Identifying the Disease

Mass shootings. Ever growing numbers of Americans living in tents. A crumbling infrastructure. A failing educational system. A generation mired in educational debt. A minimum wage that doesn’t remotely cover the costs of living. Ever increasing extremes of wealth and poverty. A corrupt, incompetent and venal presidency. A corrupt, incompetent and venal legislature that does nothing to resolve any of these problems.

How are all of these things connected? They are symptoms of a profound societal disease. What is this disease? Plutocratic oligarchy.

How did we get to our present situation? The U.S. has always been a plutocratic oligarchy. It was designed that way by its founders. Originally the voting franchise was extended only to property-owing white males. After the Civil War it was granted to Black males and after World War One it was granted to females. After the Vietnam War the voting age was dropped to eighteen. One would think that, with the extension of the vote to all citizens over eighteen, our system of government would have become more democratic. What went wrong? How did we get into a situation where a party that has only 26% of American voters registered to it controls all branches of government and is thoroughly controlled by billionaire oligarchs?

After the Stock Market crash of 1929 and subsequent depression, we elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt President. He served three terms and was elected to a fourth, during which he died. He instituted profound changes in our economic system, following the economic ideas of John Meynard Keynes. Keynes advocated significant government spending and tight reins on the private sector. Regulations were put in place that prevented wild speculation and abuses by the financial institutions. They passed the Glass-Steagall act, separating commercial and investment banking, in 1933. These policies, and the economic stimulus of World War Two brought us out of the depression and we emerged from the war as the strongest economic power in the world. We had the most prosperous middle class in the history of the planet. When Eisenhower was elected he put vast amounts of money into infrastructure projects. A healthy public sector and a healthy private sector went hand in hand.

The policies of Keynes were maintained until Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Reagan cut taxes for the wealthy, cut government spending, and promoted what he termed “supply side economics.” If you think about it, it’s demand that drives the economy, not supply. If there is no demand for your products, your products don’t sell. But Reagan didn’t seem to understand that. George H.W. Bush once called it “voodoo economics,” and he was right. Reagan also abolished the “fairness doctrine” which insisted that when the media aired a controversial opinion, a rebuttal must be allowed. Abolishing this policy paved the way for Fox News and other right wing propaganda outlets to flourish with no counter-arguments reaching their listeners. The Republican administrations appointed people like Clarence Thomas and Antony Scalia to the Supreme Court which skewed it to the right. By 2000 the Supreme Court was so conservative that it allowed a President to take office who did not receive a majority of the popular vote, despite strong evidence of vote tampering in Florida and other states.

The subsequent Democratic administration under Bill Clinton did nothing to counteract the damage done by Reagan, in fact, they made things worse by abolishing the Glass Steagall act. Clinton did, however, stabilize the economy and brought the budget deficit under control. But the unleashing of the financial sector ultimately brought chaos as the economy crashed in 2008.

In the meantime, what happened to our electoral system? Billionaires began pouring billions of dollars of “dark money” into our elections and getting right wing politicians elected at all levels of government from school board to state legislator to governor, to congressperson to Senator. Republicans took over two thirds of our state governments. These politicians skewed increasingly to the right as more liberal Republicans were defeated in primaries. In those states that had Republican administrations, gerrymandering became the norm, and they passed voter ID laws, the intention of which was to discourage voting by minority groups. Many states suppressed minority votes by putting few polling places in minority precincts as compared to white precincts. Voting machines were installed which could easily be hacked. In 2010, the Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United decision which held that corporations had the same free speech rights as people and could give unlimited donations to political campaigns. Naturally, these corporations would contribute to the campaigns of politicians who favored their interests.

When a politician gets most of his money from a corporation he or she does not vote contrary to the interests of the donor. Gun control regulations? But I get all this money from the NRA. Control drug prices? But I get big donations from big Pharma. Clean energy? But I get money from the oil industry. Marijuana legalization? But I get money from the private prison industry. Increase the minimum wage? Walmart doesn’t want that and they contribute lots of money to my election campaign. Tax reform? I know taxes should be more progressive and there are a lot of good things we could do with our tax money, but if I lower taxes on the very wealthy I’ll get a big campaign contribution from the Koch Brothers! And so it goes.

The billionaires decide what legislation gets passed and what legislation does not get passed. No progressive legislation can be passed in a system where the vast majority of legislators are bought by moneyed interests. We look at countries like Norway, Germany, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands and see their national health systems, their free university, their subsidized child care, their paid maternity leave, their low prison population, their lack of homeless on the streets and we wonder why we can’t be like them. As long as we allow the Koch Brothers and their billionaire cronies to buy our law makers, we will be denied these amenities and we will become an increasing  failed society, a banana republic of extreme wealth and poverty.



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