of the need to compromise, a willingness to build expertise in important policy areas, and an incentive to listen to constituents — all features that are more likely among politicians with longer horizons.

3A balanced-budget amendment can fix the economy

Another hardy perennial is the notion that a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget would end Washington’s rapacious habits and force politicians to make tough fiscal decisions. After all, 49 states have such an amendment in their constitutions, so why not Washington?

In fact, the states’ balanced budgets are the best reason to avoid one at the federal level. When a downturn occurs, basic economic theory tells us that we need “counter-cyclical” policies to inject adrenaline into a fatigued economy — meaning more government spending and/or lower taxes. States do the opposite: A downturn means less revenue and more demands from unemployed residents, so they cut spending and raise taxes to preserve their balanced budgets. The fiscal drag from states in the recent Great Recession amounted to $800 billion, which the Obama administration’s stimulus plan barely offset. A federal balanced-budget amendment would only have aggravated the downturn — the economic equivalent of bleeding an anemic patient.

The latest House Republican proposals for a balanced-budget amendment would limit spending to 19.9 percent of gross domestic product and make any tax increases contingent on a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers of Congress. Because federal revenue is now at barely more than 15 percent of GDP and spending is at 24 percent, balancing the budget under these conditions would essentially eliminate all of the government other than the big entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare — or would require cutting those programs severely.

Maintaining fiscal flexibility is critical in the American political system, particularly in a globalized economy where less and less of our destiny is under our control. And the experience of the 1990s demonstrates that the White House and Congress together can take the steps needed to balance the budget under existing rules.

4 Public financing of elections will restrain special interests

Certainly, in the post-Citizens United world, the financing of political campaigns is a nightmare — a Wild West of secret big money and a new Gilded Age of influence peddling by special interests.

But full public financing of campaigns is not the answer. We understand the appeal, but short of an unlikely constitutional amendment or a reconstituted Supreme Court placing limits on private money in political campaigns, public funding simply cannot provide candidates enough resources to overcome hugely expensive “independent” campaigns against them by super PACs. Even then, the influence of organizations such as the National Rifle Association, AARP, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO is not defined simply by the money they spend on campaigns. They also mobilize powerful collections of single-minded members and followers to pressure lawmakers; and they hire former lawmakers or congressional staff members to gain access to power and boost policy expertise on key issues. Campaign donations are a relatively small part of the resources they invest in influencing government.

Whether or not campaign money is the key, restricting the flow of private money in politics has proven devilishly difficult, and the actions of the Roberts Supreme Court and the feckless Federal Election Commission have made it virtually impossible.

5 Stay calm — things will get back to normal eventually

Finally, there are some analysts who do not think that our times are particularly exceptional, that under economic stress, advanced democracies grapple with dysfunction, and that as life calms down, so will our politics. They also point out that the 111th Congress (the last one) was extremely productive, passing health-care reform, financial regulation and an economic stimulus package.

David R. Mayhew, a political scientist at Yale and the author of books such as “Divided We Govern” and “Partisan Balance,” is a prominent adherent of this view. Most of the political imbalances of our era “have not been major, permanent systemic problems,” he argues. “More precisely, at least during recent generations, many alleged problems have proven to be nonexistent, short term, limited, tolerable, or correctable.”

No doubt, acrimony and gridlock are built-in features of our political system, and it is true that we have had several eras of intense stress and polarization, including the period right before the Civil War and around the turn of the 20th century.

Yet, it is not exactly comforting to compare what’s going on now to the years leading up to the Civil War. And an examination of the Obama presidency suggests that we are experiencing neither politics as usual nor an odd blip. We are witnessing unprecedented and unbalanced polarization of the parties, with Republicans acting like a parliamentary minority party opposing almost everything put forward by the Democrats; the near-disappearance of the regular order in Congress; the misuse of the filibuster as a weapon not of dissent but of obstruction; and the relentless delegitimization of the president and policies enacted into law.

Given the defeat of problem-solvers such as Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and the emergence of take-no-prisoners partisans such as Richard Mourdock, there is no reason to think the system will correct itself anytime soon.

So, if these solutions won’t work, what will? There is a more sensible and promising reform agenda, one more focused on fixing the party system and addressing the roots and the weapons of political partisanship.

1 Realistic campaign finance reform

Without a different Supreme Court, serious problems with money in politics will endure. But there are fruitful reform possibilities outside the public financing of elections; namely, restoring the effectiveness of two provisions of the law the court affirmed in Citizens United: disclosure and the separation of independent spending groups (such as super PACs) from the candidates and campaigns they support.

Passage of straightforward disclosure legislation requiring the timely identification of all significant donors to independent campaign ads (say, of $5,000 or more) would be a big step. Combine that with real efforts by the Internal Revenue Service to simply enforce its own regulations on nonprofit 501(c)4 entities to keep sham organizations from exploiting the law to hide political donors, and we would be on a path to real disclosure.

Congress could also pass a measure to sharply tighten the anti-coordination provisions that require unlimited donations to be totally independent of candidates and their campaigns. Even absent such legislation, the Justice Department could prosecute those who violate the coordination bans in cases where the brazen behavior has been most evident. (The fact that Foster Friess, who bankrolled the “independent” effort to back Rick Santorum’s presidential candidacy, sat next to Santorum on his campaign plane and stood behind him at campaign rallies shows how farcical the practice has become.) Justice does not need to wait for the Federal Election Commission to act — it would be waiting a long time.

2 Converting votes into seats

With the partisan redrawing of congressional district lines skewing American politics, we support a redistricting process that — like several states have done — uses independent commissions to draw the lines based on respect for communities’ boundaries and for real political competitiveness. It is no cure-all (none of these solutions is), but such an effort could contain and possibly reduce our escalating partisanship.

Another option that would help make votes more accurately reflect the electorate’s real feelings is instant runoff voting, where voters can rank their candidate preferences. Such a system produces majority winners, eliminates the spoiler role and reduces the “wasted vote” calculation for minor-party candidates, allowing them to participate more fully in the election process. Building more legitimate majorities in this fashion could extend the electoral reach of the major parties and thereby reduce their polarization.

3 Restoring majority rule in the Senate

Restoring the filibuster to its traditional role of allowing an intense minority to temporarily hold up action on issues of great national import — and away from its new use as a regular weapon for obstruction — should be a top priority. Senate rules should allow only one filibuster on any bill (now there can be two or more). Currently, the burden is on the majority to provide the 60 votes to break a filibuster; instead, the minority party should have to take the floor and hold it via debate, and provide the 41 votes needed to maintain the filibuster.

Senate rules should guarantee an up-or-down vote on executive and judicial nominations reported out of the relevant committees, with a time limit for holds on the nominations.

In return for allowing true majorities to ultimately prevail, finding a way to allow a minority to offer a respectable number of relevant amendments on most bills is a reasonable trade-off.

4 Expanding the electorate

Consider the Australian system of mandatory attendance at the polls, where not showing up results in a fine of $15 or so. This modest penalty has spurred participation of more than 90 percent since the 1925 reform. Australian politicians can count on their bases turning out, so they focus on persuadable voters in the middle. Instead of campaigning on marginal wedge issues, they talk about the economy, jobs, education — and they seek to attract a majority from the entire citizenry.

In the United States, such near-universal voting could eliminate the parties’ incentive to diminish the turnout of their opponents’ supporters and to mobilize the ideological extremes. Boosting overall turnout would help tilt the balance back toward where most Americans actually are: closer to the middle.

Other promising avenues to expand the electorate include automating the registration process (so voters can register online and carry their documentation with them when they move from one state to another) and to open up the primaries, as California has done, to all voters. Over time, open primaries could produce more moderate elected officials.

Finally, if we can’t persuade more Americans to vote with the threat of a fine, how about the promise of untold riches? Millions lined up — sometimes wasting all night — for a shot at the Mega Millions lottery in March. How about another lottery, where your vote stub is a ticket, and where the prize is the money collected from the fines of those who didn’t vote? The odds of the mega-jackpot were about 1 in 176 million — we’d like to believe that the chances of fixing American politics are a bit better than that.

tmann@brookings.edu

nornstein@aei.org

Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from their book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”

Read more from Outlook, including:

Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.

Turned off from politics? That’s exactly what the politicians want.

Book review: ‘It’s Even Worse Than It Looks’ by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein

Friend us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

http://failover.washingtonpost.com/opinions/want-to-end-partisan-politics-heres-what-wont-work–and-what-will/2012/05/17/gIQA5jqcWU_story.html

Political dysfunction spells trouble for democracies

By E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post, May 19, 2013

Mini-excerpt

…it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy. …We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it[there are] two streams of discontent the world’s democracies face. One is material. The other might be called spiritual… politicians might contemplate their obligations to stewardship of the democratic ideal…

Excerpt

…it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy. Our circumstances certainly have their own particular disabilities: a radicalization of conservative politics, over-the-top mistrust of President Obama on the right, high-tech gerrymandering in the House and a Senate snarled by non-constitutional super-majority requirements…We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird itEarlier this month, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a sober report by a group of distinguished academics. “Democracy is in trouble,” the report begins. “The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need. They are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices and rising nondemocratic powers. There is widespread concern about apparent declining rates of voter participation and about the alienation or disaffection of citizens from the political process.”…Ernst Hillebrand, the head of international policy analysis for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the German Social Democratic Party’s think tank…pointed to two streams of discontent the world’s democracies face. One is material. The other might be called spiritual. On the one side, large numbers of lower-middle-class and working-class voters have seen their economic standing deteriorate over two or three decades. There has been a substantial transfer of wealth and income from labor — which is how most people pay their way — to capital. Productivity gains no longer lead to wage gains. This builds justified frustration. At the same time, he said, many citizens, especially the young, have enhanced expectations for “participation, self-realization and control over their lives.” They do not see current electoral arrangements in democracies giving them much chance to achieve any of these goals. Since World War II, bouts of economic growth have allowed democracies to buy their way out of trouble. One can hope this will happen again — and soon. In the meantime, politicians might contemplate their obligations to stewardship of the democratic ideal. They could begin by pondering what an unemployed 28-year-old makes of a ruling elite that expends so much energy feuding over how bureaucrats rewrote a set of talking points.

Full text

We know American politics are dysfunctional. But after a week of scandal obsession during which the nation’s capital and the media virtually ignored the problems most voters care about — jobs, incomes, growth, opportunity, education — it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy.

Our circumstances certainly have their own particular disabilities: a radicalization of conservative politics, over-the-top mistrust of President Obama on the right, high-tech gerrymandering in the House and a Senate snarled by non-constitutional super-majority requirements.

Still, while it may not be much of a comfort, the democratic distemper is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Across most of the democratic world, there is an impatience bordering on exhaustion with electoral systems and political classes.

Citizen dissatisfaction is hardly surprising in the wake of a deeply damaging economic downturn. That doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting. We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it.

It’s not hard to discover that this conundrum is global and not just our own. “Has democracy had its day?” is the headline on Columbia University historian Mark Mazower’s cover story in the May issue of Prospect, a British magazine. The subhead: “Electoral politics has had a bad decade.”

Earlier this month, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a sober report by a group of distinguished academics.

“Democracy is in trouble,” the report begins. “The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need. They are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices and rising nondemocratic powers. There is widespread concern about apparent declining rates of voter participation and about the alienation or disaffection of citizens from the political process.”

In Europe, the authors noted, “there is fear that the distance between ordinary citizens and the politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels compromises democratic legitimacy.” In the United States, “lamentations about gridlock and polarization are the order of the day.” Even our peaceable neighbor Canada is not immune. “Canadians,” they write, “worry about the tendency of their political system to place largely unaccountable power in the hands of the prime minister.”

The report does include some useful suggestions for reviving the democratic spirit and improving democratic practice. But it is not alarmist to be uneasy about democracy’s prospects. Ernst Hillebrand, the head of international policy analysis for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the German Social Democratic Party’s think tank, describes a chilling finding in a 2009 survey by the German polling firm Forsa: “that zero percent — yes, zero percent — of workers in Germany believe they can have a significant impact on how policy in Germany is shaped via the ballot box.”

And bear in mind that a poll released last week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that Germans are far more satisfied with their country’s situation than are their European neighbors.

In a conversation last week during a visit to Washington, Hillebrand pointed to two streams of discontent the world’s democracies face. One is material. The other might be called spiritual.

On the one side, large numbers of lower-middle-class and working-class voters have seen their economic standing deteriorate over two or three decades. There has been a substantial transfer of wealth and income from labor — which is how most people pay their way — to capital. Productivity gains no longer lead to wage gains. This builds justified frustration.

At the same time, he said, many citizens, especially the young, have enhanced expectations for “participation, self-realization and control over their lives.” They do not see current electoral arrangements in democracies giving them much chance to achieve any of these goals.

Since World War II, bouts of economic growth have allowed democracies to buy their way out of trouble. One can hope this will happen again — and soon. In the meantime, politicians might contemplate their obligations to stewardship of the democratic ideal. They could begin by pondering what an unemployed 28-year-old makes of a ruling elite that expends so much energy feuding over how bureaucrats rewrote a set of talking points.

