Guns & cars & rules, oh my!

I’m not a big fan of either guns or cars. I believe both produce a lot of unnecessary harm in our world (and our country, specifically). But I’m realistic — I know that neither one is going away any time soon. Certainly not here in the good old US of A. So the realistic question is: How do we best mitigate the harm done by these two dangerous things that both kill lots of innocent people?

Many Americans really love their guns. Even more love their cars. But it’s always struck me how differently we as a country treat the regulation of guns and cars. If we regulated our cars like we do our guns, there’d be no car registration, no driver’s licenses, no traffic lights, and we could drive on whatever side of the street we damn well pleased. And the sidewalks. With no speed limits.

And yet we don’t hear screams about the government “taking away our freedoms” when it comes to cars. It’s never been an issue. Nobody argues that we should have no rules or regulations on our cars — that would be considered somewhere off in Crazytown.

Why is the national conversation about guns so different than how we talk about our beloved cars?

Seriously, why? This is not a rhetorical question.

Mad Tea Party

In attempt to better understand current political events, I’ve been reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Our nation’s politics have clearly gone down the rabbit hole and just get curiouser and curiouser. This Tea Party is mad in more ways than one. Confusion is contagion. Time stands still; no progress is possible. The confused are played for fools.

The easily duped have a Party.
Just what kind of fools can they be?
They seem to be drinking the koolaid,
and yet they are calling it Tea.

Off with their heads! They don’t seem to be using them anyway.

The American Dream has become a nightmare. When will we wake up?

Not Your Grandfather’s GOP

One thing that gets lost in the 24-hr news cycle of political reporting is a longer view of political developments—not just for today, this week, or this election cycle, but over a span of decades.

One of the most significant political developments over the past half century has been the extreme rightward shift of the Republican Party. The GOP today would be barely recognizable to Republican presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, or Ford (much less Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt), and none of them would be welcome in the party that the GOP has become.

How did this happen? It helps to understand the long arc of historical developments that built what the GOP is today.

Let’s start with the 1960s, as it was this time of political and cultural upheaval that motivated much of the right-wing backlash that has been building in strength ever since.

The Sixties: The Times They Were A-Changin’

During the early ’60s, of course, the civil rights struggle loomed large, which gradually translated into policy within the Kennedy/Johnson administrations, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Johnson’s “War on Poverty/Great Society” programs, such as VISTA, Job Corps, and Head Start.

Liberal progress met with right-wing backlash. One manifestation was the candidacy of Barry Goldwater as Republican nominee for president in 1964. He was one of the most severely conservative presidential candidates in a long time, and he lost in a landslide to Johnson.

On the more extreme right-wing fringe was the rise of the John Birch Society, virulently anti-communist, anti-labor, and anti-civil rights (claiming the civil rights movement was part of a communist conspiracy). One of JBS’ founders later split off to form the National Alliance, a white supremacist, anti-semitic, neo-Nazi organization. Another founder was Texas oil tycoon Fred Koch, founder of Koch Industries. The JBS was viewed as the outer fringe of right-wing politics and was shunned by the Republican Party at the time.

By the mid-sixties, a baby-boom-fueled, broader counter-cultural movement was in full bloom, exploring new possibilities outside the confines of existing cultural and political norms.

By 1968, much of this upheaval had reached a boiling point. That year saw LBJ drop out of the presidential race for a second term, the assassinations of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, just to name a few. Things were shaking loose in a way unsettling to many Americans, which helped lead to the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. Nixon was seen as a law-and-order guy who would return stability and reason to the country and fend off the leftist radicals.

However, popular progressive movements had become strong enough that, as president, Nixon was forced to adopt many liberal reforms, such as the Endangered Species Act; the creation of OSHA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency; and eventually end the Vietnam War.

Counter-revolution from the Right

In response to the progressive popular movements of the ’60s and the influence they had on even a devout conservative like Richard Nixon, right-wing elites decided they needed to mobilize to press for their own counter-revolution, and develop a coherent conservative coalition of policy, strategy, and candidates who would be standard-bearers for a new right-wing agenda.

Leading the way was the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, Joseph Coors, et al. It became a leading right-wing political force over the next few years, publishing its “Mandate for Leadership” just in time for Reagan’s inauguration in Jan. 1981. Many foundation fellows took positions in Reagan’s administration, and by the end of his first year of office, 60% of the Mandate’s 2,000 proposals had been implemented or initiated. By 1986 Time magazine called Heritage Foundation “the foremost of the new breed of advocacy tanks.”

As right-wing think tanks grew in size, number, and influence, so did the influence of the emerging religious right, with organizations like the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, and the Christian Coalition gaining political prominence. Much of this was also in reaction to the political and cultural upheavals of the preceding decade.

Conservative evangelical leaders saw the questioning of established cultural norms as an attack on moral decency and decided to fight back, seeking to impose their own version of Christian values upon the nation. They engaged increasingly sophisticated fundraising campaigns, mobilizing a growing base of support, political strategizing, and grooming and electing their own kind to school boards, town councils, state legislatures, and judiciary positions. The “culture war” became an important new front in American politics.

A third trend emerged alongside the Christian right and right-wing think tanks: the explosion of political lobbying. In response to the passage of laws and regulations to protect workers, consumers, and the environment in the sixties and seventies, wealthy elites and big corporations discovered that investing in politics yielded one of their best returns on investment—lobbying to weaken those regulations, to create loopholes, and to get new laws passed more to their advantage and profit. The lobbying industry would increase by orders of magnitude in subsequent decades.

