U.S. Government: Republic or Plutocracy?

As someone who has taught U.S. government and economics to high school students, I will say firsthand that there is significantly less interest in politics among the youth than in virtually every other conceivable topic.

Topics more interesting to younger Americans include but are not limited to: Sports, music, iPods, movies, video games, Facebook, partying, Lady Gaga, Jersey Shore, Comedy Central, South Park, Adult Swim, etc… (the list goes on and on…).

Now, let me be clear – there are many young Americans who are very interested in our political process and are active in keeping up with the news, even before they graduate from high school.  Unfortunately those students are few and far between, swimming in an ocean of political apathy.  While many so-called education experts do not hesitate to point out our nation’s dismal science and math scores, there is significantly less focus on social studies education.

Today, there are a record number of citizens who claim to be independent voters.  As commentators have noted following last Tuesday’s election results, a majority of independents who voted Obama into office chose to vote against incumbent Democrats.  While Republicans claim this is a sign that voters want less “big government,” it is simply a signal that voters are tired of the party in power.

In 2006, Democrats took control of Congress after voters became disillusioned with Republican policies working for everyday Americans, and in 2008 Senator Obama convincingly won against Senator McCain in the presidential election.  In 2008 McCain ran on the slogan “Country First”, and the PR battle that ensued was between the Republicans’ strategy of using patriotism and denouncing Obama’s ideas versus Obama’s “Yes We Can” strategy of “Hope” and “Change We Can Believe In.”

To anyone following U.S. politics and current events in the past decade, it was not surprising to see Obama win against McCain and his unqualified running mate Sarah Palin.  Today, many Democrats appear to be baffled as to why they lost so many seats in the midterm elections.  After all, didn’t Bush and his Republican-led Congress get us into this mess in the first place?  Paying for two wars with costs well over $1 trillion and enacting tax cuts that mostly benefit the rich at the same time is economic suicide, as most Econ. 101 professors would point out.

Despite the fact that President George W. Bush will most likely go down as one of the worst presidents in recent history, Democrats appear to be just as out-of-touch with middle-class America as many Republican leaders.  Months before the midterms, the media already declared that the Democrats would lose big.  But why?  Were the election results really a mandate for change as Republicans have suggested?

Not quite.

Then what is to blame?  If voters are switching sides so frequently, is it fair to say that there are substantial differences between Republicans and Democrats?  I argue that structural deficiencies in our current system of government are to blame.

Let’s start from the top.

1.) Our two-party electoral system is outdated and antiquated.

Like any competition, the more people or groups or teams involved in the contest, the higher the quality.  Like any monopoly, when competition is shut out  innovative ideas are limited for the sake of retaining power.  In this case, Democrats and Republicans have shut out competition from third-party candidates.  American voters are inclined to become more excited and interested in elections when there is more competition (think of when Perot ran against Bush and Clinton).  Unfortunately, both parties get upset when third party candidates have success, no matter how limited.  When Democrats blamed Ralph Nader for Bush’s election victory in the 2000 presidential election, they claimed that Nader “stole votes” from Gore.

In other words, both parties (in this case, Democrats) believe they are entitled to American votes.  This sense of entitlement must end, and it will only be reformed once Americans begin voting for politicians who are members of neither party.  A vote for an independent candidate, a Green Party candidate or another minor-party candidate with populist stands will send this message to both parties.  It is obvious that both parties do not like outside competition, and the mainstream media does not equally cover third party or independents unless they are wealthy (again, Ross Perot was an example and Mayor Bloomberg will be an exception if he decides to run for President in 2012).

2.) Wealthy business interests feel entitled to take what they want, regardless of the damage they inflict on the American society.

This sense of entitlement is taking over our culture, and not just in politics.  When President Obama was holding a CNBC town hall discussion on September 20th, he was questioned by Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge-fund manager.  Scaramucci had this to say: “Listen, I represent the Wall Street community. We have felt like a piñata. Maybe you don’t feel like you’re whacking us with a stick, but we certainly feel like we’ve been whacked with a stick.”

President Obama responded by stating the following: “Now, I had been amused over the last couple years — this sense of somehow me beating up on Wall Street — I think most folks on Main Street feel like they got beat up on…I mean, when I hear folks who say that somehow we’re being too tough on Wall Street, but after a huge crisis, the top 25 hedge fund managers took home a billion dollars in income that year — $1 billion.”

Obama drew applause from the audience after this response.  However, his rhetoric has been compromised by his watered-down version of policy formation.  His economic team was largely composed of his predecessor’s team, George W. Bush.  Although Bush was in office when the TARP bailout was passed, both parties did not hold financial institutions accountable for creating the housing crisis and wiping out the pension plans of millions of Americans.

While many Americans are decrying “big government”, the real threat to our democracy is “big business” taking over our government.  While our government can threaten personal liberties (the Patriot Act) and wage unjust wars, large corporations have been writing our government’s laws and subverting the Constitution through the billions upon billions of dollars spent on campaign contributions.  In fact, over $4 billion was spent on this year’s midterm elections.  The midterm elections!  The Citizens United Supreme Court ruling now allows corporations and special interest groups to contribute unlimited amounts of cash to candidates or on attack ads.  According to a recent report by Public Citizen, the winners of 58 out of the 74 elections received more campaign contributions than the loser.  In other words, most of the incumbents who were voted out of office had less campaign money than their opponents.  

3.) Our government is now a plutocracy, not a democracy.

