The consolidation of right-wing, anti-democratic, power by corporate and wealthy elite
Bob Sheak, March 31, 2018
Troubles and hope
Our society is in deep trouble. We are faced with a host of problems domestically and internationally that are growing in scope, intensity, and damaging effects, some of which are likely to be irreparable and of existential dimensions. Some of the problems, such as the threat of nuclear war and the climate crisis, are truly apocalyptic in their implications. The situation is made more terrifying as Trump threatens preemptive war with Iran and North Korea and fills up his administration with war-mongers like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo and, all-the-while, denies the significance of global-warming/climate change, appointing people with the same irrational views as his to key environmental and energy posts.
At the same, there are glimmers of light amidst these dark and foreboding clouds. The student-led movement that burst on the scene after the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at Parkland, Florida, is inspiring. As a result, there are now prospects that the NRA’s political dominance may be whittled down, at least in some states. And there was breaking news in late March that there are meetings and negotiations among leaders of North and South Korea that may undercut Trump’s rationale for ordering a nuclear attack on the North. And, looking back, Bernie Sanders’ extraordinary campaign in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary gives hope to those who will work to unseat Republicans in the 2018 mid-term elections. Sanders’ campaign demonstrated that, given the right candidates, there are millions of potential small donors and activists who will contribute to and work for the campaigns of candidates who offer a truly progressive platform, including support for: renewable energy, a green economy and jobs; public education, not charter schools; tuition-free education at community colleges for those who quality; debt-relief for students and graduates; single-payer, universal health care; infrastructure projects, including, as one example, support for fixing and making safe community water treatment and sanitation systems; reduced military spending; a reinvigorated State Department along with a strong emphasis on diplomacy; a revamped immigration system that provides paths to citizenship; reasonable gun control that bans military-type weapons, streamlines universal background checks, requires a waiting period, mandates that all guns are licensed, ends gun-show and other loopholes. The existence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the multi-faceted movement for gender equality, and citizen engagement from the center/left in every imaginable issue, all help to keep hope alive. How we educate ourselves and others, our activism, whether there are good political candidates, and getting out the vote – all this matters. It is also important to have a clear and unifying idea of our values and the kind of society we would like to have.
Robert Reich offers a vision of how a democratic society should be based on values associated with the “common good” and what it takes to achieve it. Reich’s new book, titled The Common Good, examines this concept that is anathema and antithetical to the powerful right-wing forces that are in political ascendance in Washington D.C. and in the majority of state capitols. For him, the common good reflects “a commitment to respecting the rule of law, including its intent and spirit, to protecting our democratic institutions; to discovering and spreading the truth; to being open to change and tolerant of our differences; to ensuring equal political rights and equal opportunity; to participating in our civil life together, and sacrificing for that life together” (p. 45). It is the antithesis of what the right-wing leaders like Trump and his administration want, namely, government by the wealthy, mostly for the wealthy and corporations, based on a highly restricted electoral system.
The threats to democracy
Corporate power moves to the far right of the political spectrum
The crises in the United States are rooted in our economic and political systems that are making the problems ever-worse. Our capitalist economy is dominated by mega-corporations in every sector, along with some privately-owned, multi-billion-dollar companies, like Cargill and Koch Industries. The principal driving force of these giant enterprises, and other business enterprises, is to always put profits and the interests of the top executives and shareholders ahead of all other considerations. The focus of corporate executives is on increasing the size, sales, revenues, and profits of these corporations and doing so in ways that disregard the interests of most employees, the environmental impact of their operations and the effects on communities, and the quality or durability of the goods and services they provide. The corporations are constantly faced with the problem of insufficient consumer demand and the saturation of markets. So, they spend enormous sums of money on pervasive, sophisticated, and manipulative sales efforts to goad consumers to buy their products and services, often on shaky credit.
There are guardians of the system to ensure profits remain paramount in the calculations of CEOs. They have little or nothing to do with the “common good,” and much to do with capturing profits for the wealthy. Wall Street bankers decide whether a given corporation’s profitable outlook is good enough to obtain financial support and how much it will cost. Private equity funds, sometimes referred to as vulture funds, are the contemporary corporate raiders, always poised to mount takeover efforts when a corporation is viewed as not operating profitably enough or is sitting on too much cash. After taking over a company, some raiders then often sell off assets, drain employee’s pension retirement systems, reduce wages, and maximize profits while letting the company eventually go out of business. Others may revive a distressed company, however, usually at the expense of workers’ wages and benefits. Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt provide a comprehensive analysis of private equity firms in their book, Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street. The authors describe how these business enterprises operate.
