Attack On American Democracy
By Kenny Bruno
No thoughtful person can question that the American democratic system is under broad attack. There have always been some who oppose American democracy, and preferred rule by and for the wealthy, the white, and the male. American democracy has always been flawed, but what now concerns us is quite new in the history of the United States. We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or from a minority white nationalist cadre. Rather the assault on democracy is broadly based and consistently pursued, it is gaining momentum and converts, and has reached the highest office of the land.
Sources of the Attack
The sources include many big business sectors, front groups and trade associations such as the US Chamber of Commerce, white nationalists and white supremacists, religious extremists, libertarians, self-interested billionaires such as the Kochs and Mercers, the federal courts, and most of the Republican Party, at local, state and federal levels. Extremists who would explicitly disenfranchise many voters remain a minority, but their influence is rising and they are cause for great concern.
The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of anti-democracy come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the courts, the pulpit, from politicians, and from business circles at the highest levels. Some of these groups have invested several decades in building an overlapping infrastructure of democracy-denying institutions: courts that have overturned laws limiting dark money to influence elections, a vast lobbying industry, the War on Drugs and accompanying disenfranchisement rules, redistricting and gerrymandering, and vote-suppression techniques.
One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the democratic system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction. The Democratic party, organized labor, and civil society must come to the rescue. Business and industry must choose sides, even and especially when it means going against the segments of industry that are at the heart of the attack on democracy.
Tone of the Attack
This memo is not the place to document in detail the tone, character, or intensity of the attack. The following quotations will suffice to give one as a general idea:
“I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” – Grover Norquist
“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” – Ronald Reagan, first inaugural address
“Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.” – Ronald Reagan
“Government 'help' to business is just as disastrous as government persecution... the only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off.” – Ayn Rand
“The easy way to make money is to get special political privilege. From the beginning of time, business has cozied up to government and gotten restrictions on competition and subsidies and stuff.” - Charles Koch
The foregoing quotes illustrate the broad shotgun attack on the system itself. There are countless examples of rifle shots that undermine confidence and confuse the public.
Favorite current targets are scientists and those concerned by climate change and other forms of environmental degradation; those who would expand government’s role in providing health care so as to reduce the cruelty of the current system, which leaves millions to choose between health care and paying their rent or simply to suffer even when remedies are available; those who believe in treating immigrants and asylum seekers humanely; and those who wish to prevent the interference of Russia and other foreign countries in US elections. At the same time the ruling party has passed tax cuts that exacerbate the exaggerated inequalities that already exist between rich and poor. By starving government of resources even for basics like education, these tax cuts reinforce the story that government is incompetent at best, an enemy of the people at worst. It is dismaying that many politicians make the argument that tax measures of this kind benefit the middle class, without harming the poor. The fact that this is either political demagoguery or economic illiteracy is of slight comfort. The appeal to prejudice and racial stereotypes and animosity while enriching the already wealthy, is the cheapest and most dangerous kind of politics.
After decades of attack on government, we have arrived at the moment when perhaps the single most effective antagonist of American Democracy is the President of the United States. The real estate mogul, con-man and reality TV personality, who launched his presidential campaign by insulting Mexicans, was aided electorally by Russia, has insulted in school-yard style military families, disabled people and developing countries, lies daily with impunity, patterns his language after Benito Mussolini (who invented the phrases “Make America Great” and “Drain the Swamp”), hires enemies of government agencies to run those agencies, enriches himself and his family through the office of the presidency, cares nothing for the people he serves and is unpatriotic when patriotism doesn’t serve his personal interests, presents himself as a businessman. This should be an affront to all decent businessmen.
Apathy and Default of Democracy
What has been the response of the Democratic Party, organized labor and progressive business leaders to this massive assault upon our fundamental principles, upon our rights, upon the integrity of our nation?
The painful sad truth is that most political, labor and business leaders have responded with appeasement, ineptitude and by ignoring the problem. There are of course many exceptions to this sweeping generalization. But the net effect is scarcely visible.
In all fairness it should be recognized that businessmen and politicians have not been trained or equipped to conduct guerilla warfare with those who propagandize against democracy, including from their own ranks, seeking insidiously and constantly to sabotage it. The traditional role of business executives has been to manage, to produce and to sell, to create jobs, to make profits, to improve the standard of living, to be community leaders, to serve on charitable and educational boards, and generally to be good citizens. But they have shown little stomach for hard-nose contest with those would undermine the system that allows them to flourish.
How did we get here?