All three of these trends (the think-tankers, Christian crusaders, and K Street lobbyists) converged in the Reagan administration, busily rolling back the progress made in previous two decades and advancing new policies favoring those interests. Taxes, for example.

Republican President Dwight Eisenhower had presided over a tax system in which the top marginal tax rate was 90%, while the economy was booming in the 1950s; the top rate remained at 70% under Nixon. It was considered normal and patriotic that those who reaped the greatest benefits would give the greatest share back to their country.

Reagan reduced the top rate, first to 50% and later to 28%, while raising the rates for lower-income taxpayers. Consequently, wealth inequality, which had begun to grow in the late seventies, suddenly began to soar.

For three decades after World War II, the rising tide of economic growth did indeed lift all boats equally. Those at the bottom of the income scale benefited at roughly the same rate as those at the top. But Reagan changed that—ensuring that those at the top would rise dramatically while those at the bottom would fall, beginning a trend that would only grow worse over the next three decades.

Tax reform was just one element of the Reagan (Counter)Revolution. Other significant shifts included corporate deregulation, increased military spending and bellicosity in pursuit of “US (read: corporate) Interests,” diminishing the strength of labor unions, and intensifying the “War on Drugs.”

All these new conservative policies and the forces behind them created a “new normal” and pushed political debate dramatically to the right through the ’80s.

New Landscape in Politics and Media

It wasn’t just Republicans who moved to the right during that period—the Democrats followed after them with the creation of the Democratic Leadship Council, which eschewed New Left politics in favor of a centrist, “third way” approach. The DLC abandoned any kind of economic populism in favor of pursuing corporate donations and market-based solutions. The DLC was very pro-military as well. Bill Clinton became poster boy for the DLC as president in the ’90s, enacting policies like welfare reform, NAFTA, and the deadly sanctions in Iraq that would have made previous Democratic presidents blush.

One of the less heralded changes under Reagan was the elimination the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which had required broadcast media to present opposing views on controversial issues in a balanced manner. Once this requirement was lifted it opened the door for broadcasters presenting only a single viewpoint. One of the first people to take advantage of this new playing field was talk-radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh, whose show began airing nation-wide the year after the Fairness Doctrine had disappeared. Many other right-wing talk-radio personalities quickly followed suit, and finding scape goats for angry white males to blame for their problems became a major national industry.

After a few years of successful right-wing radio broadcasting, some saw an opportunity to bring this partisan media model to television. Rupert Murdoch hired Roger Ailes to launch Fox News in 1996 as a 24/7 propaganda machine to bring right-wing views and policy positions to a wide audience. Now all those right-wing think tanks and political strategists had a direct outlet to the masses.

Of course, Fox not only championed right-wing ideas, but viciously and relentlessly attacked all things Democrat and liberal. I think it’s fair to say that Fox News brought a meaner spirit and more partisan tone than anything seen on TV before, and encouraged a harsher, more partisan tone in American politics in general.

Bush and the Post-9/11 Era

After eight years of the mostly centrist presidency of Clinton, it became GW Bush’s turn to explore how far to the right the country could be taken. The big opportunity came, of course, in the wake of 9/11, when the country was in shock and could be persuaded to accept policies that would have been previously unacceptable, if not unthinkable. In domestic policy this translated into draconian abrogations of civil rights; in foreign policy it meant boom-times for the military-industrial complex. For all the militarists who dearly missed the bad old days of the Cold War, the “War on Terror” came just in time.

Many members of Bush’s foreign and military policy team had come from the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century. PNAC was founded in 1997 to promote an expanded military to exert American will upon the rest of the world. The attacks of 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror gave them the opportunity they’d been seeking, and they seized on it with a vengeance. American empire would be expanded, US (private) interests would be advanced by military means, and we’d adopt a policy of “invade first, ask questions later,” for which our country is still paying dearly.

Even more than Reagan, the Bush administration represented a merger between corporatist and Christian fundamentalist agendas. The War on Terror combined these elements in a dangerous and volatile mix—the Iraq invasion and occupation advanced corporate interests in the Middle East as well as giving end-times believers a holy war to fight.

Kevin Phillips has observed the long arc of the GOP’s rightward movement as closely as anyone. In 1968 he wrote The Emerging Republican Majority, which both forecast and offered strategy for the GOP to dominate national politics by using race and religion to retake southern states long allied with Democrats. In later years he became a leading critic of what this new Republican majority had created.

In his 2006 book, American Theocracy, Phillips describes three major pillars of the Republican Party of the 21st century—oil interests, radical religion, and Wall Street. He writes: “Over three decades … the Republican party has slowly become the vehicle of all three interests—a fusion of petroleum-defined national security; a crusading, simplistic Christianity; and a reckless credit-feeding financial complex. The three are increasingly allied in commitment to Republican politics, if not all in full agreement with one another.”

The religious element has led to the growth of faith-based politics on the right: Not just inserting religion into politics, but a politics where belief trumps empirical evidence. Phillips notes, “In a late-2004 speech, the retiring television journalist Bill Moyers, himself an ordained Baptist minister, broke with polite convention. He told an audience at the Harvard medical school that ‘one of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington.'”

Phillips continues, “These developments have warped the Republican party and its electoral coalition, muted Democratic voices, and become a gathering threat to America’s future. No leading power in modern memory has become captive, even a partial captive, of the sort of biblical inerrancy—backwater, not mainstream—that dismisses modern knowledge and science.”

Current Times

This brings us to the last four years. Obama’s election raised great hopes among many. Some of us were less ebullient, seeing him as a cautious corporate centrist and standard-bearer for a Democratic Party that followed the GOP in its rightward march. But however you assess Obama himself and his accomplishments over the last four years, it’s important to acknowledge the political context he is trapped in.