“Private equity firms have emerged in the last three decades as part of a group of new financial actors – or ‘intermediaries’ – that raise large pools of capital from wealthy individuals and institutions for investment funds. These funds undertake risky investments that promise to deliver higher-than-average returns. Private equity funds buy out companies using high-levels of debt – referred to as ‘leverage’ – that is loaded onto the acquired companies. The use of debt to take over ownership of mature operating companies leveraged buyouts and actively manage them are the characteristics that distinguish private equity funds from venture capital or hedge funds. Venture capital and hedge funds are also investment funds that mobilize private pools of capital, but their business models differ substantially from that of private equity” (p. 1-2).
Hedge funds use the investments of wealthy people to speculate on anything that is deemed potentially profitable, from changes in commodity prices on international markets to changes in interest rates, to the prospects of government spending on the stock value of a given corporation, to buying real estate securities and selling them as their value rises, before it falls. Trades are made at incredible speed based on complex algorithms. They represent a kind of parasitical form of capitalism. Les Leopold analyzes hedge funds in his book, Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away with Siphoning off America’s Wealth.
Coming back to the center of U.S. capitalism, the mega-corporations use their control over vast resources to influence state governments as well as the federal government, through trade associations, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Business Roundtable, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, massive lobbying efforts, campaign contributions distributed through various types of political action committees (some anonymous or secret), political ads that favor their preferred candidates, and through a revolving-door in which corporate executives are appointed to important government positions for awhile and then return to their corporate or other private-sector jobs, and vice versa. While corporations have historically supported both the Democratic and Republican Parties, they have increasingly favored Republicans.
Nancy MacLean’s analysis takes us further into one of the principal dynamics of contemporary capitalism
But even all this does not capture the full extent of corporate and business power. Nancy MacLean, author and scholar, delves penetratingly into this issue in her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. With extensive documentation, she unveils how a radically libertarian view of society, with strong Social Darwinist overtones, has come to have great influence on corporations. This is a view that wants to “undo democratic governance” and majority rule with a system of governance that is controlled by those of great wealth, who define themselves as being superior in accomplishments and perhaps genetically to most others and thus who deserve to – indeed must -lead the country. They claim that the wealth they create will trickle down, but that people should not expect much – unless they have education and skills that are identified as being important to those in charge.
MacLean traces such views to an obscure but tenacious economic philosopher named James McGill Buchanan who from the 1950s on advanced a “revolutionary” right-wing economic and political philosophy that included, at one time or another, the following proposals: end progressive taxation and replace it with a flat tax; end government intrusion and regulation of the property of the wealthy(personal or business); end the right of workers to collective bargaining; end guaranteed pensions; end occupational and safety laws; end affirmative action laws; privatize Social Security, Medicare, the Veterans’ Administration; reduce spending on and access to public assistance programs (e.g., Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers); privatize virtually all functions of government (e.g., education, welfare, prisons, public media, infrastructure, transportation ….). Additionally, according to MacLean, Buchanan argued that state’s rights should take precedence over federal law and local initiatives because it’s easier to control state governments. What Buchanan and his wealthy backers want is, MacLean writes, “a return to oligarchy [and] to a world in which both economic [and] effective political power are to be concentrated in the hands of a few.” She continues that the dream of the leaders of this movement is:
“to reinstate the kind of political economy that prevailed in America at the opening of the twentieth century, when the mass disfranchisement of voters and the legal treatment of labor unions as illegitimate enabled large corporations and wealthy individuals to dominate Congress and most state governments alike, and to feel secure that the nation’s courts would not interfere with their reign” (p.xxxii).
Along the way, as Buchanan held various academic positions, joining with and supported by like-minded ideologues in academia and with funding by wealthy backers, he argued that the long-term goal was “a constitutional” revolution that would end majority rule. This will be a stealth movement that through incremental successes undermines democracy. MacLean says Buchanan’s efforts have, unfortunately, borne fruit. She writes in her Introduction: “Pushed by relatively small number of radical-right billionaires and millionaires who have become profoundly hostile to America’s modern system of government, an apparatus decades in the making, funded by those same billionaires and millionaires, has been working to undermine the normal governance of our democracy” (p. xxxi).The most influential force in this movement has been the Koch network, which, MacLean reports, “’operates on the scale of a national U.S. political party’ and employs more than three times as many people as the Republican committees had on their payroll in 2015” (p. xxxi). She summarizes the achievements of the Koch network as follows:
“It was occupying the Republican Party, using the threat of well-funded primary challenges to force its elected officials to do the cause’s bidding or lose their seats. It was pushing our radical right laws ready to bring to the floor in every state through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It was selling those laws through the seemingly independent but centrally funded and operationally linked groups of the State Policy Network. It was leveraging the anger of the local Tea Party groups to move the legislative agenda of Americans for Prosperity and Freedom-Works. Its state affiliates were energizing voter turnout with deceitful direct mail campaigns. Its elected allies were shutting down the federal government; in effect, using its employees and the millions who rely on it as hostages to get what they otherwise could not – and much, much more” (p. 210).