Read more on this topic: The Post’s View: European Union economic crisis grinds on George F. Will: The European Union is a coalition of irresponsibility Steven Pearlstein: Turned off from politics? That’s exactly what the politicians want. Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein: Want to end partisan politics? Here’s what won’t work, and what will

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ej-dionne-political-dysfunctions-spells-trouble-for-democracies/2013/05/19/757fedba-bf28-11e2-97d4-a479289a31f9_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

Popular Resistance Is Percolating Across the Country — Inspiring Activism That the Corporate Media Always Ignores

By Kevin Zeese, AlterNet , Margaret Flowers May 17, 2013  |

Every week we are inspired by the many people throughout the country who are doing excellent work to challenge the power structure and put forward a new path for the country. The popular resistance to plutocracy, concentrated wealth and corporatism is decentralized, creative and growing.

One growing series of protests has been the “Moral Monday” demonstrations in North Carolina.  They do not have ‘one demand’ but rather are challenging the systemic corruption, undermining of democracy and misdirection of a state government that puts human needs second to corporate profits – which they have dubbed ‘Robin Hood in Reverse.’  This week 49 of 200 protesters inside the capitol were arrested [4] singing, chanting and echoing many of the same concerns that demonstrators have for the past three Mondays.  Last week there were 30 arrests, the week before 17.  Among those arrested was an 83 year old retired minister [5], Vernon Tyson, who was merely a spectator, but he gave a great interview cheering on the protests after his release. And, a group of historians were among those arrested [6] who put these protests in the context of US history.

Another courageous protest involved seven undocumented immigrants who blocked the Broadview Detention Center [7] where immigrants are being incarcerated.  They blocked the doors to the detention facility, linking arms together using pipes, chains, and locks. They were protesting the record-high deportations under President Obama, and the lack of leadership from Illinois representatives to call for a suspension of deportations. On the West coast, the always creative Backbone Campaign supported allied faith communities with a giant banner lift over the private for-profit immigration detention center asking “Who Would Jesus Deport?” [8] and an inflatable lady liberty exposing the unjust policies that break up families.

There was a recent victory for Seattle teachers and students [9] that resulted from their citywide protests against standardized testing. The school district announced that testing in the high schools would not occur next year.  The teachers said they will keep protesting until the tests are banned from lower grades as well.

We hope the Chicago teachers, who won a major battle with Mayor Rahm Emanuel earlier this year [10] when they went out on strike, have great success this weekend when three days of marches are held against the mass school closings [11] in Chicago.  The teachers union has developed a great organizing strategy that unites teachers with students, parents and communities.  This battle is one of many across the country to stop the thinly veiled corporatization of education [12].

In another education protest, the students @FreeCooperUnion continue to occupy the office of the president after one week [13].  They are painting the walls black until he agrees to step down, and are highlighting his $750,000 annual salary.  They are protesting a plan to begin to charge tuition at the university; this plan will not affect these students, but future students who attend Cooper Union.

The heart of the conflict faced in the United States is the inequity of an unfair economy supported by a corrupt two party system.  This week there was a very creative protest in New York City against the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim of Mexico [14].  He’s made his billions with the help of government allowing a monopoly on phone service resulting in Slim gouging the public.  Now he gives a small percentage of that wealth back in philanthropy and people applaud him.  But, the protesters were very effective, laughing out loud whenever he spoke. They responded when someone asked “Why is everyone laughing?” with “Because Slim’s philanthropy is a joke!” and followed with mocking kazoos.

In contrast to the world’s wealthiest was the Poor People’s Campaign which marched from Baltimore to Washington, DC [15] ending at Freedom Plaza.  The march occurred on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign and raised issues of poverty, police violence, unfair economy and non-responsive government.  Another march was announced in Pennsylvania from Philadelphia to Harrisburg [16] from May 25 to June 3 to stop spending on prison construction and instead invest in building communities.  Also, from Philadelphia the ‘Operation Green Jobs’ March from Philadelphia to Washington, DC [17] will begin on May 18 and is organized by the Poor People’s Economic and Human Rights Campaign.

A campaign that is growing every week is the fast food worker strikes. The largest fast food walk out [18] was held in Detroit [19] last week, even the scabs walked out, and this week the strikes spread to their fifth city, Milwaukee, WI [20].  It is great to see these workers, who no doubt saw themselves as powerless, standing up and demanding fairness.  If you eat at fast food restaurants, this would be a good time to stop, and let them know why – you support the workers who are demanding a living wage.

US Empire and imperialism continue to cause protest. Obama’s Asia Pivot, moving 60% of the US Navy to the Asian Pacific is causing a lot of distress.  On Jeju Island people are fighting for their surviva [21]l against a massive Navy base.  Jeju is the “Peace Island” that was harshly abused during the US occupation [22] of South Korea after World War II before the Korean War.  And, South Koreans, who regularly protest against the US military, are protesting the US war games that are practicing dropping nuclear bombs on North Korea [23] and invading it.

Protests are mounting in the United States against the abusive Guantanamo Bay prison where more than 100 of the 166 prisoners at Guantanamo are participating in a hunger strike and two-dozen are being brutally force fed. These prisoners have been held without trial for over 10 years, and even though 88 have been approved to leave, they remain.  The Green Shadow Cabinet came out with a statement describing how Obama could close the prison [24] (and why Congress is not an excuse) and what you can do [24] on the 100th day of the hunger strike this Friday. Show solidarity with these prisoners who are being abused by the US government.

Diane Wilson, a shrimper from the Gulf Coast who works with CODE PINK and Veterans for Peace, is on her 15th day of an open-ended solidarity hunger strike [25] in Washington, DC. She explains why she is taking the extreme step [26] of a hunger strike to support the Guantanamo prisoners. And S. Brian Willson is joining Diane in hunger strike.

Another protest related to US Empire occurred in Oak Ridge, TN where Transform Now Plowshares activists protested nuclear weapons [27] by cutting through four chain-link fences and spray-painting biblical messages of nonviolence on a building that warehouses an estimated 400 tons of highly enriched uranium, the radioactive material used to fuel nuclear weaponry. This week an 83 year old nun, Sister Megan Rice, and two other activists were found guilty of damaging government property.  As the jury left the courtroom the people in the courtroom sang to them “Love, love, love, love. People, we are made for love.”  Sentencing is several months away and they face a potential 30 years in prison.

Environmental protests are boiling up throughout the United States.  When President Obama came to New York for a fundraiser (where he raised $3 million), protesters greeted him with signs calling for him to “End the War on Mother Earth” [28] and opposing the KXL pipeline.

Protesters from the Appalachian Mountains came to the EPA [29] in Washington DC to protest polluted water caused by Mountaintop removal for coal.  The protesters displayed the dirty, opaque water in jars in front of the EPA.  And Climate Justice activists from CoalIsStupid.org blocked a freighter delivering coal in Boston [30] with two men on a lobster boat on May 15th.

But more and more Americans are realizing that while we protest the extraction of oil, gas, uranium and coal, the reality is that the root of the problem is in the American Way of Life (AWOL).  One activist from Portland made the point that the Tar Sands starts in our driveways [31] and we need to change the AWOL in order to truly combat it.  We agree that our strategy has two prongs: protest and build i.e. Stop the Machine and Create a New World.

In addition to how much energy we each use, we need to look at where our food comes from. An Occupy group in Berkeley, Occupy the Farm, made that point this week when they took over University of California land [32] to grow farm for the community locally.

Another area where we are seeing continued growth in the movement is in thinking through how we do our work and in developing strategy to achieve our goals.  We published a live streamer “Code of Ethics” [33] developed by people who work in the citizen’s media. Note the high ethics and cooperative approach they take to getting the media out.

Many are thinking about strategy to make the movement more effective.  Gar Alperovitz, a political economist who has been writing about alternatives to big finance capitalism in the United States has a new book out focused on strategy, “What then Must We Do,” and we published a review of the book by Sam Pizzigati of Inequality.org entitled:  A Promising Path for Pummeling Plutocracy [34].

Upcoming actions:

May 17th, Support the Guantanamo hunger strikers [24] on the 100th Day of their hunger strike with phone calls and tweets to the White House and protests in DC, NY, Chicago and other cities.

May 18th, ‘Operation Green Jobs’ March from Philadelphia to Washington, DC [17] organized by the Poor People’s Economic and Human Rights Campaign.

May 18th to 23rd the Home Defenders League Week of Action [35] against the banks and foreclosures in Washington, DC.

May 18th to 20th there is a weekend of protests against the closure of schools in Chicago [11].

May 22nd Stop the Frack Attack People’s [36] Forum in Washington, DC.

May 25th Protests against Monsanto everywhere [37]

May 25th to June 3rd   March from Philadelphia to Harrisburg [16] against prison spending.

June 1st,  Get on the Bus For Bradley Court Martial Trial [38]  with buses leaving from Baltimore, MD, Washington DC, New York City and Willimantic, CT.

June 14th to 16th Trade Justice Action Camp [39] in Bellingham, WA by the Backbone Campaign

June 24th to 29th is the beginning of “Fearless Summer [40]” that starts “an epic summer of actions. [40]”

You can order or print OccuCards [41] to bring with you to these actions. There are cards for all of the issues being protested above and new cards are being created.

And watch for the transformation of October2011/Occupy Washington DC into Popular Resistance, daily news and resources for effective activism, coming in June. Sign up here [42] if you want to be notified of the launch.

See more stories tagged with:

activism [43]


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/activism/popular-resistance-percolating-across-country-inspiring-activism-corporate-media-always

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/kevin-zeese
[3] http://www.alternet.org/authors/margaret-flowers
[4] http://october2011.org/blogs/margaret-flowers/nc-moral-monday-demonstrations-bring-49-arrests
[5] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/83-year-old-specator-retired-minister-vernon-tyson-arrested-nc-general-assembly
[6] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/north-carolina-historians-jailed-protesting-voting-rights-abuses-regressive-polici
[7] http://october2011.org/blogs/margaret-flowers/seven-undocumented-illinois-immigrants-block-broadview-detention-center
[8] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/who-would-jesus-support
[9] http://october2011.org/blogs/margaret-flowers/victory-seattle-teachers-win-battle-standardized-test-boycott
[10] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/public-schooling-why-support-chicago-teachers
[11] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/three-days-marches-against-school-closings-planned
[12] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/occupy-doe-push-democratic-not-corporate-education-reform
[13] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/free-cooper-union-continues-occupy-presidents-office-one-week-so-far
[14] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/world-s-richest-man-carlos-slim-taunted-kazoos
[15] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/poor-peoples-campaign-marches-baltimore-washington-dc
[16] http://october2011.org/blogs/margaret-flowers/decarcerate-pa-announces-march-philly-harrisburg
[17] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/march-operation-green-jobs-philadelphia-washington-dc-beginning-may-18th
[18] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/largest-fast-food-strike-yet-workers-walk-out-michigan
[19] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/fast-food-strike-wave-spreads-detroit
[20] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/fast-food-strikes-hitting-fifth-city-milwaukee
[21] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/fighting-survival
[22] http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/14813-north-korea-and-the-united-states-will-the-real-aggressor-please-stand-down
[23] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/south-korean-people-oppose-continued-us-nuclear-war-games-demonstrators-arrested-s
[24] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/100th-day-guantanamo-hunger-strike-friday-steps-obama-and-public-should-take-close
[25] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/diane-wilson-10th-day-hunger-strike-arrested-protesting-guantanamo-white-house
[26] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/why-i-am-hunger-strike-shut-down-guantanamo-bay-prison
[27] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/nun-83-and-two-other-activists-guilty-intent-injure-national-security-nuclear-comp
[28] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/protesters-welcome-obama-new-york-city
[29] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/appalachia-rising-protests-epa-over-dirty-water-and-mountaintop-removal
[30] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/lobster-boat-vs-coal-freighter-climate-activists-blockade-power-plant-0
[31] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/tar-sands-starts-our-driveways
[32] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/more-100-occupy-farm-protesters-return-university-california-owned-gill-tract
[33] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/streamer-journalist-code-ethics
[34] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/promising-path-pummeling-plutocracy
[35] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/home-defenders-league-week-actions-may-18-23
[36] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/join-stop-frack-attack-s-people-s-forum-dc-may-22nd
[37] http://october2011.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=33602bebba8fb7dd6e71fb413&id=7323777ff7&e=387b4a1bb3
[38] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/get-bus-bradley-court-martial-trial-june-1st
[39] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/trade-justice-action-camp
[40] http://october2011.org/blogs/kevin-zeese/fearless-summer-begins-june-24-29-unites-front-line-environmental-just-activists-a
[41] http://october2011.us2.list-manage1.com/track/click?u=33602bebba8fb7dd6e71fb413&id=faf6cc0275&e=387b4a1bb3
[42] http://october2011.org/pledge
[43] http://www.alternet.org/tags/activism
[44] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

The Politics of Disimagination and the Pathologies of Power

by Henry A. Giroux | Truthout | News Analysis, 27 February 2013 

“You write in order to change the world knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that [writing] is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” – James Baldwin

Excerpt

We live in a time of deep foreboding, one that haunts any discourse about justice, democracy and the future. Not only have the points of reference that provided a sense of certainty and collective hope in the past largely evaporated, but the only referents available are increasingly supplied by a hyper-market-driven society, megacorporations and a corrupt financial service industry...Market discipline now regulates all aspects of social life, and the regressive economic rationality that drives it sacrifices the public good, public values and social responsibility to a tawdry consumerist dream while simultaneously creating a throwaway society of goods, resources and individuals now considered disposable…

The political, economic, and social consequences have done more than destroy any viable vision of a good society. They undermine the modern public’s capacity to think criticallyAt the same time, America’s obsession with violence is reinforced by a market society that is Darwinian in its pursuit of profit and personal gain at almost any cost. Within this scenario, a social and economic order has emerged…a set of atomizing and selfish values that disdain shared social bonds and any notion of the public good…things have gotten worse, and that the United States is further plunging into madness because of a deadening form of historical and social amnesia that has taken over the country, further reproducing a mass flight from memory and social responsibility….