After Democrats won the White House and both houses of Congress in 2008, many political pundits (including many conservatives) said that finally the GOP’s drift to the right had gone too far. Clearly it was time to adopt a more moderate, centrist approach moving forward.

As we know, that’s not what happened. The extreme right doubled down. The Tea Party arose, and was immediately given big financial backing by the Koch brothers, sons of Fred Koch, one of the founders of the John Birch Society. What was once an extremist fringe was becoming the new normal.

In Congress, Republicans closed ranks and agreed at the very beginning of Obama’s term to use whatever power they had to block all progress. On the very day Obama was inaugurated, GOP strategist Frank Luntz met with seven Republicans from the House (including Paul Ryan) and five Republican senators to agree to “show united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies.”

On Fox News and other right-wing media, Obama was relentlessly and viciously attacked—cast as a foreigner, a Muslim, a socialist, and an overall threat to America. Whereas just a few years earlier, criticism of the president (i.e., Bush) was considered treasonous, suddenly, criticism of the president had become a patriotic duty among “real Americans.”

Such criticism was in no way slowed by the reality that Obama was in fact acting as a cautious centrist who repeatedly sought bipartisan compromise and adopted conservative policy ideas in hopes of getting cooperation from the other side of the aisle. Which never came. Nope, anyone to the left of Karl Rove was now the enemy—even those moderate congressional Republicans left over from a previous era, who found themselves facing challenges from the right wing of their own party.

Amid such concerted criticism, obstructionism, and rise of the well-funded “grassroots” movement of the Tea Party, the GOP base was energized, progressives were dispirited, and Republicans made great gains in 2010, taking back the US House of Representatives and many state legislatures.

The latter was particularly important, as it was a US census year and year of legislative and congressional redistricting. Those who controlled state legislatures would control drawing new district lines (to their partisan advantage) as well as setting new voting rules for the 2012 election (a political opportunity that GOP-controlled states have used to full partisan advantage, seeking to disenfranchise millions with new voter ID laws).

Of course, the Supreme Court’s landmark, ironically named “Citizens United” decision played a major role in all of this. Remember, the GOP held the White House for 20 out of 28 years from 1981-2009, thus nominating a conservative majority of justices to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, right-wing economic and tax policies had been redistributing wealth to the those at the top during that same period, such that 80% of all economic gains had accrued to the top 1% over the past 30 years.

That has led to a degree of wealth inequality that is positively medieval, harkening back to a feudal society of lords and serfs. With the “Citizens United” ruling, the Supreme Court gave these newly minted plutocrats a gift that would keep on giving. “More money than you know what to do with? Invest in political campaigns and influence! Anonymously, in unlimited amounts!” A plutocrat’s wet dream.

This perfect storm of wealth concentrated at the top and unprecedented influence of money in politics had a huge impact on the 2010 elections, and will have an even bigger impact in 2012. When money is speech, those with all the money can outshout the rest of us, and persuade just enough voters to support their agenda to win. They’re betting on it. Heavily.

Meanwhile, the GOP has nominated a poster boy for the 1% as their presidential nominee, who has an agenda to redistribute even more money to him and his plutocratic friends, to dramatically “strengthen” an already bloated military to advance US corporate interests around the world, and to bring a conservative majority to the Supreme Court that could last for decades.

The party he is part of has parted ways with historical precedent. What was once politically unthinkable gradually became merely extreme, which then became acceptable, and now has become the new normal. Whether you want to call it a return to feudalism, or invoke that other f-word—”fascism” (see accompanying reprint)—there are clearly some powerful, dark forces at work here. They’ve been winning for more than three decades and seem to be gathering forces for a final victory in which they can change all the rules to their favor in perpetuity.

We are like the proverbial “frogs in the saucepan.” The water has been gradually heating up for more than three decades, approaching a boil, but we keep adjusting to it. Will we finally face reality and recognize our predicament as a nation, or will we be boiled?

The the results of the 2012 election will tell us whether the long arc of GOP think-tanking, wealth accumulating, political investing, religious mobilizing, media manipulating efforts will control our future, or whether we’ll finally unmask this extremist agenda for what it is and return to a common-sense, problem-solving approach to the many challenges that confront us.

(Note: An edited version of this article was published in Eat the State!)

Declarations of Independence and Interdependence

When in the course of human events certain social constructs outgrow their original purposes, and instead serve to undermine the public good in myriad ways, it becomes necessary for natural people to reclaim their power usurped by such constructs.

Corporations were originally created to enable various types of large-scale, collective economic activity beyond the capability of individual initiatives. Corporations were created as tools to serve human ends. But over centuries, the scale, power, and reach of these entities has grown to such a degree that they have become the masters, and we, the servants. Through constant consolidation, concentration, and centralization, corporate entities have achieved colossal proportions beyond the control of ordinary humans. Our tools now make the rules and use us.

These corporate colossi have become vehicles to enrich a small minority and enable this minority to rule over the majority. Corporations—via lobbyists, campaign donations, and other channels—are reshaping our society and our nation’s laws in their own interests. Especially after the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, ours is becoming a government “of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations.”

The time has come for We the People to withdraw our support and consent from corporate rule in every way possible and redirect our resources toward strengthening local, human-scale, community-based institutions. Let’s declare our independence from big corporations and reaffirm our interdependence with our own communities and the natural systems upon which all life depends. There are many ways to do this, both individually and collectively.