In his book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time, Gordon Lafer offers this description of the Koch network.
“…rather than simply contributing to candidates’ campaigns, the Kochs have established a uniquely broad network of related organizations – candidate selection and funding vehicles, think tanks, data firms, communication strategists, and grassroots organizers – that together constitute and integrated and formidable political force. In 2014, Americans for Prosperity alone spent $125 million and had five hundred full-time staffers to organize supporters in target states. Finally, the Kochs not only spend their own money on an unparalleled scale; they also serve as organizers and directors of a network of corporate and private donors. In 2016, this network aimed to spend $1 billion, significantly more than the Democratic or Republican parties raised in the 2012 election cycle” (p. 16).
The vision for our society of this right-wing movement
What has the radically, right-wing movement already accomplished and what is in store for us if we don’t stop it? Very worrisome, it has advanced a “big lie” that “society is split between makers and takers,” repeated endlessly at Tea Party gatherings and in the right-wing halls of discourse. As one example, MacLean refers to Mitt Romney’s statement that “47 percent of voters were, in effect, leeches on ‘productive’ Americans” (p. 211). And then she asks: “Is it true that the wealthiest among us are being fleeced by government?” How then, she replies, can it be that “the secretary of a billionaire will often pay a higher tax rate than her boss?” It happens, of course, because, as noted previously, the corporate CEOs and the wealthy are said to be – and believed to be in many higher circles – superior and more deserving than the great majority of the population.
Charles Koch, one of the richest men in the United States, has argued that “his vision of a good society will bring prosperity to all.” But this vision is really about the good society for a privileged minority of the wealthiest Americans, some of their employees who toe the line, the politicians they have bought, and affluent professionals of various sorts. MacLean refers to statements made by others in the movement to elucidate what Koch has in mind. For example, Economist Tyler Cowan, who now directs one of the base camps of the movement at George Mason University, housed in the Mercatus Center, says that under the “new” social contract poor people will either find ways to work their way out of poverty or stay poor. They won’t have access to Medicaid, they’ll have to find housing on their own. Others in the movement say that there won’t be government health officials “testing small children for lead.” From this despicable viewpoint, those in places like Flint, Michigan, will have to put up with a lead-poisoned water system and the harmful health effects, move, or not have children.
Denying there is disastrous climate change
There is a huge effort by the right-wing movement to dismiss climate change as a problem, despite the accumulating science that documents this change and its myriad harmful effects. They want to maximize the extraction of fossil fuels, wherever they are to be found. This effort, trumpeted by Trump, his administration, the Republican Party, the Koch network, the Chamber of Commerce, Fox News and other right-wing media, and even by mainstream media that insist on “balanced” coverage when the evidence overwhelmingly documents the unfolding of dire climate change, has spent great time and energy attempting to confuse the public, emphasizing the alleged “uncertainty” of climate science. Be that as it may, there is no scientific uncertainty, except among those just listed. But there may be limits to such propaganda.
For example, the Gallup polling organization found that, in a 2016 report, “Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults say they are worried a ‘great deal’ or ‘fair amount’ about global warming, up from 55% at this time last year and the highest reading since 2008” (http://news.gallup.com/poll/190010/concern-global-warming-eight-year-high-aspx).
How can this be? It is indication of the limits the propaganda machine of the right-wing forces, the continuing though increasingly challenged independence of climate scientists, increasing incidences of extreme and chaotic weather, a rising number of weather-linked storms and fires, each costing more than a billion dollars, continuing research that documents the climate changes and their effects, rising ocean levels threatening massive coastal property, increasing insurance rates, robust opposition by environmentalists, etc. It remains to be seen whether a powerful-enough people’s movement can be galvanized in time to overcome those who now have so much power and wealth. It will include, but require much more than, local challenges to fossil-fuel interests, challenges to pipelines, municipal decrees to achieve 100% renewable energy systems, challenges to Trump’s EPA and Energy Department. We need to somehow find ways to challenge and change the capitalist system, the power structure that accompanies it, and to envision something to replace it.
According to author Ian Angus the earth’s entire ecological system is now being shaped by changes that are rooted not in natural variability or sun spots, but in human activities, principally carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, deforestation, industrial agriculture and ranching, hyper-consumerism, and too many people. There is indeed a rich and increasing research and analytical literature on the new and dangerous stage of planetary evolution that is called the Anthropocene by geologists and other scientists. Angus provides an in-depth account of this view and research in his book, facing the Anthropocene: fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system. The implication is that the change that is called for is system-wide – and the time is short.
The right-wing corporate /wealthy forces do not pause and overall are not compromising
This radical right-wing movement does not rest. It’s unrelenting. Here are two other examples.
First, it has “convinced a sizeable segment of the American population that the problems in schools today are the result of those teachers’ unions having too much power.” MacLean considers what is happening to public education in the states were Republicans have gained control.