…What is new is the unprecedented social sanction of the ethos of greed that has emerged since the 1980s. What is also new is that military force and values have become a source of pride rather than alarm in American society...

the politics of disimagination refers to images, and I would argue institutions, discourses, and other modes of representation, that undermine the capacity of individuals to bear witness to a different and critical sense of remembering, agency, ethics and collective resistance.[21] The “disimagination machine” is both a set of cultural apparatuses extending from schools and mainstream media to the new sites of screen culture, and a public pedagogy that functions primarily to undermine the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue: put simply, to become critically informed citizens of the world…

The rise of the Tea Party and the renewal of the culture wars have resulted in a Republican Party which is now considered the party of anti-science. Similarly, right-wing politicians, media, talk show hosts and other conservative pundits loudly and widely spread the message that a culture of questioning is antithetical to the American way of life… The “disimagination machine” is more powerful than ever as conservative think tanks provide ample funds for training and promoting anti-public pseudo-intellectuals and religious fundamentalists while simultaneously offering policy statements and talking points to conservative media such as FOX News, Christian news networks, right-wing talk radio, and partisan social media and blogs. This ever growing information/illiteracy bubble has become a powerful force of public pedagogy in the larger culture and is responsible for not only the war on science, reason and critical thought, but also the war on women’s reproductive rights, poor minority youth, immigrants, public schooling, and any other marginalized group or institution that challenges the anti-intellectual, anti-democratic worldviews of the new extremists and the narrative supporting Christian nationalism. Liberal Democrats, of course, contribute to this “disimagination machine” through educational policies that substitute critical thinking and critical pedagogy for paralyzing pedagogies of memorization and rote learning tied to high-stakes testing in the service of creating a neoliberal, dumbed-down workforce.

 

…We are de-evolving, hurtling headlong into a past that was defined by serfs and lords; by necromancy and superstition; by policies based on fiat, not facts. We are also plunging into a dark world of anti-intellectualism, civic illiteracy and a formative culture supportive of an authoritarian state. The embrace of ignorance is at the center of political life today, and a reactionary form of public pedagogy has become the most powerful element of the politics of authoritarianism. Civic illiteracy is the modus operandi for creating depoliticized subjects who believe that consumerism is the only obligation of citizenship, who privilege opinions over reasoned arguments, and who are led to believe that ignorance is a virtue rather than a political and civic liability. In any educated democracy, much of the debate that occupies political life today, extending from creationism and climate change denial to “birther” arguments, would be speedily dismissed as magical thinking, superstition and an obvious form of ignoranceAt stake here is more than the dangerous concentration of economic, political and cultural power in the hands of the ultrarich, megacorporations and elite financial services industries. Also at issue is the widespread perversion of the social, critical education, the public good, and democracy itself.

Toward a Radical Imagination

Against the politics of disimagination, progressives, workers, educators, young people and others need to develop a a new language of radical reform and create new public spheres that provide the pedagogical conditions for critical thought, dialogue and thoughtful deliberation…The radical imagination can be nurtured around the merging of critique and hope, the capacity to connect private troubles with broader social considerations, and the production of alternative formative cultures that provide the precondition for political engagement and for energizing democratic movements for social change – movements willing to think beyond isolated struggles and the limits of a savage global capitalism

Matters of justice, equality, and political participation are foundational to any functioning democracy, but it is important to recognize that they have to be rooted in a vibrant formative culture in which democracy is understood not just as a political and economic structure but also as a civic force enabling justice, equality and freedom to flourish…what must also be present are the principles and modes of civic education and critical engagement that support the very foundations of democratic culture. Central to such a project is the development of a new radical imagination both through the pedagogies and projects of public intellectuals in the academy and through work that can be done in other educational sites, such as the new media. Utilizing the Internet, social media, and other elements of the digital and screen culture, public intellectuals, cultural workers, young people and others can address larger audiences and present the task of challenging diverse forms of oppression, exploitation and exclusion as part of a broader effort to create a radical democracy.

There is a need to invent modes of pedagogy that release the imagination, connect learning to social change and create social relations in which people assume responsibility for each otherThe radical imagination waits to be unleashed through social movements in which injustice is put on the run and civic literacy, economic justice, and collective struggle once again become the precondition for agency, hope and the struggle over democracy.

Full Text

The Violence of Neoliberalism

We live in a time of deep foreboding, one that haunts any discourse about justice, democracy and the future. Not only have the points of reference that provided a sense of certainty and collective hope in the past largely evaporated, but the only referents available are increasingly supplied by a hyper-market-driven society, megacorporations and a corrupt financial service industry. The commanding economic and cultural institutions of American society have taken on what David Theo Goldberg calls a “militarizing social logic.”[1] Market discipline now regulates all aspects of social life, and the regressive economic rationality that drives it sacrifices the public good, public values and social responsibility to a tawdry consumerist dream while simultaneously creating a throwaway society of goods, resources and individuals now considered disposable.[2] This militarizing logic is also creeping into public schools and colleges with the former increasingly resembling the culture of prison and the latter opening their classrooms to the national intelligence agencies.[3] In one glaring instance of universities endorsing the basic institutions of the punishing state, Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, concluded a deal to rename its football stadium after the GEO Group, a private prison corporation “whose record is marred by human rights abuses, by lawsuits, by unnecessary deaths of people in their custody and a whole series of incidents.” [3A] Armed guards are now joined by armed knowledge.  Corruption, commodification and repressive state apparatuses have become the central features of a predatory society in which it is presumed irrationally “that market should dominate and determine all choices and outcomes to the occlusion of any other considerations.”[4]

The political, economic, and social consequences have done more than destroy any viable vision of a good society. They undermine the modern public’s capacity to think critically, celebrate a narcissistic hyperindividualism that borders on the pathological, destroy social protections and promote a massive shift towards a punitive state that criminalizes the behavior of those bearing the hardships imposed by a survival-of-the-fittest society that takes delight in the suffering of others. How else to account for a criminal justice stacked overwhelmingly against poor minorities, a prison system in which “prisoners can be held in solitary confinement for years in small, windowless cells in which they are kept for twenty-three hours of every day,”[5] or a police state that puts handcuffs on a 5-year old and puts him in jail because he violated a dress code by wearing sneakers that were the wrong color.[6] Why does the American public put up with a society in which “the top 1 percent of households owned 35.6 percent of net wealth (net worth) and a whopping 42.4 percent of net financial assets” in 2009, while many young people today represent the “new face of a national homeless population?”[7] American society is awash in a culture of civic illiteracy, cruelty and corruption. For example, major banks such as Barclays and HSBC swindle billions from clients and increase their profit margins by laundering money for terrorist organizations, and no one goes to jail. At the same time, we have the return of debtor prisons for the poor who cannot pay something as trivial as a parking fine. President Obama arbitrarily decides that he can ignore due process and kill American citizens through drone strikes and the American public barely blinks. Civic life collapses into a war zone and yet the dominant media is upset only because it was not invited to witness the golf match between Obama and Tiger Woods.

 

The celebration of violence in both virtual culture and real life now feed each other. The spectacle of carnage celebrated in movies such as A Good Day to Die Hard is now matched by the deadly violence now playing out in cities such as Chicago and New Orleans. Young people are particularly vulnerable to such violence, with 561 children age 12 and under killed by firearms between 2006 and 2010.[8] Corporate power, along with its shameless lobbyists and intellectual pundits, unabashedly argue for more guns in order to feed the bottom line, even as the senseless carnage continues tragically in places like Newtown, Connecticut, Tustin, California, and other American cities. In the meantime, the mainstream media treats the insane rambling of National Rifle Association’s (NRA) Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre as a legitimate point of view among many voices. This is the same guy who, after the killing of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, claimed the only way to stop more tragedies was to flood the market with more guns and provide schools with more armed guards. The American public was largely silent on the issue in spite of the fact that an increase of police in schools does nothing to prevent such massacres but does increase the number of children, particularly poor black youth, who are pulled out of class, booked and arrested for trivial behavioral infractions.

 

At the same time, America’s obsession with violence is reinforced by a market society that is Darwinian in its pursuit of profit and personal gain at almost any cost. Within this scenario, a social and economic order has emerged that combines the attributes and values of films such as the classics Mad Max and American Psycho. Material deprivation, galloping inequality, the weakening of public supports, the elimination of viable jobs, the mindless embrace of rabid competition and consumption, and the willful destruction of the environment speak to a society in which militarized violence finds its counterpart, if not legitimating credo, in a set of atomizing and selfish values that disdain shared social bonds and any notion of the public good. In this case, American society now mimics a market-driven culture that celebrates a narcissistic hyperindividualism that radiates with a new sociopathic lack of interest in others and a strong tendency towards violence and criminal behavior. As John le Carré once stated, “America has entered into one of its periods of historical madness.”[9] While le Carré wrote this acerbic attack on American politics in 2003, I think it is fair to say that things have gotten worse, and that the United States is further plunging into madness because of a deadening form of historical and social amnesia that has taken over the country, further reproducing a mass flight from memory and social responsibility. The politics of disimagination includes, in this instance, what Mumia Abu-Jamal labeled “mentacide,” a form of historical amnesia “inflicted on Black youth by the system’s systematic campaign to eradicate and deny them their people’s revolutionary history.”[10]

 

America’s Plunge Into Militarized Madness

 

How does one account for the lack of public outcry over millions of Americans losing their homes because of corrupt banking practices and millions more becoming unemployed because of the lack of an adequate jobs program in the United States, while at the same time stories abound of colossal greed and corruption on Wall Street? [11] For example, in 2009 alone, hedge fund manager David Tepper made approximately 4 billion dollars.[12] As Michael Yates points out: “This income, spent at a rate of $10,000 a day and exclusive of any interest, would last him and his heirs 1,096 years! If we were to suppose that Mr. Tepper worked 2,000 hours in 2009 (fifty weeks at forty hours per week), he took in $2,000,000 per hour and $30,000 a minute.”[13] This juxtaposition of robber-baron power and greed is rarely mentioned in the mainstream media in conjunction with the deep suffering and misery now experienced by millions of families, workers, children, jobless public servants and young people. This is especially true of a generation of youth who have become the new precariat[14] – a zero generation relegated to zones of social and economic abandonment and marked by zero jobs, zero future, zero hope and what Zygmunt Bauman has defined as a societal condition which is more “liquid,”less defined, punitive, and, in the end, more death dealing.[15]

 

Narcissism and unchecked greed have morphed into more than a psychological category that points to a character flaw among a marginal few. Such registers are now symptomatic of a market-driven society in which extremes of violence, militarization, cruelty and inequality are hardly noticed and have become normalized. Avarice and narcissism are not new. What is new is the unprecedented social sanction of the ethos of greed that has emerged since the 1980s.[16] What is also new is that military force and values have become a source of pride rather than alarm in American society. Not only has the war on terror violated a host of civil liberties, it has further sanctioned a military that has assumed a central role in American society, influencing everything from markets and education to popular culture and fashion. President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office warning about the rise of the military-industrial complex, with its pernicious alignment of the defense industry, the military and political power.[17] What he underestimated was the transition from a militarized economy to a militarized society in which the culture itself was shaped by military power, values and interests. What has become clear in contemporary America is that the organization of civil society for the production of violence is about more than producing militarized technologies and weapons; it is also about producing militarized subjects and a permanent war economy. As Aaron B. O’Connell points outs:

 

Our culture has militarized considerably since Eisenhower’s era, and civilians, not the armed services, have been the principal cause. From lawmakers’ constant use of “support our troops” to justify defense spending, to TV programs and video games like “NCIS,” “Homeland”and “Call of Duty,” to NBC’s shameful and unreal reality show “Stars Earn Stripes,” Americans are subjected to a daily diet of stories that valorize the military while the storytellers pursue their own opportunistic political and commercial agendas.[18]

 

The imaginary of war and violence informs every aspect of American society and extends from the celebration of a warrior culture in mainstream media to the use of universities to educate students in the logic of the national security state. Military deployments now protect “free trade” arrangements, provide job programs and drain revenue from public coffers. For instance, Lockheed Martin stands to gain billions of dollars in profits as Washington prepares to buy 2,443 F-35 fighter planes at a cost of $90 million each from the company. The overall cost of the project for a plane that has been called a “one trillion dollar boondoggle” is expected to cost more “than Australia’s entire GDP ($924 billion).”[19] Yet, the American government has no qualms about cutting food programs for the poor, early childhood programs for low-income students and food stamps for those who exist below the poverty line. Such misplaced priorities represent more than a military-industrial complex that is out of control. They also suggest the plunge of American society into the dark abyss of a state that is increasingly punitive, organized around the production of violence and unethical in its policies, priorities and values.

