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.

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The United States of America – A Graphic Narrative of Recent Socioeconomic Trends

[Graphs/images taken from a number of sources; all graphs/images are for educational purposes only]

During the post-World War II boom, economic growth was spread fairly equitably across the different income groups.  The economic philosophy most commonly followed during this time came from John Maynard Keynes, who believed that governments must practice deficit-spending, especially in times of recession, in order to promote full-employment. Keynesian economic philosophy influenced FDR’s New Deal programs and promoted the idea of government stimulus programs to create jobs.

From 1979 to the present day, the economic growth has mainly benefitted families with incomes over $75,000, particularly the richest 20% of the population.  During this same time period, the top tax brackets have seen their tax rates drop.  The main economic philosophy practiced by politicans, particularly Ronald Reagan, came from Milton Friedman and his seminal work Capitalism and Freedom. This supply-side theory promotes free enterprise and followers believe that government interference is ineffective and unnecessary (e.g. flat tax is better than progressive tax, government should not create jobs, etc…).  The only problem is that in practice this theory has been a failure for the bottom 80-90% of income earners (i.e. the vast majority of Americans).

[taken from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities]

If we focus on the growth of the wealthiest Americans, the income growth disparity is even more pronounced.  During the past thirty years the richest 1% saw their incomes increase by 232%, compared to a very modest 10% increase for the bottom 90%.