“Government Works Only for the Rich and Powerful”
Last Thursday’s New York Times (I am writing on Monday, November 10, 2014) contained two instructive and curiously contrasting reflections on the Republican Party’s sweeping victory in last week’s United States midterm Congressional and state elections. The first reflection came from Frank Luntz, a leading Republican pollster and public relations expert. The elections, Luntz noted in a Times Op-Ed, were no mandate for the “extreme conservative agenda.” They were really, Luntz felt, a spasm against a government that functions just for the wealthy Few. “This year,” Luntz wrote, “I travelled the country listening to voters, from Miami to Anchorage, 30 states and counting. And from the reddest [most Republican] rural towns to the bluest [most Democratic] big cities, the sentiment is the same. People say Washington is broken and on the decline, that government no longer works for them – only for the rich and powerful.”
I was reminded by Luntz’s comment of something that liberal commentator William Greider wrote in the spring of 2009, setting the tone for Washington’s continued service to the wealthy corporate and financial few across the Age of Obama (something that I and a number of other journalists and authors have documented at length) – a time when 95% of US income gains have gone to the top 1%.
“During the past nine months, gigantic financial bailouts amid collapsing economic life made visible the crippling divide between governing elites and citizens at large. People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn't. They watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where's my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.” (emphasis added)
“US No Longer an Actual Democracy”
Luntz might have added that what “people say” about Washington happens to be accurate. Beneath the nation’s identity-politicized marionette theater of partisan warfare, both of the two reigning US political organizations have moved well to the right of the populace under the influence of concentrated wealth. In a study originally released last April, leading mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) report that the US political system has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, they found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the US majority. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence”
A story about Gilens and Page’s study in the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last April bore an interesting title: “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy.” It reported Gilens and Page’s finding that “the government—whether Republican or Democratic—more often follows the preferences” of Americans at the nation’s 90th income percentile than those at the 50th percentile. The TPM story contained a link to an interview with Gilens in which he explained that “contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence…. Both parties have to a large degree embraced a set of policies that reflect the needs, preferences and interests of the well to do.” No wonder, as TPM reporter Sahil Kapur noted, “Polls show that many American voters feel on a gut level that the government isn't looking out for them.” (emphasis added)
Luntz could have added some other important things. He might have mentioned non-voters. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate did not participate in last week’s midterm election (the lowest midterm turnout in 70 years), reflecting (among other things) widespread antipathy towards the nation’s noxious, money-soaked and mass-marketed election spectacles and elite-controlled policy and politics.
The Republican strategist might have noted that there’s nothing all that “conservative” about the Republicans’ agenda. The 21st century G.O.P is more accurately described as radically regressive, something that makes it irrational for voters to think that backing Republicans is a way to protest the control of government by the rich and powerful.
Another related omission in Luntz’s reflection is the Left vacuum in US society and politics. A critical factor behind mass non-voting is the almost complete absence of relevant Left movements and political parties willing and able to capture and act on the popular majority’s progressive policy opinions and values. That absence contributes to the abject failure of the other reigning US political organization, the dismal dollar Democratic Party, to act in accord with its populist-sounding campaign promises. The Left void is also no small part of why millions of ordinary Americans “vote against their own pocketbooks” by backing Republicans. It is no small part of how and why the Republican Party holds power in the US Congress and in the majority of US state governments even though it is viewed negatively by nearly half the populace and viewed positively by just 29 percent.
Still, Luntz’s comment was honest and candid when compared to the vast right-wing blather about how “the people spoke” against “liberalism” and on behalf of the Republicans’ “free market” agenda last week.