 

John Hinkson argues that such institutionalized violence is far from a short-lived and aberrant historical moment. In fact, he rightfully asserts that: “we have a new world economy, one crucially that lacks all substantial points of reference and is by implication nihilistic. The point is that this is not a temporary situation because of the imperatives, say, of war: it is a structural break with the past.”[20] Evidence of such a shift is obvious in the massive transfer upward in wealth and income that have not only resulted in the concentration of power in relatively few hands, but have promoted both unprecedented degrees of human suffering and hardship along with what can be called a politics of disimagination.

 

The Rise of the “Disimagination Machine”

 

Borrowing from Georges Didi-Huberman’s use of the term, “disimagination machine,” I argue that the politics of disimagination refers to images, and I would argue institutions, discourses, and other modes of representation, that undermine the capacity of individuals to bear witness to a different and critical sense of remembering, agency, ethics and collective resistance.[21] The “disimagination machine” is both a set of cultural apparatuses extending from schools and mainstream media to the new sites of screen culture, and a public pedagogy that functions primarily to undermine the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue: put simply, to become critically informed citizens of the world.

 

Examples of the “disimagination machine” abound. A few will suffice. For instance, the Texas State Board of Education and other conservative boards of education throughout the United States are rewriting American textbooks to promote and impose on America’s public school students what Katherine Stewart calls “a Christian nationalist version of US history” in which Jesus is implored to “invade” public schools.[22] In this version of history, the term “slavery” is removed from textbooks and replaced with “Atlantic triangular trade,” the earth is 6,000 years old, and the Enlightenment is the enemy of education. Historical figures such as Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, considered to have suspect religious views, “are ruthlessly demoted or purged altogether from the study program.”[23] Currently, 46 percent of the American population believes in the creationist view of evolution and increasingly rejects scientific evidence, research and rationality as either ‘academic’ or irreligious.[24]

 

The rise of the Tea Party and the renewal of the culture wars have resulted in a Republican Party which is now considered the party of anti-science. Similarly, right-wing politicians, media, talk show hosts and other conservative pundits loudly and widely spread the message that a culture of questioning is antithetical to the American way of life. Moreover, this message is also promoted by conservative groups such as The American Legislative Exchange Council, (ALEC) which has “hit the ground running in 2013, pushing ‘model bills’ mandating the teaching of climate change denial in public school systems.”[25] The climate-change-denial machine is also promoted by powerful conservative groups such as the Heartland Institute. Ignorance is never too far from repression, as was recently demonstrated in Arizona, where State Rep. Bob Thorpe, a Republican freshman Tea Party member, introduced a new bill requiring students to take a loyalty oath in order to receive a graduation diploma.[26]

 

The “disimagination machine” is more powerful than ever as conservative think tanks provide ample funds for training and promoting anti-public pseudo-intellectuals and religious fundamentalists while simultaneously offering policy statements and talking points to conservative media such as FOX News, Christian news networks, right-wing talk radio, and partisan social media and blogs. This ever growing information/illiteracy bubble has become a powerful force of public pedagogy in the larger culture and is responsible for not only the war on science, reason and critical thought, but also the war on women’s reproductive rights, poor minority youth, immigrants, public schooling, and any other marginalized group or institution that challenges the anti-intellectual, anti-democratic worldviews of the new extremists and the narrative supporting Christian nationalism. Liberal Democrats, of course, contribute to this “disimagination machine” through educational policies that substitute critical thinking and critical pedagogy for paralyzing pedagogies of memorization and rote learning tied to high-stakes testing in the service of creating a neoliberal, dumbed-down workforce.

 

As John Atcheson has pointed out, we are “witnessing an epochal shift in our socio-political world. We are de-evolving, hurtling headlong into a past that was defined by serfs and lords; by necromancy and superstition; by policies based on fiat, not facts.”[27] We are also plunging into a dark world of anti-intellectualism, civic illiteracy and a formative culture supportive of an authoritarian state. The embrace of ignorance is at the center of political life today, and a reactionary form of public pedagogy has become the most powerful element of the politics of authoritarianism. Civic illiteracy is the modus operandi for creating depoliticized subjects who believe that consumerism is the only obligation of citizenship, who privilege opinions over reasoned arguments, and who are led to believe that ignorance is a virtue rather than a political and civic liability. In any educated democracy, much of the debate that occupies political life today, extending from creationism and climate change denial to “birther” arguments, would be speedily dismissed as magical thinking, superstition and an obvious form of ignorance. Mark Slouka is right in arguing that, “Ignorance gives us a sense of community; it confers citizenship; our representatives either share it or bow down to it or risk our wrath…. Communicate intelligently in America and you’re immediately suspect.”[28] The politics and machinery of disimagination and its production of ever-deepening ignorance dominates American society because it produces, to a large degree, uninformed customers, hapless clients, depoliticized subjects and illiterate citizens incapable of holding corporate and political power accountable. At stake here is more than the dangerous concentration of economic, political and cultural power in the hands of the ultrarich, megacorporations and elite financial services industries. Also at issue is the widespread perversion of the social, critical education, the public good, and democracy itself.

 

Toward a Radical Imagination

 

Against the politics of disimagination, progressives, workers, educators, young people and others need to develop a a new language of radical reform and create new public spheres that provide the pedagogical conditions for critical thought, dialogue and thoughtful deliberation. At stake here is a notion of pedagogy that both informs the mind and creates the conditions for modes of agency that are critical, informed, engaged and socially responsible. The radical imagination can be nurtured around the merging of critique and hope, the capacity to connect private troubles with broader social considerations, and the production of alternative formative cultures that provide the precondition for political engagement and for energizing democratic movements for social change – movements willing to think beyond isolated struggles and the limits of a savage global capitalism. Stanley Aronowitz and Peter Bratsis point to such a project in their manifesto on the radical imagination. They write:

 

    This Manifesto looks forward to the creation of a new political Left formation that can overcome fragmentation, and provide a solid basis for many-side interventions in the current economic, political and social crises that afflict people in all walks of life. The Left must once again offer to young people, people of color, women, workers, activists, intellectuals and newly-arrived immigrants places to learn how the capitalist system works in all of its forms of exploitation whether personal, political, or economic. We need to reconstruct a platform to oppose Capital. It must ask in this moment of US global hegemony what are the alternatives to its cruel power over our lives, and those of large portions of the world’s peoples. And the Left formation is needed to offer proposals on how to rebuild a militant, democratic labor movement, strengthen and transform the social movements; and, more generally, provide the opportunity to obtain a broad education that is denied to them by official institutions. We need a political formation dedicated to the proposition that radical theory and practice are inextricably linked, that knowledge without action is impotent, but action without knowledge is blind.[29]

 

Matters of justice, equality, and political participation are foundational to any functioning democracy, but it is important to recognize that they have to be rooted in a vibrant formative culture in which democracy is understood not just as a political and economic structure but also as a civic force enabling justice, equality and freedom to flourish. While the institutions and practices of a civil society and an aspiring democracy are essential in this project, what must also be present are the principles and modes of civic education and critical engagement that support the very foundations of democratic culture. Central to such a project is the development of a new radical imagination both through the pedagogies and projects of public intellectuals in the academy and through work that can be done in other educational sites, such as the new media. Utilizing the Internet, social media, and other elements of the digital and screen culture, public intellectuals, cultural workers, young people and others can address larger audiences and present the task of challenging diverse forms of oppression, exploitation and exclusion as part of a broader effort to create a radical democracy.

 

There is a need to invent modes of pedagogy that release the imagination, connect learning to social change and create social relations in which people assume responsibility for each other. Such a pedagogy is not about methods or prepping students to learn how to take tests. Nor is such an education about imposing harsh disciplinary behaviors in the service of a pedagogy of oppression. On the contrary, it is about a moral and political practice capable of enabling students and others to become more knowledgeable while creating the conditions for generating a new vision of the future in which people can recognize themselves, a vision that connects with and speaks to the desires, dreams and hopes of those who are willing to fight for a radical democracy. Americans need to develop a new understanding of civic literacy, education and engagement, one capable of developing a new conversation and a new political project about democracy, inequality, and the redistribution of wealth and power, and how such a discourse can offer the conditions for democratically inspired visions, modes of governance and policymaking. Americans need to embrace and develop modes of civic literacy, critical education and democratic social movements that view the public good as a utopian imaginary, one that harbors a trace and vision of what it means to defend old and new public spheres that offer spaces where dissent can be produced, public values asserted, dialogue made meaningful and critical thought embraced as a noble ideal.

 

Elements of such a utopian imaginary can be found in James Baldwin’s “Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Davis,” in which he points out that “we live in an age in which silence is not only criminal but suicidal.”[30] The utopian imaginary is also on full display in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” where King states under the weight and harshness of incarceration that an “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere … [and asks whether we will] be extremists for the preservation of injustice – or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”[31] According to King, “we must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.”[32] We hear it in the words of former Harvard University President James B. Conant, who makes an impassioned call for “the need for the American radical – the missing political link between the past and future of this great democratic land.” [33] We hear it in the voices of young people all across the United States – the new American radicals – who are fighting for a society in which justice matters, social protections are guaranteed, equality is insured, and education becomes a right and not an entitlement. The radical imagination waits to be unleashed through social movements in which injustice is put on the run and civic literacy, economic justice, and collective struggle once again become the precondition for agency, hope and the struggle over democracy.

 

Endnotes

 

1.

David Theo Goldberg, “Mission Accomplished: Militarizing Social Logic,”in Enrique Jezik: Obstruct, destroy, conceal, ed. Cuauhtémoc Medina (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2011), 183-198.

 

2.

See, for example, Colin Leys, Market Driven Politics (London: Verso, 2001); Randy Martin, Financialization of Daily Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002); Pierre Bourdieu, Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2. Trans. Loic Wacquant (New York: The New Press, 2003); Alfredo Saad-Filho and Deborah Johnston, Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader (London: Pluto Press, 2005); Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm, 2008); David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Gerad Dumenil and Dominique Levy, The Crisis of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). Henry A. Giroux, Twilight of the Social (Boulder: Paradigm, 2013); Stuart Hall, “The March of the Neoliberals,” The Guardian, (September 12, 2011). online at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/sep/12/march-of-the-neoliberals

 

3.

See most recently  Kelly V. Vlahos, “Boots on Campus,” Anti War.com (February 26, 2013). On line: http://original.antiwar.com/vlahos/2013/02/25/boots-on-campus/ and David H. Price, Weaponizing Anthropology (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011).

 

3A. Greg Bishop, “A Company that Runs Prisons Will Have its Name on a Stadium,” New York Times (February 19, 2013). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/20/sports/ncaafootball/a-company-that-runs-prisons-will-have-its-name-on-a-stadium.html?_r=0

 

4.

Ibid. Goldberg, pp. 197-198.

 

5.

Jonathan Schell, “Cruel America”, The Nation, (September 28, 2011) online: http://www.thenation.com/article/163690/cruel-america

 

6.

Suzi Parker, “Cops Nab 5-Year-Old for Wearing Wrong Color Shoes to School,” Take Part, (January 18, 2013). Online: http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/01/18/cops-nab-five-year-old-wearing-wrong-color-shoes-school

 

7.

Susan Saulny, “After Recession, More Young Adults Are Living on Street,” The New York Times, (December 18, 2012). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/19/us/since-recession-more-young-americans-are-homeless.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

 

8.

Suzanne Gamboa and Monika Mathur, “Guns Kill Young Children Daily In The U.S.,” Huffington Post (December 24, 2012). Online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/24/guns-children_n_2359661.html

 

9.

John le Carre, “The United States of America Has Gone Mad,” CommonDreams (January 15, 2003). Online: http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0115-01.htm

 

10.

Eric Mann Interviews Mumbia Abu Jamal, “Mumia Abu Jamal: On his biggest political influences and the political ‘mentacide’ of today’s youth.” Voices from the Frontlines Radio (April 9, 2012).

 

11.

See, for example, Charles Ferguson, Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America (New York: Random House, 2012).

 

12.

Michael Yates, “The Great Inequality,” Monthly Review, (March 1, 2012).

 

13.

Ibid.

 

14.

Guy Standing, The New Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).

 

15.

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007).

 

16.

This issue is taken up brilliantly in Irving Howe, “Reaganism: The Spirit of the Times,” Selected Writings 1950-1990 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), pp. 410-423.

 

17.

I take up this issue in detail in Henry A. Giroux, The University in Chains: Challenging the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Boulder: Paradigm, 2007).

 

18.

Aaron B. O’Connell, “The Permanent Militarization of America,” The New York Times, (November 4, 2012). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/05/opinion/the-permanent-militarization-of-america.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

 

19.

Dominic Tierney, “The F-35: A Weapon that Costs More Than Australia,” The Atlantic (February 13, 2013). Online: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/the-f-35-a-weapon-that-costs-more-than-australia/72454/

 

20.

John Hinkson, “The GFC Has Just Begun,”Arena Magazine 122 (March 2013), p. 51.

 

21.

Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz, trans. Shane B. Lillis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 1-2.

 

22._

Katherine Stewart, “Is Texas Waging War on History?”AlterNet (May 21, 2012). Online: http://www.alternet.org/story/155515/is_texas_waging_war_on_history

 

23.

Ibid.

 

24.

See, for instance, Chris Mooney, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality (New York: Wiley, 2012).

 

25.

