Friday, April 12, 2019

Public Power

"We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis  (1856-1941)


John Cassidy's article in the New Yorker today "A New Road Map for Progressive Democrats" discusses a recent paper from the Roosevelt Institute "New Rules for the 21st Century - Corporate Power, Public Power and the Future of the American Economy", and progressive policies being championed by Democratic presidential hopefuls.

The Roosevelt Institute paper is 82 pages but John Cassidy summarizes it's content in a short article which he ends with this statement -
In its concluding section, the Roosevelt Institute report strikes a hopeful note. “The task ahead is large, but it’s not impossible,” it says. “We are at a rare moment in our politics when older paradigms for how we govern our society and shape our economy no longer work, and a new worldview, though emerging, is not yet dominant. Americans are hungry for big, new ideas, and voters will reward leadership that is able to articulate those ideas clearly and put them into action.The conservative policy agenda that triumphed from the nineteen-seventies onward was an expansive one, and it will take an equally expansive effort to roll it back.” Let’s hope that’s right.
Yes let us hope.

I addition to having hope, I think this statement from the article is worth thinking about -
"The conservative policy agenda that triumphed from the nineteen-seventies onward was an expansive one, and it will take an equally expansive effort to roll it back."

Just how expansive an effort would it take to roll back 30 or 40 years of government policies enacted by politicians at the behest of the wealthiest and most powerful people and entities in this country to favor the privileged few at the expense of the majority of American people?

I'm not overly confident that most Americans understand how organized, well funded and pervasive the radical right's takeover of government has been. If you've ever had occasion to read Jane Mayer's work concerning money in politics or her book Dark Money, or Nancy MacLean's book Democracy in Chains - The Deep History of the Radical Rights Stealth Plan for America you would know that uber-wealthy individuals have been setting the groundwork, and manipulating the levers of power to make government as dysfunctional as possible for decades.

The radical libertarians goal is to eliminate or neuter government and government regulations and allow the free market to rule. In this short sighted and ahistorical view; if capitalism is set free from the coercive effects of government, then prosperity and social benefits will be maximized.

Never mind that no developed country in history has ever followed such a path to prosperity, or that when our country was at it's most prosperous (post WWII until the 1970's) government took an active role in markets, or that the experiment the radical libertarians started in the 1980's has proven to be an abysmal failure for a large segment of the U.S. population.

The radical libertarians work to achieve this goal with massive amounts of dark money funneled to PACS, super-PACS, think tanks, universities, astroturf campaigns, multitudes of radical right wing media outlets and state run TV. The propaganda is the best money can buy, with great patriotic names like the Heartland InstituteAmericans for ProsperityThe Heritage Foundation and The Federalist Society.

Some (more all the time one hopes) find it troubling that a government controlled by a small group of individuals/corporations is a simple description of fascism. The fact that there are no large successful economies in the world that follow the libertarian dream of minimal or no government does not deter the true believers or their paid spokespeople.


The actor/President Ronald Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address, "Government is not the solution to our problem it is the problem." He followed up at a news conference years later with this, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

Since that time, corporations and plutocrats have bought right wing politicians to do everything they can to ensure government doesn't work. They have done this knowing that if people perceive government as irredeemably dysfunctional they either - give up on the political process and don't vote (which benefits the GOP) or support the radicals that fund and control the GOP in their efforts to dismantle government.

The resulting weakened non-representative government allows corporations and plutocrats to run the country. It's some crazy radical stuff for those who were taught we live in a representative democracy to think there is some stealthy forces dismantling our government - but this version of the story doesn't interest corporate media, so we've all come to believe it's just a bunch of business oriented folks trying to make government more efficient for the betterment of all.

You have to do some careful reading and research to start to see the contours of how radical this stuff is. Most people have heard of the Koch brothers and know they fund radical right wing libertarian causes with tremendous amounts of money. There are many other suppliers of dark money but they are the most well known. The Koch brothers father Fred C. Koch was a founding member of the John Birch Society back in the late 1950's.

When I was a kid the only way to know anything about the John Birch society was to know someone who was in it or somehow get your hands on what they called the Blue Book - which explained the principals of their organization. If you saw a sign that said "Get the U.S. out of the United Nations" or "Fight Fluoridated Water" it was probably from the Birchers. They were considered an extreme radical conspiracy minded libertarian group and pretty much forgotten about by most Americans (me anyway). Sixty some years later the sons of Fred Koch have as much if not more power in politics as the GOP.


Ronald Reagan was a spokesperson for one of the biggest corporations in America prior to being elected president and after his election he became the spokesperson for all big corporations and plutocrats in America. His conversion from liberal democrat and president of a union (SAG) was quite extreme...unless we think about how absolutely power corrupts.

I know people love Reagan and he was a good cheerleader sort of person but his policies (which are now called neoliberalism) proved to be incredibly damaging to middle and working class Americans. You can pretty much draw a straight line from Reagan to Clinton to Bush to the dismal performance of the United States in key indicators of a nation's overall well-being, compared to any other economically developed country of our time.


One of my favorite stories concerning Ronald Reagan's veracity was written by Oliver Sacks in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I like it because it illustrates how smart people can be fooled by a skilled politician's use of words. The chapter about Reagan is called The President's Speech. Here's part of it -

What was going on? A roar of laughter from the aphasia ward, just as the President's speech was coming on, and they had all been so eager to hear the President speaking. ..
Thus the feeling I sometimes have-which all of us who work closely with aphasiacs have-that one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily. .. 
And what dogs can do here, aphasiacs do too, and at a human and immeasurably superior level. 'One can lie with the mouth,' Nietzsche writes, 'but with the accompanying grimace one nevertheless tells the truth.'
We recognize this with dogs, and often use them for this purpose-to pick up falsehood, or malice, or equivocal intentions, to tell us who can be trusted, who is integral, who makes sense, when we --so susceptible to words-- cannot trust our own instincts.