Personal choices

Each time we spend money, we cast a vote for what kind of society we want. If no one spent their money with big corporations, big corporations would not exist. When we redirect our money to local community businesses, those businesses flourish. The latter is crucial: Withdrawing a dollar from a mega-corporation may impact it’s bottom line very little in relative terms, whereas that same dollar means much more to a small business. Additionally, that dollar locally spent is more likely to recirculate in the local economy, creating a “multiplier effect.”

Money—Let’s begin with where we keep our money in the first place. Let’s move our money. Let’s declare our independence from big Wall Street banks by instead banking with community banks and local credit unions, so that our money is reinvested in our local communities. And for those of us fortunate enough to have money to invest, let’s invest ethically.

Food—What we eat and how we spend our food dollars has enormous consequence. Let’s declare our independence from the big food companies (Nestlé, Kraft, PepsiCo, Monsanto, etc.), big restaurant and fast-food chains (McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Denny’s, etc.), and big grocery chains (Safeway, Kroger, Walmart, etc.), and instead support local, organic foods, farmers markets, food co-ops, and locally owned restaurants.

Energy—We know that our continued addiction to fossil fuels is creating climate crisis and other serious problems for people and our planet. Though it’s virtually impossible to live fossil-free today, we know that we must do all we can move in that direction and hasten the transition to clean and green energy sources. So, as much as possible, let’s declare our independence from fossil fuels and the mega-corporations that supply them. Let’s reduce fossil-based travel, favor vehicles running on non-fossil fuel sources, use public transit, bike, walk, buy local products (reducing embedded energy and transportation costs), and otherwise do all we can to reduce our fossil footprint. Our future depends on it.

Everything else—As with money, food, and energy, we can continue down the list of personal needs and expenditures: clothing, home appliances and furnishings, health care, media, entertainment, and so on. Of course, it may not be practical to support decentralized, localized options in every case (e.g., local artisan light bulbs may not be a practical solution any time soon), but in most facets of our lives, we can make choices that make a difference.

Let’s declare our independence from gigantic, centralized, profit-driven, wealth-concentrating, power-mongering, planet-destroying, soul-sucking corporations at every opportunity, and instead pledge our allegiance to local, human-scale, person-empowering, community-enhancing, planet-protecting, soul-enriching alternatives.

Collective action

Many of us have already withdrawn our personal support from corporate Babylon in many ways, and have chosen instead to support local, sustainable, community-based options as described above. It’s always helpful to re-examine our choices, and look for new ways our personal choices can make a difference, but such “lifestyle activism” is hardly a novel idea.

However, in 2012, the crisis of corporate rule has reached such proportions that personal actions are not enough to stop its further encroachment into economic and political life. As large corporations (and the elite enriched by them) increasingly exert their power over both the marketplace and government itself, independence from corporate rule requires more than just individually opting out—it requires collective action to challenge the legitimacy of corporate rule itself.

Fortunately, many communities have begun in recent years to challenge the legitimacy of corporate rights and corporate rule and to assert their right to govern themselves.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is a group based in Pennsylvania that has been helping local communities and municipalities to assert their rights to self-government. Communities develop a “community bill of rights,” asserting certain rights for both humans and nature, and banning any corporate activity that would interfere with the exercise of these rights. Such efforts are a direct challenge to the legal foundations of corporate rule.

CELDF has helped more than 100 communities draft such laws, including Pittsburgh, PA, and Buffalo, NY. In Washington state, similar effort are underway: Spokane has placed an initiative on the ballot twice now (narrowly losing the vote last time after great opposition from the business community), and efforts are currently underway in Bellingham and Seattle.

In Seattle, a group called Envision Seattle is currently collecting signatures for I-103, a citizens’ initiative broad in scope and deep in its challenge to corporate power. According to the campaign’s website, I-103 would do the following:

  • Eliminate corporate personhood and judge-made corporate “constitutional” rights
  • Ban corporate spending on elections
  • Ban corporate lobbying except in public forums
  • Close the revolving door of employment  between elected officials and large corporations
  • Provide citizen oversight of the Seattle Police Department
  • Provide constitutional rights for workers
  • Provide neighborhoods the right to approve major zoning changes
  • Provide rights for nature
  • Provide equal access to a free and open Internet, known as network neutrality

Let’s join together in efforts like this to declare our independence from corporate rule and affirm our interdependence with our local communities and environment. Let’s return control of our governments at all levels to where it belongs: We the People.

Today let us enjoy a national holiday with friends and family, and let’s also recall that this holiday is based on an occasion when people risked everything to free themselves from an unjust and tyrannical force. Let’s follow their example.

Unpublished notes from a reluctant class warrior

As I try to collect my thoughts & find the time to publish something current, I just found this piece I wrote in early fall that for some reason I never published. In the hopes that late is better than never (& since class war has not disappeared in the ensuing months), I offer it here, now.

* * *

Thirty years ago, when I was studying critical social theory in college, “class war” seemed to me merely quaint hyperbole by Marxist-Leninists & the like. I mean, sure, socioeconomic classes were real & had effect, but that just didn’t seem like a primary fault line in American society at the time. There were so many other divisions: racism, sexism, homophobia, imperialism, ecological destruction. As an earnest, idealistic student trying to figure out what I should be most worried about, “plutocracy” seemed pretty low on the list.

But in the 30 years since then, my how things have changed! The “Reagan revolution.” A series of tax breaks for the those at the top. Corporate deregulation. Union busting. Corporate mergers. Wealth concentration. “Free trade” agreements. Globalization of capital. Outsourcing of jobs abroad. Media consolidation. The rise of right-wing think tanks. The rise of right-wing media (talk radio, FOX “News,” etc.). An explosion in corporate lobbying. Privatization of public services. Big Money’s growing role in politics.