Steve Horn, “Three States Pushing ALEC Bill to Require Teachng Climate Change Denial in Schools,”Desmogblog.com (January 31, 2013). Online: www.desmogblog.com/2013/01/31/three-states-pushing-alec-bill-climate-change-denial-schools

 

26.

Igor Volsky, “Arizona Bill to Force Students to Take a Loyalty Oath,” AlterNet (January 26, 2013).

 

27.

John Atcheson, “Dark ages Redux: American Politics and the End of the Enlightenment,” CommonDreams (June 18, 2012). Online: https://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/06/18-2

 

28.

Mark Slouka, “A Quibble,” Harper’s Magazine (February 2009).

 

29.

Manifesto, Left Turn: An Open Letter to U.S. Radicals, (N.Y.: The Fifteenth Street Manifesto Group, March 2008), pp. 4-5.

 

30.

James Baldwin, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” The New York Review of Books, (January 7, 1971). Online: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1971/jan/07/an-open-letter-to-my-sister-miss-angela-davis/?pagination=false

 

31.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (1963), in James M. Washington, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), pp.290, 298.

 

32.

Ibid, 296.

 

33.

James B. Conant, “Wanted: American Radicals”, The Atlantic, May 1943.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission of the author.

Henry A Giroux

 

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. His most recent books include: Youth in a Suspect Society (Palgrave, 2009); Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race, and Democracy (Paradigm, 2010); Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (Paradigm, 2010); The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (co-authored with Grace Pollock, Rowman and Littlefield, 2010); Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism (Peter Lang, 2011); Henry Giroux on Critical Pedagogy (Continuum, 2011). His newest books:   Education and the Crisis of Public Values (Peter Lang) and Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability (Paradigm Publishers) will be published in 2012). Giroux is also a member of Truthout’s Board of Directors. His web site is www.henryagiroux.com.

A Great Debate

By GARY GUTTING, New York Times blogs, February 19, 2013

Excerpt

…our political “debates” seldom deserve the name…Is there any way to make genuine debates – sustained back-and-forth exchanges, meeting high intellectual standards but still widely accessible – part of our political culture?..Such debates will not end our political disagreements, but they will set much higher standards of discussion, requiring fuller explanations of positions and even modifications to make them more defensible. It’s unlikely that either side would ever simply give up its view, but, politically, they would have to react to a strong public consensus if they had not made a respectable case

The only major obstacle to implementing this proposal would be getting the parties to participate. Here, I suggest, shame would be a prime motivator

Of course, many people will not have the time, interest, or the ability to follow debates of this sort. But those who do – including the leading commentators and opinion-makers – will be among the most concerned and articulate, and their views will have a significant effect on the terms and tone of the general discussion.

Facts and reasoning will never settle political issues. All of us have fundamental commitments that are impervious to argument. If an argument seems to refute them, we take this as a refutation of the argument. And, of course, many of us are too ignorant, self-interested or prejudiced on certain issues to be moved by rational considerations. But rationality almost always has some role in our decisions, and more rationality in our political discussion will at a minimum help many to better understand what is at stake in our disputes and why their opponents think as they do.

So why not give reason a chance?…

 

 

Full text

This is the year of what should be a decisive debate on our country’s spending and debt. But our political “debates” seldom deserve the name. For the most part representatives of the rival parties exchange one-liners: “The rich can afford to pay more” is met by “Tax increases kill jobs.” Slightly more sophisticated discussions may cite historical precedents: “There were higher tax rates during the post-war boom” versus “Reagan’s tax cuts increased revenues.”

Such volleys still don’t even amount to arguments: they don’t put forward generally accepted premises that support a conclusion. Full-scale speeches by politicians are seldom much more than collections of such slogans and factoids, hung on a string of platitudes. Despite the name, candidates’ pre-election debates are exercises in looking authoritative, imposing their talking points on the questions, avoiding gaffes, and embarrassing their opponents with “zingers” (the historic paradigm: “There you go again.”).

There is a high level of political discussion in the editorials and op-eds of national newspapers and magazines as well as on a number of blogs, with positions often carefully formulated and supported with argument and evidence. But even here we seldom see a direct and sustained confrontation of rival positions through the dialectic of assertion, critique, response and counter-critique.

Such exchanges occur frequently in our law courts (for example, oral arguments before the Supreme Court) and in discussions of scientific papers. But they are not a significant part of our deliberations about public policy. As a result, partisans typically remain safe in their ideological worlds, convincing themselves that they hold to obvious truths, while their opponents must be either knaves or fools – with no need to think through the strengths of their rivals’ positions or the weaknesses of their own.

Is there any way to make genuine debates – sustained back-and-forth exchanges, meeting high intellectual standards but still widely accessible – part of our political culture? (I leave to historians the question of whether there are historical precedents- like the Webster-Hayne or Lincoln-Douglas debates.) Can we put our politicians in a situation where they cannot ignore challenges, where they must genuinely engage with one another in responsible discussion and not just repeat talking points?

A first condition is that the debates be focused on specific points of major disagreement. Not, “How can we improve our economy?” but “Will tax cuts for the wealthy or stimulus spending on infrastructure do more to improve our economy?” This will prevent vague statements of principle that don’t address the real issues at stake.

Another issue is the medium of the debate. Written discussions, in print or online could be easily arranged, but personal encounters are more vivid and will better engage public attention. They should not, however, be merely extemporaneous events, where too much will depend on quick-thinking and an engaging manner. We want remarks to be carefully prepared and open to considered responses.

Here’s one suggestion for an effective exchange. The debate would consist of a series of four half-hour televised sessions, carried out on successive days. In the first session, the Republican, say, presents a pre-written case for a particular position (say that tax-cuts are better for the economy than stimulus spending). The Democrat, who will have read the Republican’s presentation beforehand, presents a 15-minute point-by-point response. In the second session, the Republican asks the Democrat a series of questions (no more than one minute per question and three minutes per response) on the debate topic. In the third session, the Democrat questions the Republican. In the fourth session, each side has 15 minutes to present a final argument. This, of course, is just one idea. I welcome readers’ suggestions for refinements or alternatives.

Such debates will not end our political disagreements, but they will set much higher standards of discussion, requiring fuller explanations of positions and even modifications to make them more defensible. It’s unlikely that either side would ever simply give up its view, but, politically, they would have to react to a strong public consensus if they had not made a respectable case. Further, the quasi-official status of the participants, as representatives chosen by their parties, would make the parties’ politicians answerable to points the representatives have made. If Congressman X says at a press conference, “Lower rates have always produced higher tax revenues,” reporters might point out the party’s representative had to retreat to a more nuanced position. Such nuance might open the path to fruitful compromise.

The only major obstacle to implementing this proposal would be getting the parties to participate. Here, I suggest, shame would be a prime motivator. Given strong popular support for such debates, it’s hard to see how the parties could answer the charge that they are shying away because they don’t have confidence in their ability to make a convincing case.

Of course, many people will not have the time, interest, or the ability to follow debates of this sort. But those who do – including the leading commentators and opinion-makers – will be among the most concerned and articulate, and their views will have a significant effect on the terms and tone of the general discussion.

Facts and reasoning will never settle political issues. All of us have fundamental commitments that are impervious to argument. If an argument seems to refute them, we take this as a refutation of the argument. And, of course, many of us are too ignorant, self-interested or prejudiced on certain issues to be moved by rational considerations. But rationality almost always has some role in our decisions, and more rationality in our political discussion will at a minimum help many to better understand what is at stake in our disputes and why their opponents think as they do.

So why not give reason a chance? How about a televised debate in the next few weeks on some key differences in the Democratic and Republican budget proposals? Here’s a concrete suggestion: Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Charles Schumer debating the question: Will tax cuts for the wealthy or stimulus spending on infrastructure do more to improve our economy?

It may not draw the number of viewers that “American Idol” does, but it would surely be an improvement on the status quo of our political debate.

Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960,” and writes regularly for The Stone. He was recently interviewed in 3am magazine.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/19/a-great-debate/?nl=opinion&emc=edit_ty_20130220

Engineered Inequality

Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson on Engineered Inequality, Moyers & Company,  March 1, 2012

Moyers & Company dives into one of the most important and controversial issues of our time: How Washington and Big Business colluded to make the super-rich richer and turn their backs on the rest of us. Bill’s guests – Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, authors of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, argue that America’s vast inequality is no accident, but in fact has been politically engineered. March 1, 2012

How, in a nation as wealthy as America, can the economy simply stop working for people at large, while super-serving those at the very top? Through exhaustive research and analysis, the political scientists Hacker and Pierson — whom Bill regards as the “Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson” of economics — detail important truths behind a 30-year economic assault against the middle class.

Who’s the culprit? “American politics did it– far more than we would have believed when we started this research,” Hacker explains. “What government has done and not done, and the politics that produced it, is really at the heart of the rise of an economy that has showered huge riches on the very, very, very well off.” 

Bill considers their book the best he’s seen detailing “how politicians rewrote the rules to create a winner-take-all economy that favors the 1% over everyone else, putting our once and future middle class in peril.”

Excerpt

LINNEA PALMER PATON: This is supposed to be a government run by the people and if our voices don’t matter because we’re not wealthy, that’s really unacceptable and it’s dangerous.

BILL MOYERS: Why, in a nation as rich as America, has the economy stopped working for people at large even as those at the top enjoy massive rewards?

The struggle of ordinary people for a decent living, for security, is as old as the republic, but it’s taken on a new and urgent edge. Instead of shared prosperity our political system has now produced a winner-take-all economy…

BILL MOYERS: This gross inequality didn’t just happen. It was made to happen. It was politically engineered by powerful players in Washington and on Wall Street. You can read how they did it in this book, Winner-Take-All Politics, by two of the country’s top political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

PAUL PIERSON: It’s really astonishing how concentrated the gains of economic growth have been.

JACOB HACKER: But we were actually looking at the last 30 years, and seeing that the middle class had only gotten ahead to the extent that it had because of families working more hours…

 

JACOB HACKER:  …And what we found is it’s not the haves versus the have-nots. It’s the have-it-alls versus the rest of Americans. And those have-it-alls, which are households in say the top one-tenth of one percent of the income distribution, the richest one-in-a-thousand households are truly living in an unparalleled age.

BILL MOYERS: You set out to try to solve three mysteries: who done it, who created the circumstances and conditions for the creation of a winner-take-all economy. And your answer to that in one sentence is?

JACOB HACKER: American politics did it far more than we would have believed when we started this research. What government has done and not done and the politics that produced it is really at the heart of the rise of an economy that has showered huge riches on the very, very, very well off…

BILL MOYERS: How did they do it?

PAUL PIERSON: Through organized combat is the short answer.

BILL MOYERS: And why did they do it?

JACOB HACKER: Because they could. Because the transformation of political organization, the creation of a powerful, organized business community, the degree to which that was self-reinforcing within both parties has meant that politicians have found that they can on issue after issue cater to the interests of the very well off while either ignoring or only symbolically addressing many of the concerns that are felt by most Americans and get reelected and survive politically…

BILL MOYERS: You write, we have a government that’s been promoting inequality, and at the same time, as you just said, failing to counteract it. This has been going on, you write, 30 years or more. And here’s the key sentence: Step by step, and debate by debate, our public officials have rewritten the rules of the economy in ways that favor the few at the expense of the many…

BILL MOYERS: How can this happen? How could Washington turn its back on the broad middle class to favor a relatively few at the top in a democracy?

JACOB HACKER: What has really changed is the organization of American politics, particularly the organizations that represent the deepest pocketed members of American society. What we’ve seen as an organizational revolution over the last 30 years that has meant that business, and Wall Street, and ideological conservative organizations that are pushing for free market policies have all become much more influential.

And at the same time, a lot of the organizations that once represented the middle class, labor unions, broad-based civic organizations and, sort of, organizations at the local and grassroots level, including social movements, have all lost enormous ground… the wealthy are much more powerful than in the past…

JACOB HACKER: Yeah, I mean, if you look at the history of American democracy it is about a broadening of our understanding of political equality to incorporate African Americans and women and ultimately to also incorporate the idea that large inequalities of property were a threat to democratic equality. So FDR during the Great Depression famously said that political equality was meaningless in the face of economic inequality… Americans have very complex views about equality, but they all agree in this basic idea that as Thomas Jefferson famously said, “All men are created equal.”…

BILL MOYERS: Point blank, Paul, do we still have a middle class country?

PAUL PIERSON: I would say no…. in terms of its weight in the society, its ability to produce a society and reproduce a society that is oriented around the needs and concerns and opportunities of the middle class, I don’t think that we live in that country anymore…

JACOB HACKER: The fact is that for most middle class and working class Americans the politics seems increasingly removed from their everyday experience and their life. And there is a current of distrust and anger towards Washington is that is so deep right now…

JACOB HACKER: That is one of the big changes that occurs over this period. Money becomes more important for campaigns and it also becomes much more important in terms of lobbying, which in some ways is the more important way that money changed American politics. It’s really the development of lobbying over this this last 25, 30 years that stands out as the most dramatic role of money in American politics…

the optimistic message is that politics got us into this mess and therefore potentially politics can get us out of it. ..

JACOB HACKER: When citizens are organized and when they press their claims forcefully, when there are reformist leaders within government and outside it who work on their behalf, then we do see reform. This is the story of the American democratic experiment of wave after wave of reform leading to a much broader franchise, to a much broader understanding of the American idea…what was valuable in the past could be a part of our future.