“Expect[ing] a Return on Their Investment” in US “Democracy”
A second and equally candid reflection in last Thursday’s Times came from Robert Shapiro, a top Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration and currently the chairman of a leading Washington economic and security consulting firm. “With the Republicans controlling both houses,” Shapiro told Times reporters Nelson Schwartz and Clifford Krauss, “the corporations that have been financing their campaigns for years are going to expect to see a return on their investment.” As Schwartz and Clifford explained, the policy “returns” sought on election investments include a significant reduction in corporate taxes, final presidential approval of the eco-cidal Keystone XL Pipeline “to connect Canadian oil sand fields with American refineries on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico,” the reduction of White House efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions, and the enactment of sweeping new “free trade” (investor rights) deals (guaranteed to increase multinational corporations’ ability to exploit workers and poison the environment without interference from governments and popular movements) with Asia and Europe. In other words, more for the rich and the powerful – the common good be damned!
So what if the great majority of the US populace (the vast army of non-voters as well as voters) loathes the oligarchic domination of their government and politics by Big Business and “the 1%”? And so what if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued right before the election its “starkest warning yet” (New York Times) on the ever more desperate need for the US and other nations to dramatically slash carbon emissions and move off fossil fuels to renewable energy sources?
Who cares? The Nobel Prize-winning IPCC can kiss Uncle Sam’s oil- and gas-slicked rear end. A good policy return on Big Carbon’s political investment is expected.
“Issues Where There’s Broad Agreement Among the American People”
In press conference remarks given the day after his dismal, dollar-drenched, and demobilizing Democratic Party received its second consecutive richly deserved mid-term shellacking at the hands of the widely disliked and radically regressive Republicans, US President Barack Obama said that he and the now more fully Republican Congress “can surely find ways to work together on issues where there’s broad agreement among the American people.”
Not likely. There has long been broad agreement among the nation’s majority on a number of issues and problems that are completely off the policy table of the nation’s “really existing capitalist democracy – RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked’” (Noam Chomsky). Among the technically irrelevant areas of extensive popular concurrence: wealth and income are far too unevenly distributed in the US; big business and the wealthy are far too powerful in the nation’s politics and government; workers should enjoy strong organizing and bargaining rights; wages are far too low; no household with full-time working members should be poor; government should privilege job creation over deficit reduction; taxes should be made far more progressive; government should act firmly to protect the environment and control carbon emissions; government should provide quality health care coverage for all; trade agreements should be revised to include strong labor and environmental protections; private money should be taken out of public elections; third (and fourth) political parties should be permitted a serious chance to compete for votes and representation in the US political system; Social Security and Medicare should be strengthened through progressive funding; strong financial regulations should be passed; corporations should be placed under popular control and strongly regulated; the nation’s giant “defense” (empire) budget should be significantly reduced while social expenditures are increased. None of these extensive popular and majority beliefs have the slightest chance of receiving support from either of the two reigning business parties in the US where “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States,” where “economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence,” and where “Both parties have to a large degree embraced a set of policies that reflect the needs, preferences and interests of the well to do.”
A ubiquitous and longstanding Washington admonition loyally repeated over and over by US “mainstream” media calls for the nation’s two supposedly “polarized” parties to get past “partisan gridlock” and “get things done.” The media is clear on the “zones of agreement” where the center-right neoliberal President and the hard right neoliberal GOP Congress might be able act on the admonition during the last two years of Obama’s administration. The “hopeful” areas for “bipartisan action” are “trade” (corporate-neoliberal measures to insulate giant multinational firms yet further from popular and democratic interference), corporate tax “reform” (reduction), and “energy” (increased capitalist fossil fuel extraction and carbon emissions).
“Taking Care of Business”
“The point,” Obama said during his press conference last week, “is it’s time for us to start taking care of business.” But taking care of big business is what US government has long been all about, and the Obama years have been no exception. Greider’s “blunt lesson about power” is longstanding and ongoing. We should not be deceived by the myth of the powerless and bankrupt state. It is only what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state” – the parts of government that serve the poor and the causes of equality and civil liberty – that are broke and fading after decades of corporate and financial neoliberal assault. The “right hand of the state” – the parts that distribute wealth and power and punish the rest (the rising ranks of the poor especially) – is well-fed and thriving. As the voters Frank Luntz “listened to” (polled) this year sense, the US government does not lack the resources and wherewithal to carry out key objectives when it comes to serving the needs of the opulent minority. It is inadequate and poor only when it comes to meeting the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).