And then we had the crash of world financial markets due to reckless gambling & greed. The ensuing global recession. Bank bailouts. “Recovery” at the top (expressed by record corporate profits & executive bonuses) while masses of people suffer from foreclosures, unemployment & underemployment, and cuts in vital social services. And then, just to rub salt in the wound, the Supreme Court gives us the “Citizens United” decision, as if Big Money just didn’t have enough power in our political system.

Around the world, “austerity” is urged by those at the top (never for themselves, of course). In America, serious political discussion revolves around the urgency of debt-reduction — the only real question is whether 100% of the burden should fall on those already suffering or whether those at the top who have been making out like bandits for the last 30 years should be asked to contribute something. Anything.

Republicans draw a line in the sand. They have the solution: Protect those at the top at all costs! More tax cuts for the rich! More deregulation! Give more to those with the most & they will save us! They just need more money & more freedom to do whatever they want — the rest of us must sacrifice to make it so.

The fact that Republicans can make such proposals with straight faces, the fact that they could be taken seriously by anyone but a small sliver of ruthless, conniving plutocrats, the fact that they could feel confident staking their political futures on such ridiculous nonsense — it just goes to show how far we have come in the evolution of “class war” in America over the last 30 years.

Class war in 2011: No longer quaint hyperbole; now inescapable reality.

If the only choice left is whether to fight back or whether to get ground into the dirt by the jackboot of corporate plutocracy (the marriage of economic power with state power that Mussolini called fascism), then I choose to fight back. Looking around, it seems that lots of people are starting to make that choice. Join us, if you haven’t already.

The division between the super-rich and the rest of us has become the most important divide of our time. All the other divisions merely strengthen that one, which could prove fatal in the long run. A good time to consider the words of Ben Franklin, “Join, or die.”

Bad blogger! Good uprising! Catching up on a year’s worth of events

Dear reader (hello? anyone still there?), I warned you that this would be “slow blogging,” but I never intended for my blog to go dark for more than a year. In the immortal words of Rick Perry, “Oops!”

I feel especially remiss since, in my postings right after the 2010 elections (here, here, & here), I was talking about the need for a progressive populist uprising. Well, 2011 has been the year for progressive populist uprising, and this blog has had nothing to say about it. Oops indeed.

To recap: This year’s uprising began, of course, in the hometown of progressive populism — Madison, Wisc. — when new Governor Scott Walker severely overplayed his hand politically. We can thank Gov. Walker and his far-right cohorts for having awakened a new rebellion among a working/middle-class fed up with indignities and austerity as those who caused the economic crisis got rewarded for their crimes. Well (over)played, sir!

Of course, as Madison heated up, uprisings were busting out all over the world. An unexpected Arab Spring gave way to a perhaps to-be-expected European Summer, as people at the bottom of the political/economic pyramid demanded more democratic control over their own lives. Those at the top who wielded power at the expense of the rest were put on notice — people would no longer tolerate hardship and austerity while those at the top grew richer, more arrogant, and more shameless.

This internationally shared sentiment took root in America for real in September with Occupy Wall Street & various spin-off occupations around the country. I wrote a lengthy essay about this uprising in Eat the State! in mid-October, and also assembled a list of existing organizations that have been already working to solve the problems that the Occupy movement has highlighted. I also put together a list of solutions to remind us that it is not solutions that we lack, but the political power to overcome the political power assembled by the 1% through their various enabling institutions. The power of the left-behind majority is what the Occupy movement is helping to build. (Much of the ETS! material is still timely, I think, if you want to check it out.)

I intend to write soon here about how this movement is morphing & expanding & diversifying tactics in the face of the inevitable backlash by authorities, and especially about how the movement is — and needs to be — so much bigger than the people actually participating in the encampments. When the movement for the 99% truly finds ways to engage most of that 99% in productive actions, then we will be too big to fail. We’re still trying to figure out how to get to that tipping point.

The problem I have with blogging is that I post a lot of stuff elsewhere that might otherwise go into a blog. I’ve reserved this blog mostly for longer essays that I don’t publish elsewhere — big thoughts that coalesce slowly. Not very blog-like, I know, but that’s just how I roll….

In the meantime — if you want to follow me around the interwebs — I’m tweeting, writing occasionally for Eat the State!, & posting a lot in Facebook, where I publicly post maybe 15–20 items per week on the topics I discuss in this blog, mostly links I find particularly interesting. I used to keep my Facebook acct private, but now that Facebook allows for public subscriptions I encourage people to subscribe if interested. (Note: I only respond to “friend” requests from people who are friends in real life. If you think I should make an exception for you, please tell me why. Thanks.)

Sorry this is one of those annoying blog posts more about the blogger than about anything particularly insightful. I’ll do better next time.

Hot buttons of progressive populism

Of course there is a class war, but it’s my class, the rich class, that is waging the war, and we’re winning. —Warren Buffett, third richest man in the world

A couple days after the midterm elections I wrote about reasons to get mad over the growing influence of Big Money in our elections, and a few days after that I wrote about the challenge and opportunity for progressives to mobilize a populist movement to reclaim democracy from Big Money. What are some of the key hot-button issues around which a progressive populist agenda can be built? Let’s begin at the beginning, where most populism begins…

The rich got richer—Three decades of worsening economic inequality: How many Americans understand that just 1% of the population controls 35% of the wealth? Or that the the top 10% controls three-quarters of wealth overall and 83% of financial wealth?

Or that the share of national income taken by the top 1% rose from about 10% in 1980 to almost 25% today (after it had remained fairly steady for the 30 years between 1950-1980)?