While the influence of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and others was already strong, some observers mark the modern campaign against democracy as having started with the Powell memorandum of 1971, upon which the memo you are reading is modelled. In that memo, tobacco lobbyist and future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell argued that business and the free enterprise system were under attack by academia, the media, and consumer advocates, especially Ralph Nader. He accused the Chamber of Commerce of being passive in the face of the attack and urged it to organize for self-defense in the political realm.
In the decades since, the Chamber of Commerce and many other business groupings have taken Powell’s advice, achieving success even Powell might not even have dreamed of. Conservative think tanks, supported by certain business interests, have become galvanized in defense of a supposedly besieged and endangered business sector.
Business now spends literally uncountable millions to influence elections each year, and the Supreme Court has ruled that as legal “persons” for-profit and non-profit corporations are permitted to spend as much as they wish on such influence, but there is no requirement that they revealing the source of the contributions. Once their preferred candidates are installed, those same businesses spend three times their contribution totals writing and lobbying for laws and rules that favor their commercial interests. These laws and rules allow the companies to enrich themselves further, which allows greater campaign contributions in the next election cycle, and so on in a spiral of rising influence that verges on complete stranglehold. This influence permeates both major parties.
Certain sectors of business, notably the fossil fuel industry, have made a special project of electing climate change deniers, and have created an industry of denialism through pseudo-scientific projects and clever messaging to sow doubt in the general population. The result is a country so far out of the scientific mainstream as to be a laughingstock controlled by a suicide cult; a country willfully embracing its own destruction by doubling down on expanding known causes of climate change, and, almost unbelievably, reversing what little progress has been made. For example, in 2019 major auto makers including Toyota and GM embraced the President’s animosity toward fuel economy, one of the crucial policies for combatting climate change and other pollution. The rest of the business community is mostly silent in the face of this perverse initiative, and organized labor says nothing lest it offend certain segments that are aligned with employers.
While the Powell Memo helped spark a more politically active business community, the right wing also launched a powerful, long-term campaign to stigmatize government. During the Ronald Reagan presidency, an ideology ascended that asserted that government always does a bad job and should be as small as possible, with the exception of the military. Against this clear ideology, which intensified with the influence of Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, Democrats and progressives were at a disadvantage because of their ambivalence. Decades of anti-government rhetoric was countered with weak, ambiguous, “yes, but” defensiveness. Notwithstanding the fact that some of the harshest critics of government are beneficiaries of corporate welfare and other forms of government subsidies, the anti-government rhetoric has intensified to the present day, when the President of the United States accuses the government he runs of being a secret deep state and treasonous enterprise. (This particular president, it should be remembered, tends to accuse others of what he himself is guilty.)
As recommended by the Powell Memo, corporate and right-wing interests have invested heavily in the packing of federal courts with pro-business ideologues. The founding of the Federalist Society in 1982 provided a home base for a concerted long-term campaign which has resulted in the placement of Federalist Society activists in the most important courts in the land. As mentioned, these are the courts that have endorsed the view that corporations are legal persons with the right to free speech, including the right to spend as much as they wish to help elect politicians friendly to their interests. These courts have helped loosen restraints on the size and reach of corporations by weakening consumer, environmental, and antitrust regulations.
These same judges have also closed the courthouse door, literally, to claims of racial bias, with limited exceptions. The US Supreme Court has held that race can be one factor in pulling someone over and people cannot sue police departments for bias or to get an injunction against things like a choke hold, unless they can prove its systemic or exclusively motivated by race.
Nor is the backlash against progress in the realm of racial equality merely a side effect of the rise of the right; in fact, the right wing and Republican attack on civil rights is less a consequence of lenience toward police bias and brutality than it is an essential element of a cynical and ruthless political agenda. Bankrolled by the Koch Brothers, the right wing has invested heavily in local and state elections around the country, leading to a peak of Republican dominance from 2016-2018. While one could argue that Democrats had poor candidates and weak messages, Republican dominance was accomplished in part through a combination of redistricting, gerrymandering, various forms of vote suppression such as ID laws, and the War on Drugs, which criminalized and disenfranchised millions of voters, most of whom were black and tended to vote Democratic. Thus, GOP-dominated courts, legislatures and executive branches in many states work together to perpetuate their rule through disenfranchisement of those who tend not to vote for conservatives. Democrats and young people have started to counter with their own runs for local office, but it will take years to catch up to the Republicans in this area.
In many states, right wing dominance of government and subservience to certain corporate interests has gone so far that state legislatures are passing bills written by fossil fuel pipeline companies that criminalize protest against pipelines, even if the protestors are on their own land!