Full posting

(Because of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on our offices and studio, we’re airing this encore edition of Moyers & Company, first broadcast in January. This Election Day, issues of money, influence and “winner-take-all politics” are more important than ever.)

How, in a nation as wealthy as America, can the economy simply stop working for people at large, while super-serving those at the very top? Through exhaustive research and analysis, the political scientists Hacker and Pierson — whom Bill regards as the “Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson” of economics — detail important truths behind a 30-year economic assault against the middle class.

Who’s the culprit? “American politics did it– far more than we would have believed when we started this research,” Hacker explains. “What government has done and not done, and the politics that produced it, is really at the heart of the rise of an economy that has showered huge riches on the very, very, very well off.”

Bill considers their book the best he’s seen detailing “how politicians rewrote the rules to create a winner-take-all economy that favors the 1% over everyone else, putting our once and future middle class in peril.”

Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson on Engineered Inequality, Moyers & Company,  March 1, 2012

PAUL PIERSON: I think a lot of people know that inequality has grown in the United States. But saying that inequality has grown doesn’t begin to describe what’s happened.

JACOB HACKER: It’s not the haves versus the have-nots. It’s the have-it-alls versus the rest of Americans.

LINNEA PALMER PATON: This is supposed to be a government run by the people and if our voices don’t matter because we’re not wealthy, that’s really unacceptable and it’s dangerous.

BILL MOYERS: Why, in a nation as rich as America, has the economy stopped working for people at large even as those at the top enjoy massive rewards?

The struggle of ordinary people for a decent living, for security, is as old as the republic, but it’s taken on a new and urgent edge. Instead of shared prosperity our political system has now produced a winner-take-all economy.

GORDON GEKKO: The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth: five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows’ idiot sons and what I do — stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got 90 percent of the American people have little or no net worth. I create nothing; I own.

We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval; the price of a paper clip. We pull the rabbit out of the hat while everybody else sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now, you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy are you, Buddy?

BILL MOYERS: That, of course, was Michael Douglas as the wheeler-dealer Gordon Gekko, responding to his protégé, played by Charlie Sheen in the movie Wall Street, 25 years ago!

Back in the late 80s, the director Oliver Stone, himself the son of a stockbroker, saw something happening before it reached the mainstream. Before the rest of us knew what hit us. That little speech about the richest one percent and the demise of democracy proved to be prophetic. Flesh-and-blood Americans are living now every day with the consequences.

BILL MOYERS: This gross inequality didn’t just happen. It was made to happen. It was politically engineered by powerful players in Washington and on Wall Street. You can read how they did it in this book, Winner-Take-All Politics, by two of the country’s top political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

PAUL PIERSON:

It’s really astonishing how concentrated the gains of economic growth have been.

JACOB HACKER:

But we were actually looking at the last 30 years, and seeing that the middle class had only gotten ahead to the extent that it had because of families working more hours.

So this is a story that isn’t just about those at the top doing much, much better. But is, also, we found, a story about those in the middle not getting ahead, often falling behind in important ways, failing to have the same kinds of opportunity and economic security that they once had.

JACOB HACKER:  …And what we found is it’s not the haves versus the have-nots. It’s the have-it-alls versus the rest of Americans. And those have-it-alls, which are households in say the top one-tenth of one percent of the income distribution, the richest one-in-a-thousand households are truly living in an unparalleled age.

BILL MOYERS: You set out to try to solve three mysteries: who done it, who created the circumstances and conditions for the creation of a winner-take-all economy. And your answer to that in one sentence is?

JACOB HACKER: American politics did it far more than we would have believed when we started this research. What government has done and not done and the politics that produced it is really at the heart of the rise of an economy that has showered huge riches on the very, very, very well off.

BILL MOYERS: It’s the politics, stupid?

JACOB HACKER: Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: How did they do it?

PAUL PIERSON: Through organized combat is the short answer.

BILL MOYERS: And why did they do it?

JACOB HACKER: Because they could. Because the transformation of political organization, the creation of a powerful, organized business community, the degree to which that was self-reinforcing within both parties has meant that politicians have found that they can on issue after issue cater to the interests of the very well off while either ignoring or only symbolically addressing many of the concerns that are felt by most Americans and get reelected and survive politically.

PAUL PIERSON: …That it couldn’t explain why the economic gains were so concentrated within a very small subset of the educated people in American society. I mean, 29 percent of Americans now have college degrees. But a much, much smaller percentage of Americans were benefiting from this economic transformation.

JACOB HACKER: We think the story that’s told about how the global economy has shifted clearly matters. But that it doesn’t get to the sort of really powerful role that government played in adapting to this new environment and in changing the well-being of people in the middle and at the top.

PAUL PIERSON: … Which to us, really, was a very strong clue that we need to understand why the American response to globalization, to technological change has been different than the response of most other wealthy democracies.

JACOB HACKER: …But how do you explain the fact that we’ve seen over this period where the rich have gotten richer the tax rates on the richest of the rich come dramatically down. ..

PAUL PIERSON: The Bush tax cuts in a lot of ways were written like a subprime mortgage. You know, they were designed to make people see certain things, and not see a lot of the fine print.

JACOB HACKER: Fully 30 to 40 percent of the benefits were going to the very top, of the income distribution. The top one percent. And when you broke it down, it was really the top one-tenth of one percent that did so well because of the estate tax changes, and because of the changes in the top tax rates, the changes in the capital gains taxes. And if you go to 2003, changes in the dividend tax….

PAUL PIERSON: …it was really designed to front-load the relatively modest benefits for the middle class, and to back-load the benefits for the wealthy….

JACOB HACKER: So why? Why do the winners get policies that make their winnings even larger? You know, this is not a trivial change. If you say from the mid-90s to 2007, those top 400 tax payers, they’ve seen their tax rates decline so much that it’s worth about $46 million for every one–

JACOB HACKER: Well, I think this is something that really needs to be understood. You know, these large shifts in our economy had been propelled in part by what government has done, say deregulating the market, the financial markets, to allow wealthy people to gamble with their own and other peoples’ money, and ways to put all of us at risk, but allow them to make huge fortunes….

BILL MOYERS: You write, we have a government that’s been promoting inequality, and at the same time, as you just said, failing to counteract it. This has been going on, you write, 30 years or more. And here’s the key sentence: Step by step, and debate by debate, our public officials have rewritten the rules of the economy in ways that favor the few at the expense of the many.

PAUL PIERSON: In some ways, the fundamental myth that we’re trying to break out of is the idea that there’s something natural out there called “the American economy” that is prior to government, prior to politics. And that government, if it’s involved at all, is only involved sort of at the end of the day, maybe tidying things up around the edges, or redistributing money from some people to another…

BILL MOYERS: How can this happen? How could Washington turn its back on the broad middle class to favor a relatively few at the top in a democracy?

JACOB HACKER: What has really changed is the organization of American politics, particularly the organizations that represent the deepest pocketed members of American society. What we’ve seen as an organizational revolution over the last 30 years that has meant that business, and Wall Street, and ideological conservative organizations that are pushing for free market policies have all become much more influential.

And at the same time, a lot of the organizations that once represented the middle class, labor unions, broad-based civic organizations and, sort of, organizations at the local and grassroots level, including social movements, have all lost enormous ground.

And so it’s that imbalance, that shift, I think, that is the sort of underlying pressure that plays out in our politics today. The way we describe it in the book is as if the ecosystem of American politics has changed. And everyone in American politics, Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives has had to adapt to this new world where money matters much more in our politics, and where groups representing business and the wealthy are much more powerful than in the past.

BILL MOYERS: And you don’t beat around the bush. You say, quote, “Most voters of moderate means…have been organized out of politics, left adrift as the foundations of middle class democracy have washed away.”

JACOB HACKER: Yeah, I mean, if you look at the history of American democracy it is about a broadening of our understanding of political equality to incorporate African Americans and women and ultimately to also incorporate the idea that large inequalities of property were a threat to democratic equality. So FDR during the Great Depression famously said that political equality was meaningless in the face of economic inequality… Americans have very complex views about equality, but they all agree in this basic idea that as Thomas Jefferson famously said, “All men are created equal.”…

PAUL PIERSON: Yes, they do. And we describe that period after World War II, which lasted for about 30 years

JACOB HACKER: Right now I think we’re seeing the kind of bitter fruit of winner-take-all politics because this financial crisis was not an act of God or work of nature. It was brought on by poor decisions that were made in Washington and on Wall Street.

BILL MOYERS: So the winner-take-all politics has produced a winner-take-all economy?

BILL MOYERS: Point blank, Paul, do we still have a middle class country?

PAUL PIERSON: I would say no. I mean, obviously there is still something there is still something that we would recognize as a middle class, it’s still probably the biggest segment of the population. But in terms of its weight in the society, its ability to produce a society and reproduce a society that is oriented around the needs and concerns and opportunities of the middle class, I don’t think that we live in that country anymore.

JACOB HACKER: … I think, what is wrong with the priorities of our society that we cannot figure out how to translate our great wealth, our ingenuity, the hard work of our citizens, into a better standard of living that is shared broadly across the population? That’s a fundamental thing that a well-functioning democracy should do.

JACOB HACKER: …

At the individual level Americans are extremely optimistic. And if you ask them, “Will you achieve the American dream?” Most Americans say yes. But at a collective level when you ask people, “Does the American dream still hold true?” We’re seeing in surveys for the first time that only about, you know, half of Americans are agreeing that the American dream still holds true. And that’s remarkable.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the practical consequences of that? Of giving up faith and hope in that dream?

JACOB HACKER: The fact is that for most middle class and working class Americans the politics seems increasingly removed from their everyday experience and their life. And there is a current of distrust and anger towards Washington is that is so deep right now…

JACOB HACKER: That is one of the big changes that occurs over this period. Money becomes more important for campaigns and it also becomes much more important in terms of lobbying, which in some ways is the more important way that money changed American politics. It’s really the development of lobbying over this this last 25, 30 years that stands out as the most dramatic role of money in American politics.

Well, a few years later lobbyists had written a lot of these loopholes back into the tax code..

PAUL PIERSON: Right. It is the story that we try to tell in this book that there has been a 30 year war in which the sound of the voice of ordinary Americans has been quieter and quieter in American politics and the voice of business and the wealthy has been louder and louder

And I think the main punch line of our story and the optimistic message is that politics got us into this mess and therefore potentially politics can get us out of it. ..

JACOB HACKER: When citizens are organized and when they press their claims forcefully, when there are reformist leaders within government and outside it who work on their behalf, then we do see reform. This is the story of the American democratic experiment of wave after wave of reform leading to a much broader franchise, to a much broader understanding of the American idea.

In the mid-20th century we saw a period in which income gains were broadly distributed, in which middle class Americans had voice through labor unions, through civic organizations and through, ultimately, their government. We’ve seen an erosion of that world, but just because it’s lost ground doesn’t mean it can’t be saved. And so in writing this book we were hoping to sort of tell Americans that what was valuable in the past could be a part of our future.

BILL MOYERS: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, thank you.

PAUL PIERSON: Thank you so much.

JACOB HACKER: Thank you.

Full transcript

March 1, 2012

Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson on Engineered Inequality

BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company.

PAUL PIERSON: I think a lot of people know that inequality has grown in the United States. But saying that inequality has grown doesn’t begin to describe what’s happened.

JACOB HACKER: It’s not the haves versus the have-nots. It’s the have-it-alls versus the rest of Americans.

BILL MOYERS: And…

LINNEA PALMER PATON: This is supposed to be a government run by the people and if our voices don’t matter because we’re not wealthy, that’s really unacceptable and it’s dangerous.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. I’m glad we could get together again. I look forward to your company from week to week – here and online at BillMoyers.com. It’s good to be back.

We begin with the question that haunts our time: Why, in a nation as rich as America, has the economy stopped working for people at large even as those at the top enjoy massive rewards?

The struggle of ordinary people for a decent living, for security, is as old as the republic, but it’s taken on a new and urgent edge. Instead of shared prosperity our political system has now produced a winner-take-all economy.

BUD FOX: How much is enough Gordon?

BILL MOYERS: Hollywood saw it coming.

GORDON GEKKO: The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth: five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows’ idiot sons and what I do — stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got 90 percent of the American people have little or no net worth. I create nothing; I own.

We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval; the price of a paper clip. We pull the rabbit out of the hat while everybody else sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now, you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy are you, Buddy?

BILL MOYERS: That, of course, was Michael Douglas as the wheeler-dealer Gordon Gekko, responding to his protégé, played by Charlie Sheen in the movie Wall Street, 25 years ago!

Back in the late 80s, the director Oliver Stone, himself the son of a stockbroker, saw something happening before it reached the mainstream. Before the rest of us knew what hit us. That little speech about the richest one percent and the demise of democracy proved to be prophetic. Flesh-and-blood Americans are living now every day with the consequences.

AMANDA GREUBEL: My name is Amanda Greubel. I am 32 years old, born and raised in Iowa. I’ve been married for ten years today to my high school sweetheart, Josh. He’s the High School Band Director in the same district where I am the Family Resource Center Director. We have a five-year old son Benen, and our second child on the way in December. Like a lot American families, we have a lot of debt – mortgage, two vehicles, and because we both have masters degrees, a lot of student loan debt.