Or that income had more than doubled for the bottom half of Americans between 1950-1980, then basically leveled off in the 30 years since? And meanwhile in the past three decades more than 80% of all income increases went to the richest 1%?

Or that in 1980 CEOs earned about 42 times as much as the average worker, but 531 times as much by 2001?

We could go on & on with such appalling statistics, but they all point to the same reality: Over the past 30 years, economic welfare has remained stagnant for the majority (& declined for many) while those at the top have been making out like bandits. American wealth inequalities now exceed any time in our country’s recorded history, exceed any other industrialized nation, and put us in the ranks of the worst banana republics.

In the current great recession, while many of us are losing our jobs and losing our homes, those at the top are doing quite well, thank you, amidst a “jobless recovery.” And much of that is due to a taxpayer bailout of those at the top most responsible for the financial meltdown of 2008 through reckless pursuit of their own greed.

Which brings us to…

Banksters, Inc.—The new financial feudalism: The financial meltdown of 2008 was something of a wake-up call for many, but two years later we have not learned its lessons as a society. The new documentary “Inside Job” tells the story of the rise of financiers over the last three decades as manufacturing jobs (and the American middle class) declined. As regulations and public accountability were systematically dismantled, the financial industry ballooned into a massive casino of unchecked greed, fraud, and reckless, amoral behavior.

As Wall Street grew, so did its control of the government, so that when the whole hyperinflated system came crashing down in 2008, former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson was in place as Treasury Secretary to bail out his former Wall Street colleagues at taxpayer’s enormous expense (just before the reins were handed over to Geithner & Summers, who would continue the same Wall-St.-friendly policies in the Obama administration).

Consequently, the biggest financial heist in our lifetimes occurred in plain sight of everybody, and the primary perpetrators were allowed to walk away with their lootings largely intact, while the rest of us pay the costs. Too big to fail means too big to jail means too big, period. Wall Street owns us in more ways than one. And the term “bankster” has become more of an accurate description than quaint hyperbole.

Which brings us to looking at some of the major ways that wealth exercises power in America…

Corporate campaign donations & “Citizens United”: In January of this year, the US Supreme Court gave Big Money another gift—Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending on independent “electioneering communications” in elections. As if large corporations didn’t already have enough political influence. Subsequently, a record $4 billion was spent on the 2010 midterm election campaigns, much of it coming from “Super-PACs” newly created in the wake of Citizens United. Not only can corporations spend as much as they want, they don’t even have to disclose these donations (this could be changed by the DISCLOSE Act currently being considered in Congress).

Big Money is becoming ever more blatant in its quest for the best government money can buy, but not without opposition. The Citizens United decision has been widely criticized, and polls show public opposition left, right, and center (80% opposed overall). A healthy majority available for aligning with a progressive populist uprising. Many citizen groups are actively opposing it, including Move to Amend, the Coffee Party, and the Backbone Campaign. These groups are planning a national action on the one-year anniversary of Citizens United, Jan. 21, 2011.

Corporate lobbying: As many American industries have been in decline, one industry that has grown greatly in recent decades is corporate lobbying. It’s no secret that Washington, DC, along with most state capitals & city halls, have become “corporate-occupied territory” (e.g., see “Who Owns Congress?” for a federal breakdown). The lobbying industry has more than doubled in the last decade. Health-related lobbying alone accounted for over $500 million of spending during 2009. These lobbyists not only excluded single-payer advocates from the discussion, but successfully prevented a public option. Fossil-fuel lobbyists prevent progress on addressing the climate crisis. Financial lobbyists prevent meaningful reform of their industry. And on and on down the line.

Few regular citizens approve of the corporate takeover of government, but many get confused by political and media talk of “special interests” that seems to equate the “special interests” of private money with the “special” (read: public) interests of social justice & environmental nonprofits and labor unions. Most understand that something smells bad here, but the details remain unclear and the outlets for constructive action even less clear.

Why are these details unclear? Isn’t it the job of the media to clarify important public matters like this? Yes, but…

Big money & big media: Just as financial deregulation enabled growing concentrations of financial wealth, media deregulation has enabled growing concentrations in media, consolidating ownership in the hands of the same type of wealthy, corporate interests we have been discussing here. America’s founders conceived of the media/”free press” as an essential component of democratic governance, the conduit by which citizens would gain the essential public information necessary to make political choices and implement government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—but it’s clear that modern media moguls lack such noble ambitions and instead see the media as just another profitable investment.

With the rise of FOX “News”—a full-time political operation disguised as news media, seemingly designed to trick its viewers into siding with private interests against public interests—the mainstream corporate media has become even more vacuous and pursuant of ratings-boosting “controversies” (often contrived by right-wing sources) and superficial horse-race politics over any substantive coverage of issues that matter. And is it surprising that we rarely hear anything about the central issues discussed here—who wields power and how—from media organs owned by power-wielders?

Perversely and fittingly, as political campaign spending increases, major media outlets are among the primary beneficiaries as they incessantly bombard us with political advertising. Closing the circle, so to speak.

Fortunately, as media is concentrating at the top, it is diversifying at the bottom, thanks largely to the universal access enabled by the internet. People who want news outside the corporate consensus have a growing array of options, including community-based sources like Democracy Now!, the Real News Network, GRITtv, Huffington Post, and others, as well a few larger network sources like MSNBC, the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, & Bill Maher (the latter three delivering more insight and important information in their “entertainment” format than does most “serious news” of major media).

And what does this all add up to? Robert Reich has called it a “perfect storm“:

An unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top; a record amount of secret money flooding our democracy; and a public becoming increasingly angry and cynical about a government that’s raising its taxes, reducing its services, and unable to get it back to work.