“In the states where they have won control, like my own state of North Carolina, the [movement’s] cadre’s allied elected officials, pushed by affiliates of the State Policy Network, have rushed to pass laws to debilitate teachers’ unions, one bill being hurried through passage after midnight. The Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly then also cut seven thousand teacher assistants, allotted $100 million less than the state budget office said was needed merely to maintain the schools, and budgeted $500 million less to public schools than it has in 2008. Even the school supplies budget was cut by more than half; students can no longer take-home textbooks in some poor communities, for fear they may be lost” (p. 218).
There has just been a relatively successful pushback from teachers’ unions in West Virginia. It remains to be seen whether West Virginia is a forerunner of more to come, or a small example that will prove only to be an exception to the rule.
A “pro-privatization coalition” advocated successfully for privatizing prisons. States have passed anti-union, right-to-work laws, effectively undermining the political clout of unions. The Koch team continues to push for the privatization of Social Security, while U.S. corporations “have nearly all discontinued the defined benefit pensions that a generation ago covered half the labor force.” MacLean continues: “And with wages essentially stagnant for the majority since 1970, very few Americans have 401(k) accounts or other savings equivalent to what has been lost.” In the absence of employee pensions, Social Security “remains the most widespread, effective, secure, and significant source of retirement income’ for the vast majority of Americans” (p. 222).
In addition, there are indications that the VA health care system is becoming increasingly vulnerable to privatization. You can learn how foolhardy and potentially cruel for veterans privatization will be from Suzanne Gordon’s long-term analysis of the VA and related health care issues. She was interviewed on Democracy Now on March 30, 2018. You can watch the interview by going to: https://www.democracynow.org/2018/3/30/david_shulkin_firing_at_the_va. She also a recently published article in The American Prospect: http://prospect.org/blog/tapped/studies-show-private-sector-providers-not-ready-care-veterans. And she has published an edited book on the subject titled The Battle for Veterans Health Care. I’ll take this important issue up in another email.
Some specific institutional obstacles in the way of moving toward a society based on the values of the common good
The democratic political process in the country have also been undermined, giving the right-wing juggernaut momentum. MacLean refers to the research of Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, who have compared the number of “stumbling blocks that advanced industrial democracies put in the way of their citizens’ ability to achieve their collective will through the legislative process.” The researchers call the stumbling blocks “veto players.” One of their chief findings is that “the nations with the fewest veto players have the least inequality, and those with the most veto players have the greatest inequality.” The U.S. leads the pack, the only nation in which there are four veto players, namely, “absolute veto power for the Senate, for the House and for the president (if not outvoted by a two-thirds majority), and a Constitution that cannot be altered without the agreement of two-thirds of the states after Congress.” But there are other democracy-weakening features of the American political system that are not taken into account in this research, such as, how the US system “further obstructs majority rule” through a “winner-take-all Electoral College that encourages a two party-systems; the Tenth Amendment, which steers power toward the states; and a system of representation in the unusually potent Senate that violates the principle of ‘one person, one vote,’ to a degree not seen anywhere else” (p. 226).
There are further, and well-documented, efforts to reduce the vote by citizens. MacLean reports that the U.S. “stands 138th of 172 democracies [?] in the world in voter turnout. And there are ongoing efforts by the right-wing movement, including prominently the Republican Party, to make voting harder than it has been through gerrymandering, new voter Id laws. MacLean writes: “In the two-years after Republican candidates swept the 2010 midterm elections, ALEC-backed legislators in forty-one states introduced more than 180 bills to restrict who could vote and how. The measures could reduce the political influence of low-income voters and young people, who had been inclined leftward” (p. 231). Such anti-voter initiatives are covered well in Ari Berman’s book Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, and Zachary Roth’s The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy.
With all these nefarious and anti-democratic efforts, there is more. MacLean notes on the last page of her book that the leaders of this increasingly powerful right-wing movement have “no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy.” Perhaps the best single source of information on the “white-power” movement is historian Kathleen Belew’s new book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. This is a movement that could potentially offer the wealthy and powerful an army of thugs who are willing to harass, injure, and even kill those who stand for democracy, more equality, a green economy, and diplomacy. At the end of her book, Belew offers this warning:
“What is inescapably clear from the history of the white power movement…is that the lack of public understanding, effective prosecution, and state action left an opening for continued white power activism. The state and public opinion have failed to sufficiently halt white power violence or refute white power belief systems, and failed to present a vision of the future that might address some of the concerns that lie behind its more diffuse, coded, and mainstream manifestations” (p. 239).
Still not completely decided, though the political and economic landscapes represent unparalleled, unprecedented developments in our history. It will take an unprecedented and mobilized counterforce to stop and reverse the direction in which we are headed. There is plenty of movement. Will it somehow be nourished, galvanized, and unified in time?