BILL MOYERS: Amanda Greubel was invited to testify last summer at a Senate hearing on how Americans are coping in hard times. When the state cut funding for local school districts, Amanda Greubel and her husband feared they might lose their jobs. At the last minute, they were spared, although her salary was reduced by $10,000.

AMANDA GREUBEL: $10,000 might not seem like a lot to some people, but that loss of income required a complete financial, emotional and spiritual overhaul in our family. […] It means that even though I would rather shop at local grocers, I shop at Wal-Mart for groceries because that’s where the lowest prices are. Sometimes the grocery money runs out before the end of the month, and then we have to be creative with what’s in the cupboard – and that was a fun challenge at first, but the novelty wears off after a while. […] It means that most of our clothing comes from Goodwill, garage sales, and the clearance racks because we try not to spend full-price on anything anymore. It means that when my son brought me the snack calendar for his classroom and I saw that that month was his week to provide snacks for 15 classmates, I was scared because I knew that it would stretch the grocery budget even further. And we didn’t have roast beef or pork chops in our house that month. […] This past spring our son was hospitalized for three days, resulting in $1000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses beyond what our insurance covered. Then a problem with our roof required $1500 in repairs. Even though we’d been setting aside money every month for emergencies like that, we still didn’t have enough. And so we’ve spent the last few months catching up.

And finally, this change in our finances meant giving very serious consideration to whether it was even a good idea for our family to have another child. Thankfully, life has a way of reminding us through our son’s brief illness and hospitalization that some things are more important than money and that we’ll figure it out.

BILL MOYERS: She told the senators how the sour economy has affected her students and their parents.

AMANDA GREUBEL: If my family with two Master’s degrees is struggling, you can imagine how bad it is for other people.

The past few years our school district has seen our percentage of students on free and reduced lunch increase steadily. In a community that has a reputation of being very well off, over 30 percent of our elementary level students qualified for that program this year. I’ve sat with parents as they’ve completed that eligibility application, and they cry tears of shame, and they say things like “I never thought I’d have to do this,” and “I’ve never needed this help before.” They worry that their neighbors will find out and that their kids will be embarrassed. And it’s my job to reassure them that reaching out for help when you need it is no problem – it’s not a shame, it’s not anything to be embarrassed about. […] Kids don’t necessarily tell their parents when they’re afraid, because they see that their parents are stressed out enough already and they don’t want to make it worse. Sometimes their clothing becomes more tattered and we see parents cut the toes off of tennis shoes to accommodate a few more months’ worth of growth, and let those shoes last just a little bit longer. When kids don’t have enough to eat or they worry about losing their homes they cannot concentrate on learning their math facts, or their reading strategies. And in some cases financial concerns lead to or exacerbate issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, and physical or mental health conditions. All of the things that are ailing our families right now are so interconnected.

[…] I may have been called on to be the voice of struggling families today, but there are millions more out there who want and need to be heard by you. And I would ask that you not only listen, but that you then come back here and do something. Because it was your commitment and your passion for public service that brought you here in the first place.

BILL MOYERS: Our once and future middle class is in trouble. Their share of the nation’s income is shrinking, while the share going to the top is growing. Wages are at an all-time low as a percentage of the economy, and chronic unemployment is at the highest level since the Great Depression, but the richest Americans now hold more wealth than at any time in modern history.

This gross inequality didn’t just happen. It was made to happen. It was politically engineered by powerful players in Washington and on Wall Street. You can read how they did it in this book, Winner-Take-All Politics, by two of the country’s top political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

They were drawn to a mystery every bit as puzzling as a crime drama: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.

Quote: “We wanted to know how our economy stopped working to provide prosperity and security for the broad middle class.” And that’s what you saw.

PAUL PIERSON: I think a lot of people know that inequality has grown in the United States. But saying that inequality has grown doesn’t begin to describe what’s happened. The metaphor that we had been using lately is if you imagine a ladder, with the rungs in the ladder, and you think, “Okay, well inequality’s growing. So the rungs are getting further apart from each other.”

That’s not what’s happened in the United States. What’s happened in the United States is that the top one or two rungs have shot up, you know, into the stratosphere while all the other ones have stayed more or less in place. It’s really astonishing how concentrated the gains of economic growth have been.

JACOB HACKER: You know, the startling statistic that we have in the book is that if you take all of the income gains from 1979 to 2007, so all the increased household income over that period, around 40 percent of those gains went to the top one percent. And if you look at the bottom 90 percent they had less than that combined.

And it is not just a one or two year story. I mean, we’ve seen a terrible economy over the last few years. And the last decade is now being called “The Lost Decade” because there was no growth in middle incomes, there was no, there was an increase in the share of Americans without health insurance, more people are poor. So there was a terrible ten years.

But we were actually looking at the last 30 years, and seeing that the middle class had only gotten ahead to the extent that it had because of families working more hours.

So this is a story that isn’t just about those at the top doing much, much better. But is, also, we found, a story about those in the middle not getting ahead, often falling behind in important ways, failing to have the same kinds of opportunity and economic security that they once had.

BILL MOYERS: Let’s take a look at just how dramatic the inequality is. You have a chart here. I’m not an astute reader of charts, but this one did hit me. What are you saying with that chart?

JACOB HACKER: It says how much did people at different points on the income ladder earn in 1979 and how much did they earn in 2006 after adjusting for inflation?

It exploded at the top. The line for the top one percent, it’s hard to fit on the graph because it’s so much out of proportion to the increases that occurred among other income groups including people who are just below the top one percent. So, that top one percent saw its real incomes increase by over 250 percent between 1979 and 2006. Yeah. Over 250 percent.

PAUL PIERSON: And actually, even this graph– we couldn’t find a graph that fully describes it because even this graph actually really understates the story. Because it—

BILL MOYERS: Understates it?

PAUL PIERSON: Understates it.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, this is pretty powerful. When I looked I thought it was a showstopper.

PAUL PIERSON: Okay, so well, if you really if you really want the showstopper you have to go one step further because that big increase is for the top one percent. But the real action is inside the top one percent. If you go to the top tenth of one percent or the top hundredth of one percent, you know, you would need a much bigger graph to show what’s happening to incomes for that for that more select group. Because they’ve gone up much faster than have incomes for just your average top one percent kind of person.

BILL MOYERS: But we’ve all known for a long time that the rich were getting richer, and the middle class was barely holding its own. I mean, that was no mystery, right?

JACOB HACKER: Oh, it is. It’s a mystery when you start to look beneath the familiar, common statement that inequality has grown. Because when you think about rising inequality, we think, “Oh, it’s the haves versus the have-nots.” That the top third of the income distribution, say, is pulling away from the bottom third.

And what we found is it’s not the haves versus the have-nots. It’s the have-it-alls versus the rest of Americans. And those have-it-alls, which are households in say the top one-tenth of one percent of the income distribution, the richest one-in-a-thousand households are truly living in an unparalleled age.

Since we’ve been keeping records on the incomes of the richest from tax statistics in the early 20th century, we never saw as large a share of national income going to the richest one-in-a-thousand households as we did just before the great recession.

Their share of national income quadrupled over this period, to the point where they were pulling down about one in eight dollars in our economy. One-in-a-thousand households pulling down about one in eight dollars in our economy before the great recession began.

BILL MOYERS: You set out to try to solve three mysteries: who done it, who created the circumstances and conditions for the creation of a winner-take-all economy. And your answer to that in one sentence is?

JACOB HACKER: American politics did it far more than we would have believed when we started this research. What government has done and not done and the politics that produced it is really at the heart of the rise of an economy that has showered huge riches on the very, very, very well off.

BILL MOYERS: It’s the politics, stupid?

JACOB HACKER: Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: How did they do it?

PAUL PIERSON: Through organized combat is the short answer.

BILL MOYERS: And why did they do it?

JACOB HACKER: Because they could. Because the transformation of political organization, the creation of a powerful, organized business community, the degree to which that was self-reinforcing within both parties has meant that politicians have found that they can on issue after issue cater to the interests of the very well off while either ignoring or only symbolically addressing many of the concerns that are felt by most Americans and get reelected and survive politically.

PAUL PIERSON: If you listen to many public officials over the over the last 20 or 30 years as they’ve started to recognize that inequality has grown, typically what they’ll say is, this is a result just of economic change. It’s a result of globalization changes in technology that have advantaged the educated at those with high skills at the expense of the uneducated.

And there, clearly, there is some truth to this story that education matters more in determining economic rewards. But the more we looked at this, the less satisfied we were with that explanation.

That it couldn’t explain why the economic gains were so concentrated within a very small subset of the educated people in American society. I mean, 29 percent of Americans now have college degrees. But a much, much smaller percentage of Americans were benefiting from this economic transformation.

BILL MOYERS: Well, as you speak, I can hear all of those free-marketers out they say, “Come on, Piers– come on Hacker it is the global economy. It’s that cheap labor overseas. It’s those high technology skills that you say are required, these deep forces that actually are beyond our control, and are making inevitable this division between the top and everyone else.” Right? That’s what they’re saying as they listen to you right now.

JACOB HACKER: We think the story that’s told about how the global economy has shifted clearly matters. But that it doesn’t get to the sort of really powerful role that government played in adapting to this new environment and in changing the well-being of people in the middle and at the top.

PAUL PIERSON: And again, we wouldn’t want to say that the kinds of changes that they’re talking about don’t matter at all. But they still leave open for a country to decide how they’re going to respond to those kinds of economic challenges.

And when you look at other affluent democracies that have also been exposed to these same kinds of pressures, who are actually more open — smaller economies are often more open to the global economy than the United States is — you don’t see anything like the run-up in inequality, especially this very concentrated high-end inequality, in most of these other countries that you see in the United States. Which to us, really, was a very strong clue that we need to understand why the American response to globalization, to technological change has been different than the response of most other wealthy democracies.

JACOB HACKER: So it’s one thing to say, “Oh, the rich are getting richer because we have this new global economy.”

But how do you explain the fact that we’ve seen over this period where the rich have gotten richer the tax rates on the richest of the rich come dramatically down. You know, Warren Buffet now says that he thinks he’s paying a lower tax rate than the people who work for him do.

PAUL PIERSON: The thing that got us going at the very beginning was the Bush tax cuts.

GEORGE W. BUSH: This tax relief plan is principled. We cut taxes for every income taxpayer. We target nobody in, we target nobody out. And tax relief is now on the way. Today is a great day for America.

PAUL PIERSON: The Bush tax cuts in a lot of ways were written like a subprime mortgage. You know, they were designed to make people see certain things, and not see a lot of the fine print.

JACOB HACKER: Fully 30 to 40 percent of the benefits were going to the very top, of the income distribution. The top one percent. And when you broke it down, it was really the top one-tenth of one percent that did so well because of the estate tax changes, and because of the changes in the top tax rates, the changes in the capital gains taxes. And if you go to 2003, changes in the dividend tax.

I mean, these were all tax breaks that were worth a vast amount to the richest of Americans and worth very little to middle class Americans.

PAUL PIERSON: Within a few weeks after the legislation was passed, we all get a letter that says Congress and the President have given you this tax cut. And then that’s pretty much it for the middle class. But for higher income groups, the further forward you go in time, the bigger and bigger the benefits get. So it was really designed to front-load the relatively modest benefits for the middle class, and to back-load the benefits for the wealthy.

JACOB HACKER: So why? Why do the winners get policies that make their winnings even larger? You know, this is not a trivial change. If you say from the mid-90s to 2007, those top 400 tax payers, they’ve seen their tax rates decline so much that it’s worth about $46 million for every one–

BILL MOYERS: For every–

JACOB HACKER: Of those 400 tax payers. So it’s– the numbers are staggering. When you start to look within the top one percent, and look at what government has done to help those people out, through taxes, through changes in the market, financial deregulation and the like, and through protecting them from efforts to try to push back.

BILL MOYERS: Protecting them?

JACOB HACKER: Well, I think this is something that really needs to be understood. You know, these large shifts in our economy had been propelled in part by what government has done, say deregulating the market, the financial markets, to allow wealthy people to gamble with their own and other peoples’ money, and ways to put all of us at risk, but allow them to make huge fortunes.

And at the same time, when those risks have become apparent, there has been a studious effort on the part of political leaders to try to protect against government stepping in and regulating or changing the rules.

BILL MOYERS: You write, we have a government that’s been promoting inequality, and at the same time, as you just said, failing to counteract it. This has been going on, you write, 30 years or more. And here’s the key sentence: Step by step, and debate by debate, our public officials have rewritten the rules of the economy in ways that favor the few at the expense of the many.

PAUL PIERSON: In some ways, the fundamental myth that we’re trying to break out of is the idea that there’s something natural out there called “the American economy” that is prior to government, prior to politics. And that government, if it’s involved at all, is only involved sort of at the end of the day, maybe tidying things up around the edges, or redistributing money from some people to another.

And I think the financial crisis has been a rude awakening for people who viewed the economic world that way. It’s now, I think, very clear in retrospect that the decisions that leading public officials made over a period of decades helped to get us to a point where a financial crisis could be so devastating to all Americans.

BILL MOYERS: How can this happen? How could Washington turn its back on the broad middle class to favor a relatively few at the top in a democracy?

JACOB HACKER: What has really changed is the organization of American politics, particularly the organizations that represent the deepest pocketed members of American society. What we’ve seen as an organizational revolution over the last 30 years that has meant that business, and Wall Street, and ideological conservative organizations that are pushing for free market policies have all become much more influential.