We’re losing our democracy to a different system. It’s called plutocracy.

Plutocracy—now there’s a word that needs to be spoken much more often in contemporary political discourse. Or, as Warren Buffet so cogently put it, it’s “class war,” and the class he belongs to is kicking some serious ass these days. The question is: When will the majority of us whose asses are getting kicked start fighting back? Like, for real.

By now it should be clear that the Democratic Party isn’t going to help us. Barack Obama isn’t going to help us. Even much of the public-interest nonprofit infrastructure developed over the last four decades or so seems poorly equipped to help us (as many groups have become increasingly intertwined with wealthy corporate benefactors). But as I’ve tried to note in this essay (esp. the links), lots of people are paying attention and many offer valuable resources. And some have begun organize around these hot-button issues, but more heat is needed.

And more leadership, I think, to bring to the fore this constellation of fundamental issues about who really runs this country, and to organize a majoritarian coalition in favor of government by & for the people instead of by & for the big corporations and wealthy elites. We need to talk less about left vs. right and talk more about bottom vs. top.

Because that’s how we win, it seems to me. Public opinion surveys already show that strong majorities—across the political & economic spectrum—do not approve of the current distribution of wealth, or with the Citizens United decision, or other distortions of the public sphere discussed here. The sentiments are already there, but the leadership needs to be stronger.

And because, unless we win this contest, we don’t win any of the other issues we care about—social justice, environmental, peace, whatever… As long as wealth & power rule, anything that doesn’t serve wealth & power loses. Of course, this has always been the case to greater or lesser degree throughout history, but as wealth’s grip on power tightens amid our current perfect storm, we can no longer ignore it.

As people continue to lose their homes, lose their jobs, lose their public services, and look for who’s responsible for this breakdown in the system, disillusionment and anger grows. Where will that energy be directed? So far, the Tea Party is capturing much of that disgruntlement, and misdirecting it against all the wrong targets. But as new conservative leadership seeks to retain tax cuts for the rich while cutting benefits for unemployment, Social Security, and Medicare, the conservative illusion will be harder to sustain.

As progressives, reality is on our side. Numbers are on our side. As Pogo said, “We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.”

Let’s get busy.

(I’d love to hear a wider discussion about these matters, so please share any thoughts, critiques, resources, etc. in the comments section.)

Post-election: The challenge for progressive populism

The elections of last Tuesday were reportedly very bad for progressives. And in many ways they were. But in some ways, they could serve as a catalyst for something great. The question is: Which way forward from here?

After a major progressive mobilization helped bring Obama into the White House & give Democrats a large majority in both houses of Congress, too many progressives seemed to think they could just sit back and watch the inevitable progress occur. Instead, progressive perspectives were shut out of the health care debate, economic & financial policy debates, climate & energy policy debates, & foreign policy debates, to name just a few of many progressive disappointments.

And why expect anything different? For most of two decades, Democratic leadership has clung to a strategy of corporate-friendly centrism while Republicans have marched ever rightward. Progressives have constituted a loyal Democratic base that can be mobilized to turn out votes, then promptly ignored when it comes time to make policy. This second-class status has been accepted in favor of a “lesser-evil” calculation that rightly recognizes the increasingly greater evil represented by the Republicans in recent years. But a compliant base that makes no demands gets no results, as progressives have seen.

Meanwhile, the right-wing minority mobilized furiously during the last two years, channeling popular discontent into a misguided & overhyped Tea Party movement. While the Dems were silencing their progressive edge in the name of centrism and moderation, Republicans abandoned any pretense of moderation and amplified their fringe voices to fire up their base.

And look where it got them.

Now, I’m not saying that the Tea Party is a great role model for progressives. I’m well aware that TP success has been largely due to wealthy benefactors and the giant corporate right-wing megaphone of the FOX Noise machine. Tea Party leaders pander to prejudice, fear, and ignorance to build a base, and misdirect legitimate grievances toward an agenda that serves interests often contrary to those of their aggrieved followers.

But the Tea Party has gotten some things right:

1) Appeal to populist sentiments. The diversity of political opinion is too often depicted as a simple spectrum from left to right (& supposedly election results prove the country is moving back to the right). But just as important is the spectrum from bottom to top. These days many at the bottom of the political-economic pyramid know deep down that something is seriously wrong at the top. Those on the right misidentify the source of the problem as “big government.” Those on the left understand that unaccountable private institutions pose a greater danger than public ones, and that many of the problems with government can be traced to the distortions by powerful private interests which control both government and major media, the two institutions essential to a functional democracy.

The Democratic Party, having become so dependent on corporate campaign money, has abandoned populism in word and deed, which is what opened up the field for the Tea Party to channel a lot of the legitimate anger & disgruntlement on the ground. If a progressive populist movement is going to arise, it won’t come from the Democratic Party.

2) Build a movement that retains autonomy even while collaborating with one of the major parties. Progressives have been much too wedded to the Democratic Party in a way that allows us to be taken for granted and disempowered. For a while, the Green Party offered a vehicle for those of us who wanted to build political power entirely independent of the Dems, but for various reasons that vehicle mostly broke down after 2004. At this juncture, I can see the wisdom of building a progressive populist movement independent from the Democratic Party, but which still collaborates with the Democratic Party. When collaboration makes sense. And be independent when independence makes sense.

3) Appeal to emotions & passions as well as intellect. Too often Dems and liberals in general seem to expect superior policy wonkery to carry the day. But we humans are more often motivated by our emotions. For the last two years, conservatives have been fired up while liberals & progressives have been either wonky, sleepy, or distracted. Of course, conservatives appeal to a narrow range of emotions – mostly just fear and anger. For progressives, while there are plenty of reasons to be fearful and angry, we also have a much broader emotional range to engage. But the key point is to engage how people feel as well as what we think.