It is hard to imagine a clearer example of government standing with corporations, and against the citizens it supposedly represents. The same organization, ALEC, which drafts and coordinates the legislative campaigns criminalizing peaceful protest against fossil fuel infrastructure, sometimes with a special focus on criminalizing tribal actions, also spearheads laws criminalizing protests against white nationalist speakers on campus. These strands come together in the approach of Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota. Noem, anxious to help get the Keystone XL pipeline built in a state where tribal nations have risen up against it, identifies George Soros, a prominent Jewish philanthropist who has nothing to do with pipeline protests in Indian country, as the target of her state’s version of ALEC’s anti-riot boosting bill. What seems like an anachronistic, cranky focus on international Jewish conspiracy has come to life in South Dakota’s version of criminalizing dissent against fossil fuel infrastructure.
The rise of corporate power in the US is not limited to its influence on the Republican Party. Some of the most powerful corporations in the world are relatively young and count many Democrats as contribution recipients, revolving door participants, customers, and political supporters: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple have profoundly influenced the daily lives of most Americans, and citizens of most other countries, and in a short time. In recent years they have built some of the largest lobbying operations in Washington,and have started to take over some of the functions of government.
And while many consumers marvel at the conveniences of modern technology, it has become clear that central to the tech project are personal surveillance, screen and device addiction, and forms of behavior-manipulation and mind-control that are almost undetectable. Life with smart devices has become like living behind a one-way mirror, with the population divided into those who have no idea they are living that way and those who are aware but have no idea what to do about it. Moreover, our democratic institutions seem helpless to prevent the exploitation of the most popular social media platforms in service of election manipulation. Technology, which was supposed give everyone access to information, threatens the fairness of elections, which is the foundation of democracy.
In this realm, both Democrats and Republicans are equally clueless in terms of how to defend democracy, since they are unwilling to challenge the right of these companies to do as they please and make as much money as they can, which in turn increases their power to do as they please.
In a related threat, social media companies have accelerated the decline of professional journalism, which was already underway via 20 years of media consolidation. The decline of investigative journalism, local and international coverage coincides with the rise of social media as a primary source of news. That comes with a fractioning of audiences and the emergence of a news denialism that makes it difficult to build consensus around even the fundamentals of reality.
What is to be done?
To take back democracy, politicians, business and labor leaders and all citizens must support a platform that:
-- Establishes a permanent Election Integrity Commission, modeled on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, to establish and maintain the bedrock democratic principle of “one person, one vote” and thus to protect the legitimacy and integrity of our government from all enemies, foreign and domestic., Through the Commission, citizens must be able to assure themselves beyond doubt that their government has not been infiltrated or sponsored or taken over by enemies of democracy. The Commission shall make an annual report on “The Status of National, State, Local, and Tribal Elections and Election Systems.”
--Explicitly defends the positive roles of government. It is true that government sometimes bungles, and sometimes has murderous intentions. But government is the only force capable of reining in corporations; the only force that can invest on the scale needed, for example, to transition rapidly to clean systems for energy, transportation, manufacturing and agriculture.
--Acknowledges that government must be big enough to monitor corporations and hold them accountable, and big enough to invest in the creation of millions of good jobs during the transition to a clean economy.
--Acknowledges the positive role that corporations play in society but restricts corporate rights so that the market serves the people, rather than the other way around.
--Measures factors that reflect the well-being of the population, rather than items like GDP and stock market prices that do not reflect how most people are faring.
--Re-establishes respect for science. A country that bases policy-making on willful ignorance and turns a blind eye to truths it considers politically inconvenient cannot thrive. As historian Timothy Snyder writes, “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
--Stands up to white nationalism and white supremacy, not only the relatively subtle variety manifested as unconscious biases and micro-aggressions, but also the classic violent, virulent, hate-filled bigotry that demonizes blacks, Jews, Muslims, women, LGBTQIA people, and more, and justifies virtually any kind of aggression against them. The white nationalist social movement is not on the fringes where it can be ignored; it has moved toward the center of power and must be resisted by all.
--Establishes a Racial Reckoning, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, the goals of which include the restoration of voting rights and other political and economic rights for minorities that have lost them due to racist policies, and a comprehensive program to understand, explain, prevent, confront, root out and eliminate racism in all its manifestations, both subtle and overt.
--Prioritizes improvements in the health and education of the public above economic growth as measured by GDP and stock prices.