And at the same time, a lot of the organizations that once represented the middle class, labor unions, broad-based civic organizations and, sort of, organizations at the local and grassroots level, including social movements, have all lost enormous ground.

And so it’s that imbalance, that shift, I think, that is the sort of underlying pressure that plays out in our politics today. The way we describe it in the book is as if the ecosystem of American politics has changed. And everyone in American politics, Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives has had to adapt to this new world where money matters much more in our politics, and where groups representing business and the wealthy are much more powerful than in the past.

BILL MOYERS: And you don’t beat around the bush. You say, quote, “Most voters of moderate means…have been organized out of politics, left adrift as the foundations of middle class democracy have washed away.”

JACOB HACKER: Yeah, I mean, if you look at the history of American democracy it is about a broadening of our understanding of political equality to incorporate African Americans and women and ultimately to also incorporate the idea that large inequalities of property were a threat to democratic equality. So FDR during the Great Depression famously said that political equality was meaningless in the face of economic inequality.

So we now, I think, understand that inequality of income and wealth is part of a capitalist society, but it can’t overwhelm our democracy. And what we’ve seen in the last 30 years is a gradual erosion of the firewalls that protect our democracy from the inequalities that are occurring in the market. Money has come into politics much more.

And the power that people have in the market is being used more and more in politics as well. And that’s a concern because Americans have very complex views about equality, but they all agree in this basic idea that as Thomas Jefferson famously said, “All men are created equal.”

And he meant men probably, but you know, the modern understand of that phrase, we believe that people whether they’re rich or they’re poor, whether they have lots of property or not, whether they’re in, on Wall Street or off, they should have equal potential to influence what government does. Anybody who looks around at our government today cannot believe that’s the case or that we’re even close to that.

PAUL PIERSON: Well certainly you just have to look at recent headlines to see a Washington that seems preoccupied with the economic concerns of those at the top and is resistant in many cases to steps that are clearly favored by a majority of the electorate such as wanting to increase taxes on the very well-to-do, letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire as if you want to do something about the deficit. That’s the single most popular proposal for doing something about the deficit would be to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire. And yet that gets nowhere in Washington.

JACOB HACKER: You know, there is an organized, powerful constituency for deregulation, for high end tax cuts, for policies that are neglecting some of the serious middle class strains. And there just isn’t anything of comparable size or power on the other side.

And that has pulled Washington way toward the concerns of the most affluent, most privileged members of our society and led them to often neglect the real struggles that Americans are facing during this economic crisis, struggles that are magnified versions of what Americans have been going through for 25 years or so.

BILL MOYERS: There was a time when we were sure that a strong middle class was the backbone of a democracy. And there was a time, after the second World War when I was a young man when incomes actually grew slightly faster at the bottom and the middle than at the top, is that right? Do your figures support that?

PAUL PIERSON: Yes, they do. And we describe that period after World War II, which lasted for about 30 years as being a country which we labeled Broadland. And—

BILL MOYERS: Broadland?

PAUL PIERSON: Broadland. And I think it’s most clearly captured by that old idea that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Everybody’s income is going up at the roughly the same rate, slightly faster actually towards the bottom of the income distribution than towards the top, but everybody’s incomes were going up. And it’s important to understand, so this wasn’t some egalitarian fantasy world. It wasn’t Sweden.

It was the United States, recognizably the United States with significant inequalities of wealth, but everybody was participating in prosperity and seeing their incomes rise. And then after the mid 1970′s we start moving towards a distribution of income that looks more like that of a third world oligarchy. It looks more like Mexico or Brazil or Russia. Income inequality that statistics on income inequality now suggest that inequality is higher in the U.S. than it is in Egypt. And that’s quite a journey from where we were when I was growing up.

JACOB HACKER: Right now I think we’re seeing the kind of bitter fruit of winner-take-all politics because this financial crisis was not an act of God or work of nature. It was brought on by poor decisions that were made in Washington and on Wall Street. Yes, there’s a global dimension to this, but a big part of it was failures of domestic policy. You know, if you look to our northern neighbor, Canada, it had nothing like the same degree of banking crisis the United States did. And that’s partly because it had much more effective regulations of the financial sector. You know, over this period that we saw leverage and speculation increasing on Wall Street, Washington, both Democrats and Republicans, were trying as hard as they could to allow Wall Street to do even more.

BILL MOYERS: So the winner-take-all politics has produced a winner-take-all economy? Right?

JACOB HACKER: Yes.

PAUL PIERSON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: And the winners are?

JACOB HACKER: The winners are those who’ve made out so well in this new economy, the very well off and financial– and people in the highest reaches of finance and corporate executives suites.

BILL MOYERS: And the losers?

PAUL PIERSON: Well, the losers are, I think, almost all of us.

I think almost all Americans lose from the shift toward a society in which rewards are so narrowly concentrated on a small segment of the population.

I was talking yesterday evening with a friend of mine who spends much of his time in Mexico who was describing a society in which a small group of wealthy people are protected by guns mostly from the rest of the population and dart from one protected location to another protected location completely separate from the rest of society.

We’re not there yet but we’ve moved a long way down a road in which there’s just a sharp social, economic, cultural separation from the vast bulk of Americans and a small astonishingly successful financial elite. And I don’t think that — I think most Americans would consider that not to be an improvement. They would consider themselves to be losers from that.

JACOB HACKER: And there’s no sign that the sort of massive concentration of the gains of the economy at the very top is slowing down. In fact, this downturn has been remarkable in the degree to which those at the very top seem to have weathered it pretty well. Profits are still very high.Those who are on Wall Street have recovered thanks to a massive government bailout.

BILL MOYERS: Taxpayers put it up. I mean, they’re spending taxpayer money.

JACOB HACKER: Yes, yes. And so we’ve seen the economy over 30 years very consistently shift in this direction. And what I think has not happened and what concerns us greatly is a kind of real undermining, deep undermining, of the operation of our democratic institutions.

I mean, we’re describing a massive erosion, but the question is could we see those democratic political institutions really cease to function effectively in the future if we have a society that continues to tilt so heavily towards winner-take-all. And that’s why we wrote the book because, you know, Walter Lippmann back in the early 20th century said the challenge for democratic reform is that democracy has to lift itself up by its own bootstraps.

And we’re, we are deep believers in the ability of American democracy to reform itself, of the strength of our democratic institutions. But they’re in very serious disrepair right now. And we’ve seen in recent political fights a sort of paralysis and a broad loss of faith in government. And that sort of secession of the wealthy from our economic life that we’ve already started to see could be matched by a secession of them from our political life and a sort of loss of that broad democracy that was characteristic of mid-20th century. That’s the greatest fear that we have.

BILL MOYERS: Would you say we still have a middle class country?

PAUL PIERSON: That’s–

BILL MOYERS: Wow.

PAUL PIERSON: No, no, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t.

BILL MOYERS: You’re hesitant.

PAUL PIERSON: If you asked me if you asked me that point blank, I mean–

BILL MOYERS: Point blank, Paul, do we still have a middle class country?

PAUL PIERSON: I would say no. I mean, obviously there is still something there is still something that we would recognize as a middle class, it’s still probably the biggest segment of the population. But in terms of its weight in the society, its ability to produce a society and reproduce a society that is oriented around the needs and concerns and opportunities of the middle class, I don’t think that we live in that country anymore.

JACOB HACKER: There was a poll done in 2010 that asked Americans whether the federal government had helped a great deal the following groups: large financial institutions and banks, 53 percent of Americans said they’d been helped a great deal.

What about large corporations? 44 percent of Americans said they’d been helped a great deal. Then they asked, well, has the federal government helped the middle class a great deal? And do you want to guess what percent of Americans said that they’d been helped a great deal– the middle class had been helped a great deal? Two percent.

BILL MOYERS: Two percent?

JACOB HACKER: Two percent.

BILL MOYERS: Well, this is—

JACOB HACKER: And so it’s just a remarkable sense that Washington isn’t working for the middle class. And after writing this book I think Paul and I feel as if that assessment, while excessively harsh, is grounded in a reality that Washington isn’t working well for most Americans.

BILL MOYERS: Did either of you happen to catch the Senate hearings last summer when a procession of ordinary Americans came and testified about what was happening?

AMANDA GREUBEL: We did everything we were always told to do to have the American dream. We finished high school, we went to college, we got married, we work hard, we pay our bills. We have no credit card debt. We waited to have children until we believed we were ready. We both got graduate degrees to be better at our jobs and make ourselves more marketable and increase our worth as employees. We volunteer, we donate to help those in need, and we vote. We did everything that all the experts said we should do, and yet still we’re struggling. And when you work that hard and you still feel sometimes like you’re scraping, it gets you really down really quick.

JACOB HACKER: When I hear stories like that I think, what is wrong with the priorities of our society that we cannot figure out how to translate our great wealth, our ingenuity, the hard work of our citizens, into a better standard of living that is shared broadly across the population? That’s a fundamental thing that a well-functioning democracy should do.

BILL MOYERS: And you say we are way behind in mobility. Behind Australia, Norway, Finland, Germany, France, Spain, and Canada. We are way down the list in terms of social mobility. Am I reading you right?

JACOB HACKER: Over this period in which those at the very top have done better and better the chance of climbing up the economic ladder hasn’t grown at all, it may have actually declined. And that is reflected, I think, in a sense of pessimism that you see among many middle class Americans about whether the American dream still holds true.

At the individual level Americans are extremely optimistic. And if you ask them, “Will you achieve the American dream?” Most Americans say yes. But at a collective level when you ask people, “Does the American dream still hold true?” We’re seeing in surveys for the first time that only about, you know, half of Americans are agreeing that the American dream still holds true. And that’s remarkable.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the practical consequences of that? Of giving up faith and hope in that dream?

JACOB HACKER: The fact is that for most middle class and working class Americans the politics seems increasingly removed from their everyday experience and their life. And there is a current of distrust and anger towards Washington is that is so deep right now.

AMANDA GREUBEL: When we turn on our TV’s, our radios, or pick up our newspapers, we read about what is going on in our federal and state governments, and we start to believe that you don’t care about us. We hear that corporate welfare continues and CEO’s get six-figure bonuses at taxpayer expense, and we wonder who you’re working for. And we look across the kitchen table at our families eating Ramen noodles for the third time this week and wonder how that’s fair. We read that the wealthy get bigger tax breaks in hopes that their money will “trickle down” to us, then we turn the page and read about how our school districts are forced to cut staff again. We know that money talks around here, and that means you don’t hear us.

JACOB HACKER: That is one of the big changes that occurs over this period. Money becomes more important for campaigns and it also becomes much more important in terms of lobbying, which in some ways is the more important way that money changed American politics. It’s really the development of lobbying over this this last 25, 30 years that stands out as the most dramatic role of money in American politics.

We tell the story in the book of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, because this was one of these great examples when the lobbyists were overcome. You know, the Gucci Gulch right outside the Senate chamber where the well-heeled lobbyists attend to members of congress. Well, Gucci Gulch was a place of, not of celebration, but of despair after 1986 because all these tax loopholes were closed, rates were brought down in a way that was actually making the tax code more equitable. And that was considered to be a big step forward for the public interest.

Well, a few years later lobbyists had written a lot of these loopholes back into the tax code. Ten years later, you know, you could hardly see any traces of the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Almost all of the good government public interest reforms that were put into the tax code in 1986 overcoming the lobbyists have been put back in, have been overwhelmed by the day in, day out lobbying to get those tax provisions right back into place.

BILL MOYERS: Quite a cycle, I mean, if you’re creating a winner-take-all economy the winners have more money to contribute to the politicians, who turn it into a winner-take-all politics. I mean, it just keeps—

PAUL PIERSON: Right. It is the story that we try to tell in this book that there has been a 30 year war in which the sound of the voice of ordinary Americans has been quieter and quieter in American politics and the voice of business and the wealthy has been louder and louder. Many people, I think, read this book and think it’s a pessimistic book, that it’s grim reading and there are ways in which that’s true.

But Jacob and I genuinely believe that it’s an optimistic story compared with the story that we’re typically told about what’s been happening to the American economy. Because what we’re typically told is there’s nothing you can do about this, that it’s just an economic reality, there’s no point in blaming any political party.

And I think the main punch line of our story and the optimistic message is that politics got us into this mess and therefore potentially politics can get us out of it.

BILL MOYERS: But if both political parties are indebted to the winners where do the losers find an army to join?

JACOB HACKER: When citizens are organized and when they press their claims forcefully, when there are reformist leaders within government and outside it who work on their behalf, then we do see reform. This is the story of the American democratic experiment of wave after wave of reform leading to a much broader franchise, to a much broader understanding of the American idea.

In the mid-20th century we saw a period in which income gains were broadly distributed, in which middle class Americans had voice through labor unions, through civic organizations and through, ultimately, their government. We’ve seen an erosion of that world, but just because it’s lost ground doesn’t mean it can’t be saved. And so in writing this book we were hoping to sort of tell Americans that what was valuable in the past could be a part of our future.

BILL MOYERS: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, thank you.

PAUL PIERSON: Thank you so much.

JACOB HACKER: Thank you.

http://billmoyers.com/segment/jacob-hacker-paul-pierson-on-engineered-inequality/