That quote from Nietzsche, that one can lie with the mouth, but with the accompanying grimace one tells the truth - makes me wonder about the truthfulness of this guy. Not really.

We shouldn't be surprised that people living in Fantasyland where the industrial entertainment complex is going 24/7 365 have been conditioned to believe anything.

The Kurt Anderson book Fantasyland - How America Went Haywire is an interesting look at how American's went from landing a man on the moon, to questioning if we ever landed a man on the moon, to believing the earth is flat - something seemingly settled for centuries until Twitter, YouTube and Facebook brought some of us back to a pre-enlightenment (pre-factual or pre-scientific if you will) society.


How expansive an effort is required to roll back the takeover of American government by the .1% that has occurred these last few decades?

I think the first thing is to consider how challenging it is to get the story to a majority of voters. Even understanding some of it takes either a fair amount of attention or absent that - trust in someone else's version of how the world works. 

I'm not sure people have considered just how entrenched the people with power are and what lengths they will go to in order to maintain the status-quo.

People, hoping to change the status-quo, must have some knowledge of history. 

How did American's create a government and economy that lifted all boats (not just the yachts) and made the USA a world leader in technology, productivity, research, medicine and education - from the post-war years until the 1970's? Hint - It wasn't the Reagan revolution - since we've followed those neo-liberal policies the US has fallen far behind other developed countries in these key areas. 

The US has even lost it's place as the country with the tallest average height, with various European countries now vying for first. Childhood nutrition and medical care are key factors in how tall children grow to be. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson devote a chapter titled "Coming Up Short" to this topic in their book American Amnesia - How The War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper.

People wanting to change the status quo have to understand the tremendous effort from unions, activists, protesters, politicians, writers, artists and everyday citizens into creating a government and economy that served all classes. It was a hard fought battle (often literally) over decades.

It was, and is, a battle - between the minority (those with wealth and power) and the majority (working people). Any attempt to regulate the free market was attacked as socialism, communism, un-american or the end of capitalism and prosperity. Even something as seemingly uncontroversial as prohibiting child labor was fought tooth and nail by the free market capitalists. You might argue times have changed but I don't think people change all that much. 

It seems to me that in order for political means to overcome the dysfunction in government we need a wider appreciation for how much blood, sweat and tears went into achieving the gains working class people were able to obtain. Consider just one movement that was crucial for gains for the working class in the early 1900's - the IWW or as they were popularly called the Wobblies.

Joe Hill was a Swedish/American labor activist and member of the IWW in the early 1900's. He was charged with murder and executed by firing squad in Utah in 1915. Facts in the case indicate he was innocent and some people believe he was a political prisoner executed for his union activity.

 In 1916, a year after Joe Hill was executed, the Everett Massacre occurred. The shingle weavers had been on strike against the mill owners for some time and tensions were high. A confrontation arose on the waterfront between the Wobblies - and the sheriff, deputies and volunteer deputies. From the Wikipedia article -
"At the end of the mayhem, two citizen deputies lay dead with 16 or 20 others wounded, including Sheriff McRae. The two businessman-deputies that were shot were actually shot in the back by fellow deputies; their injuries were not caused by Wobbly gunfire. The IWW officially listed 5 dead with 27 wounded, although it is speculated that as many as 12 IWW members may have been killed."
The IWW is still around today. Noam Chomsky is a member as well as Josh Dukes the peacemaker shot by a MAGA woman attending an event featuring a right wing provocateur named Milo something at the University of Washington.

That word provocateur is interesting, it's a shortened form of agent provocateur which means an agent hired to make trouble. I mention that because it's interesting to think about who, or what group, hires people like Milo to incite violence on college campuses. I suspect it's the same class of people who hired the Pinkertons to infiltrate and damage labor unions.


I hope the U.S. can effect change through the political process.

If that isn't possible it won't be people of good faith attempting change through peaceful protest that cause civil unrest. It will be confused angry people who more likely than not will have been convinced by Fox and other right wing propaganda to attack innocent people - who they have made into scapegoats.

2016 was an inflection point - there was a primal scream from a lot of confused angry people and we ended up with an entertainer/conman in the White House - who has done nothing that would benefit those people. Being unencumbered by the thought process he did blurt out to the fat cats at Mar Largo what a solid he did them with the GOP Tax Plan. Naturally the audience at Mar Largo is supportive of a plan that redistributes wealth upward. The fact that it leaves an additional trillion dollars plus in debt for our children to pay someday seems to be okay with them too - since they were the beneficiaries.

Fox News and other purveyors of right wing propaganda continue to blame democrats, immigrants, people of color, liberals, college professors, antifa or anyone they can - to avoid the responsibility for the failure of policies they have promoted. But they do this at great risk to our nation. It's not that they are "owning the libs" or whatever the saying is - they are stirring up the base. Considering the rejection of a fact-based reality, along with genuine hardships of that group of people - what happens when they figure out they've been given the shaft once again is anyone's guess.

Power to the people sounds great until we consider that the people who start to exercise power in the streets may be the base - confused, angry, well armed, and enthralled by a demagogue. The fact that the people who own right wing propaganda outlets are willing to continue to lie and rile up the new base of the GOP should concern all Americans. If nothing else it shows how far they are willing to go to retain power. Very risky my friend very risky indeed.