A plutocracy is a system of government that is ruled by the wealthy.  The fact that more money is being spent on elections than ever before in American history and that owners of media organizations such as FOX are donating millions of dollars to a political party are just two indicators of our plutocratic system.

A recent article written by Bill Moyers also points to the abuses of corporate power.  To make his point, Moyers reveals that “Between 2001 and 2008, about 40,000 US manufacturing plants closed. Six million factory jobs have disappeared over the past dozen years, representing one in three manufacturing jobs.”

Holding corporations accountable is difficult to do when the leaders of our government slash critical services that allow us to hold private businesses accountable.  According to an investigative report by The Center for Public Integrity, two of the 128 examples of executive branch failures since the year 2000 include: “26 percent of corporations holding at least $250 million in assets audited in 2006; Percent audited in 1990: more than 70 percent. IRS audit staff slashed by 30 percent; and, “275 largest corporations pay, on average, about 17 percent in taxes in 2007, half the standard corporate tax rate.”

So, as government leaders are lecturing us average Americans on being responsible and living within our means, they have allowed the wealthiest companies in the world to avoid paying taxes, to offshore corporate headquarters (tax loophole), and to outsource millions upon millions of jobs so these unpatriotic CEOs can increase their lucrative profits.

Moyers went on describing the influx of money being channeled into the political arena:

Rove, other conservative groups and the Chamber of Commerce have in fact created a ‘shadow party’ determined to be the real power in Washington just like Rome’s Opus Dei in Dan Brown’s ‘The DaVinci Code.’ In this shadow party the plutocrats reign. We have reached what the new chairman of Common Cause and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls ‘the perfect storm that threatens American democracy: 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.’

While I have refused to vote for either major party in presidential elections (I opted to vote for Nader in ’04 and ’08), many Americans are blinded by the differences between each major party.  While there are many substantial differences, one thing is clear: political candidates of both parties have enacted changes which continue to benefit the plutocrats, or the wealthiest one percent of Americans at the detriment of the 90% majority.

4.) Wealthy Politicians and their Wealthier Special Interest Donors Believe in Economic Darwinism.

Our political system has been criticized because most of our politicians are white males, with few females or minorities representing American interests.  While this criticism is warranted, there is another group that is not represented in our government.  This group, the middle class, is outnumbered by wealthy politicians who were former businessmen.  Some go as far as calling the Senate “the millionaires’ club”.  Where is the equal representation?

Former President George W. Bush, a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth, recently stated that his biggest regret during his two terms as president was failing to privatize Social Security.  I will say it again.  Our last leader, a man born into a wealthy family, wants to do away with a program that has protected millions and millions of elderly Americans who can no longer work.  This is not surprising, as most Republicans (and all Tea Party candidates) have campaigned on dismantling a social safety net that has benefitted lower and middle class Americans.  Bush could not carry this out during his presidency because a large majority of Americans reject this idea – as Social Security ensures that people can continue to take care of themselves after retiring.

Obviously, wealthy Americans who are born into a life of privilege do not need this safety net so they would rather do away with it, claiming that workers should control their own retirement plans – ultimately meaning that a person’s private account would be at the whims of the stock market.  If Bush had privatized this during his presidency, think of how many Americans would have lost much of their retirement after the stock market crash of 2007-2008.

The former Secretary of Labor under Clinton, Robert Reich, wrote an article in The Nation this past summer that further elaborated on the economic inequality that both parties are responsible for.  He summarized the following economic trends which have been implemented by both parties during the last 30 years:

Companies were allowed to slash jobs and wages, cut benefits and shift risks to employees (from you-can-count-on-it pensions to do-it-yourself 401(k)s, from good health coverage to soaring premiums and deductibles). They busted unions and threatened employees who tried to organize. The biggest companies went global with no more loyalty or connection to the United States than a GPS device. Washington deregulated Wall Street while insuring it against major losses, turning finance—which until recently had been the servant of American industry—into its master, demanding short-term profits over long-term growth and raking in an ever larger portion of the nation’s profits. And nothing was done to impede CEO salaries from skyrocketing to more than 300 times that of the typical worker (from thirty times during the Great Prosperity of the 1950s and ’60s), while the pay of financial executives and traders rose into the stratosphere.

While there is much justified confusion among citizens on who to trust, attacking “big government” without factoring in the role that lobbyists and corporate special interests play is very dangerous.  After all, government is made up of people.  If those people are easily corrupted and are more loyal to wealthy interests, then the majority of Americans will suffer.  Big government, so to speak, has given many rights to U.S. citizens through the Constitution, Amendments and Supreme Court rulings.  Recently, however, the President, Congress and the Supreme Court have sold-out to corporate interests and the financial titans on Wall Street.  The only way to bring about true change is through a mass movement.  The wealthiest few who have gamed the system against everyday Americans cannot stand up to a large percentage of angry Americans marching the streets and demanding true justice.  The question is not if this will happen, but when it will happen.

In his previously-mentioned article, Bill Moyers summarized a story his friend Michael Winship told him, in reference to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling which legalized unlimited campaign contributions from corporations:

“It seems the incorrigible George Bernard Shaw once propositioned a fellow dinner guest, asking if she would go to bed with him for a million pounds (today around $1,580,178 US dollars). She agreed. Shaw then asked if she would do the same for ten shillings. ‘What do you take me for?’ she asked angrily. ‘A prostitute?’ Shaw responded: ‘We’ve established the principle, Madam. Now we’re just haggling over the price.’”

Is there an analogy more suitable to our corrupted system of government than this?

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