Stealing America: Wealthy interests are taking over our political system
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If ever there was a moment for Americans to pay attention to the state of their democracy -- or what is left of it -- that time is now. As this country staggers out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the pathetic response from many political leaders has been coarse and irrational partisan attacks, and legislative gridlock.
Dysfunctional behavior is undermining America's role as a global leader and is laying the groundwork for crippling institutional failures.
In their new book, "Why Nations Fail," economists James Robinson from Harvard and Daron Acemoglu from MIT, answer the question with a one-word answer, "Politics."
What they mean is that prosperous, successful countries succeed because of their ability to develop "inclusive" systems designed to protect and strengthen their entire populations. Nations fail when their institutions become "extractive," designed to loot wealth for just a few.
In what reality are many of our legislative leaders living? It would seem to be a gated community where the sun always shines, people never get sick and everyone's children go to expensive private colleges.
To millions of Americans, the global environment of the 21st century is unfamiliar and frequently hostile. They long to return to a safer, more innocent time, when education and health care were affordable, jobs were plentiful and the outside world seemed farther away. It is a moment when thoughtful leadership is required to restore the country's social and economic balance.
Instead, the country is saturated with bitter and divisive partisan rhetoric designed to exploit the fears of a rapidly contracting middle class. Many politicians seem content to serve the interests of lobbyists and wealthy contributors. The consequence is a plutocratic form of government that weakens the country. It is profoundly undemocratic.
In the last few months we have witnessed GOP presidential debate audiences cheer appalling state execution rates, a person's right to die broke and uninsured, and indentured servitude for the nation's poor children.
These outbursts do not represent America's character; they reflect the cynical tactics of political operatives seeking to manipulate the electoral process.
In his 1964 article, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," historian Richard Hofstader wrote, "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority."
Today, these forces are no longer a small minority living on the fringes. They are heavily funded major players with the ability to paralyze the political system -- supported by right-wing media who live in an alternate reality unfettered by facts. They are aided by a "mainstream" media unwilling to push back -- wrapping themselves in the shroud of balanced reporting. Economist Paul Krugman mocked this philosophy as being the "centrist cop-out" when he joked, "If one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read 'Views Differ on Shape of Planet.' "
At the same time, we have lost our national sense of stewardship.
Over the last 80 years, Americans have survived the Great Depression, won a terrible World War, made significant progress in protecting the rights of minorities and women, supported landmark legislation enacting Social Security and Medicare, and implemented critical environmental protections. Today these achievements that defined America's character and won us the affection and respect of many countries around the world are under full-scale assault.
Our public dialogue has become infected with anger and fear, which is destroying our brilliantly designed governmental system of checks and balances. This system has prevented minorities from gaining tyrannical power. It has allowed heated debate and rational compromise. It has endowed the country with a remarkable ability to adapt politically, even when few of its citizens -- Republican or Democrat -- have been politically active.
When the Supreme Court anointed corporations with the privileges and powers of personhood in its 2010 Citizens United decision, it undermined our constitutional protections and threatened the legitimacy of our democracy. Ordinary citizens must now be constantly and intensively active to fight off wealthy, well-organized special interests.
These interests make up a minority that owns significant portions of the broadcast and electronic media and is now moving to solidify its control of the American government. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent in this election cycle by a handful of enormously wealthy Americans intending to exploit the political system and advance their own personal agendas.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, billionaire Mitt Romney supporter Ken Griffin, founder of the hedge fund Citadel, said that he believed he had "insufficient influence" on the political system and should be allowed to make unlimited donations to candidates and political action committees. To date, Mr. Griffin has contributed $200,000 to Mr. Romney's Restore Our Future super-PAC alone, which had raised $43.2 million as of Feb. 29. Private-equity and hedge-fund honchos have donated more than half of that amount. These executives anticipate a significant return on their investment because the reelection of President Barack Obama might mean higher taxes on America's wealthiest 1 percent.
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his book "Democracy in America" that "the position of Americans is quite exceptional." He marveled at a system that was not ruled by a sovereign, but was governed instead by America's large, industrious middle class. He worried, however, that our citizens could become so enamored with the pleasures of the present that they would forget about future generations. He feared the country would allow itself to be "led in ignorance by a despotic force all the more powerful because it did not resemble one."
Moving quietly at first, and now shamelessly, America's wealthy special interests and their allies with uncompromising views are taking over this country's political establishment. Yesterday's lunatic outliers now control the Republican Party and exert surprising influence over the Democrats. Distorting the words of our founding fathers, they prey on the fears of millions of frightened, angry Americans. Waging an ideological war that deeply divides the country, they deride government at every turn and undermine people's confidence in their democratic institutions. They are redefining America's spirit from one of generosity and concern to that of cold-blooded and destructive exploitation.
That is not who Americans are. We have always been admired for our boundless goodwill and almost naive sense of optimism. Even in the worst of times, we have had the courage to look after each other and our friends around the world. We are not predators. We are creators. These qualities in our national character have defined us for generations. We must not let them be taken away, and if we do, we might not be able to get them back.
First Published April 8, 2012 5:47 pm