4) Appeal to a genuinely American patriotism. Many progressives have understandably mixed feelings about America’s founding fathers and founding documents (colonial conquest, genocide, slavery, etc. are not matters to be taken lightly), but it’s a mistake to allow the Right any special claim on patriotism, the founders, or the Constitution. A nation ruled by “we the people,” in a “government of the people, by the people, & for the people,” in pursuit of “liberty & justice for all” — that’s an ideal we can agree is worth fighting for, yes? Jefferson and Paine were two of the great political thinkers of their time, and are worth quoting. (Jefferson: ““I hope we shall […] crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”; Paine: “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”) And though the founders may have excluded the majority of actual people in their original conception of “we the people,” they also included a process for amendment of their original document, in pursuit of a “more perfect union.” The hard-won progress of the next two centuries is also something to take pride in.

5) Some solutions are actually pretty simple. We may live in a complex world, but that doesn’t mean solutions to problems always have to be complicated. “Medicare for all” is a simpler and better solution for health care reform than the overly complicated, gazillion-page bill that eventually passed through Congress like a kidney stone; a carbon fee returned to the public is a simpler & better solution to the climate crisis than setting up an elaborate cap-&-trade regulated market; public financing of elections is a simpler & better solution to the influence of big money in politics than playing a kind of regulatory whack-a-mole constantly trying to anticipate where corporate influence will next rear its ugly head. Simple doesn’t always mean simplistic. And it’s way easier to explain.

This has gotten long, so my suggested list of progressive populist strategies & talking points will have to wait for another day.

Posts elsewhere (w/ great links!)

I’ve neglected my own blog a bit as I’ve been posting to the Eat the State! blog lately. As we wait to see how deeply The Crazy has infected the American electorate, here are a couple things I posted at ETS! in October with a few awesome video links reflecting on the ways that The Crazy is insinuating itself into American culture.

Early in the month, I posted this, calling attention to the brilliant Donald Duck Meets Glenn Beck cartoon video, & offering some thoughts on the challenges for progressive populism.

A few days ago I posted this round up of video clips looking at the rightward march of the Republican Party & its vanguard, the Tea Party — & the frightening prospect of a Tea Change in American politics. This features Keith Olberman’s litany of right-wing candidate lunacies, an Xtra Normal animation called “Hi, I’m a Tea-Partier,”  & political satirist-songwriter Roy Zimmerman’s “Vote Republican.” (For balance, I had to add The Onion’s assessment of the Democrat electoral strategy of  running away from any of their achievements in government from the past two years.)

Don’t Be a Sucker! Viralize this!

I don’t often recommend “educational films” made by the US military. But this one — “Don’t Be a Sucker,” from 1947 — is brilliant, and essential viewing for all Americans in 2010. (And it’s only 17 minutes long!) Its purpose was to warn Americans against falling prey to simplistic appeals to prejudice.

Having just defeated fascism in Europe, the US government wanted to warn its citizens how to identify deceptive, proto-fascist propaganda tactics as they might appear in America. The primary strategy consists of dividing a country into various minority groups for purposes of vilification and creating hatred and conflict.

Hmmm… Sound at all familiar?

Many of us are inclined to dismiss the superheated vitriol of Beck, Palin, the Teabaggers, et al., as merely the idiot ravings of fringe fanatics.

But as this lunatic fringe increasingly becomes the mainstream of a re-ascendant Republican Party, we would do well to heed the words of the Hungarian-immigrant-turned-American-citizen in this film who once worked as a professor in Berlin in the 1930s:

[As a professor in Berlin] I heard the same words we have heard today [from a soapbox speaker denouncing various minorities in America]. But I was a fool then. I thought Nazis were crazy people — stupid fanatics.

But unfortunately, it was not so. You see, they knew they were not strong enough to conquer a unified country, so they split Germany into small groups. They used prejudice as a practical weapon to cripple the nation.

As citizens of a nation increasingly crippled by prejudice and division, maybe it’s time to stand up and take notice?

I have this recurring fantasy that one day all the common folk duped by the retrograde rhetoric of right-wing demagogues will discover how they’ve been conned, and then take all the anger they had once directed toward Muslims, immigrants, gays, socialists, and other enemies du jour and redirect that anger toward the con-men who appeal to those prejudices to further their own interests. Nobody likes getting conned. Imagine if many of the duped masses came to realize that the people duping them were a much greater threat to their well-being than those they’d been fooled into hating. Hell hath no fury…! (Hey, a fella can dream, right?)

Again, it’s instructive to listen to the words of our film’s wise professor:

We human beings are not born with prejudices. Always they are made for us — made by someone who wants something.

Remember that when you hear this kind of talk. Somebody’s going to get something out of it, and it isn’t going to be you.

Demagogic rhetoric takes hold when people are frightened and insecure, as many Americans are today in this difficult and rapidly shifting economy. An increasing number of Americans seem to be getting “suckered” by (neo)con-men (and women — I’m looking at you Sarah! And you, Ann! And Gretchen, and Michelle …).

I’m surprised that amid the escalating hatefest being fomented by the right-fringe lately, this video has not already gone viral. Let’s fix that. Let’s make it the talk of the town, the talk of the nation.

I especially encourage everyone to share this instructive film with your friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers who may be getting suckered by FOX Noise, the Teabaggers, and other demagogues. Perhaps the impeccably patriotic pedigree of this film can get their attention. Don’t let them be suckered.

It’s for their own good. And for the good of us all.

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