--Tackles and reverses gross inequality. A quote often ascribed to Justice Louis Brandeis puts it succinctly: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
A More Aggressive Attitude
Business interests, and therefore most politicians, have tried to maintain a low profile or finesse the debate about the future of American democracy. It has been characteristic of most business executives to be tolerant of those who attack the essence of democracy, as long as core businesses are not affected.
But the attacks go to the heart of our society and our democracy. There should be no hesitation to denounce Exxon executives, who openly seek to prevent the taking of steps to slow the warming of our world. These are men who have politicized a scientific reality, and then, when faced with attempts to expose the truth, claim that that those who would hold them accountable even in a slight way are the ones with a political agenda. There should be no hesitation in prosecuting, breaking up, disbanding or de-chartering corporations that choose to hide the truth even when it affects all of life on earth, when that truth might, in their estimation, harm their commercial interests. And there must be no hesitation in exposing the complicity of certain labor unions, when they actively support an anti-union agenda that would doom the entire planet Earth to an escalating series of climate crises and human suffering beyond imagining. The transition to a sustainable economy based on renewable energy can provide ample job opportunities for all.
There must be no hesitation in resisting the takeover of government by private interests. As FDR said, “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism: ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any other controlling private power.”
It is time for American business, which has demonstrated the greatest capacity in all history to influence consumer decisions, to enlist and join with the Democratic Party and progressive labor unions in applying their talents to the preservation of the democratic system itself by restoring the balance between people power and corporate power.
Relationship to Freedom
The threat to democracy is not merely a matter of economics and the outsized economic power wielded by big business. It is also a threat to individual and collective freedom. It is this truth – now so submerged by the rhetoric of the right and many conservatives – that must be re-affirmed if this pro-democracy agenda is to be meaningful.
There seems to be little awareness that all countries have a mix of capitalism and socialism; from Cuba with small family businesses to the US with Social Security, Medicare, and a federal highway system; from communist China with giant corporations, to Sweden with high taxes and an effective safety net. Indeed, it is a myth that the US is the world’s most free market economy. Socialist aspects will only grow as automation and the rise of robots lead to underemployment; capitalist aspects too shall continue to flourish in the US and around the world. If fear of socialism – even partial democratic socialism as it already exists in most countries – prevents government from spearheading the changes necessary to transform energy, transport, manufacturing and agricultural systems, then the battle to prevent catastrophic climate change will be lost in short order. Capitalism should and will continue but it must be reformed so as to bring out its ability to catalyze creative energy, not to serve raw, excessive and uncompromising greed. The nature of these reforms, which may include bold structural changes to bring the relationship between people and corporations back into balance, must be the subject of study, debate and experimentation over the next several years.
In addition to the ideological attacks on the American system from big business and the right wing, its essentials are also threatened by inequitable taxation, leading to historic levels of inequality and resulting social tensions.
It hardly need be said that the views expressed above are mine alone. Better minds are exploring thousands of excellent ideas for defending, reforming and revitalizing American democracy. But these explorations will be an exercise in futility unless the leaders of the Democratic Party, independents and citizens accept the fundamental premise of this memorandum, namely that democracy, public health and the environment are in deep trouble, and the hour is late.
The cost of a presidential election tripled between 1972 and 2016.
The presidential election of 2016 cost $2,495,740,931 [http://bit.ly/2EXQi9Y];
The 1972 presidential election cost $69.3e6+$67.3e6, or a total of $136.6e6 [https://nyti.ms/2NHgsUM].
According to the inflation calculator web site of the American Institute for Economic Research, $100 in 1972 is equivalent to $574.16 in 2016, or a multiplier of 5.7416.
Therefore, the 1972 election cost $136.6e6 * 5.7416 = $780,857,600 in 2016 dollars.
So, between 1972 and 2016, the cost of a presidential election increased by a factor of
2,495,740,931/780,857,600 = 3.2.
Expenditures on lobbying Congress rose by a factor of almost 100 between 1969 and 2018.
In 1969, businesses and labor unions spent $5.1e6 dollars. http://bit.ly/2PQIHD0
In 2018, business and labor unions spent $3.4e9 lobbying Congress.
According to the inflation calculator web site of the American Institute for Economic Research, $100 in 1969 is equivalent to $684.22, or a multiplier of 6.8422.
Therefore lobbying expenditure in 1969 was $5.1e6 * 6.8422 = $34,894,200 in 2018 dollars.
So, between 1969 and 2018, lobbying expenditures rose from $34,894,200 to $3.4 billion, increasing by a factor of $3.4e9/$34894,200 = 97.4
-- By Kenny Bruno
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