The Constitutional Apocalypse

At the Kentucky Capitol in January, union leaders addressed those protesting a Senate-approved bill making it illegal for workers to be required to join a union or pay dues to keep a job. (Photo: Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press)

 
As Trump vilifies the press, the courts, immigrants, Muslims, Democrats, protestors and anyone who disagrees with him, it isn’t hard to imagine a modern day Mussolini… or worse. But, an even greater threat lies in the Republican’s march towards full control of state government. If they get there, they will have the frightening power to amend the Constitution into their own authoritarian image… or Ayn Rand’s.Republicans now control 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships. They have majorities in both state legislative chambers as well as the governorships in 25 states. The Democrats have total control in only six states and legislative control in two more (see here).If Republicans achieve veto-proof control in 38 states, they can do something that has never been done before ― hold a constitutional convention, and then ratify new amendments that are put forth. To date all amendments have been initiated from Congress where two-thirds of both houses are required. In either case 38 states would be needed to ratify the amendments. The Republicans are well on their way.We know what they are likely to do: end collective bargaining, outlaw abortion, forbid progressive income, estate and Wall Street taxes; prohibit class action law suits, privatize social security, guarantee “free choice” in all school systems, and so on. They would do what they’ve always wanted to do ― outlaw the New Deal and its social democratic programs. And if they get crazy enough, they could end separation of church and state and undo other portions of the Bill of Rights.A paranoid fantasy? Just say President Trump.How did we get here?

Ask the corporate Democrats who have turned losing into an art form.

Since 2008, they have lost 917 state legislative seats. Explanations range from Koch brothers funding to gerrymandering, to voter suppression to the rise of the Tea Party. All partially true.

The Democrats also shoulder a good deal of the blame. Ever since Bill Clinton triangulated into NAFTA and away from working people, the Democratic party’s embrace of financial and corporate elites have become the norm.

Hillary Clinton took $225,000 per speech from Goldman Sachs not because she was corrupt. Rather, this is simply the way the political game is played. You raise money from rich people, and then you back away from attacking their prerogatives while still trying to placate your liberal/worker base. Getting rich along the way is to be expected.

But as economist Jamie Galbraith put it, ultimately it is not possible for the Democrats to be both the party of the predators and the prey.


The failure and rebirth of progressivism?

The amazing acts of resistance popping up all over prove that the progressive spark is alive and well. Even seniors at the Progressive Forum in Deerfield Beach, Florida are planning to put their bodies on the line to stop ICE raids.

While raising hell all over the country, we also should re-examine how our strategies and structures may have contributed to the rise of the right. After all, this electoral coup happened on our watch.

Silo Organizing

Here’s our working hypothesis for how progressives contributed to the rise of the right: We have failed to come out of our issue silos to build a national movement that directly confronts runaway inequality.

For more than a generation progressive organizations have shied away from big picture organizing around economic inequality. Instead we’ve constructed a dizzying array of issue silos ― environment, LBGQ, labor, immigration, women, people of color, criminal justice and so on. We are fractured into thousands of discreet issues, enabled by philanthropic foundations that are similarly siloed.

Few of our groups focused on the way Wall Street and corporate elites strip-mined the economy. Very few of us mobilized around the great crash. Few of us noticed as the CEO/worker income gap jumped from 45 to 1 in 1970 to an incredible 844 to 1 by 2015. We collectively missed how this growing economic inequality was causing and exacerbating nearly all of our silo issues.

We didn’t connect the dots.

Most importantly, we failed to grasp how runaway inequality was alienating millions of working people who saw their incomes decline, their communities whither and their young unable to find decent jobs.

While the Tea Party and the right had a clear message ― big government is bad ― progressives had little to say collectively about runaway inequality.

Enter Occupy Wall Street

By the summer of 2010, the progressive failure was painfully obvious. After Wall Street had robbed us blind and crashed the economy, a Democratic president was about to enter a “grand bargain” with the Republicans to promote austerity. Think about this: While Wall Street got bailed out in full, Obama and the Democrats were about to cut Social Security. Amazing.

Then out of nowhere came Occupy Wall Street. (Out of nowhere is correct because the actions did not originate from any of our progressive silos.) In six months there were 900 encampments around the world. Thankfully, “We are the 99%.” shifted the debate from austerity to inequality.

Unfortunately, Occupy believed in spontaneous political combustion and shunned any and all organizational structures and agendas. Social media, consensus decision making, horizontal anti-organizing, and anti-leadership were to carry the day. In six months they were gone.

Meanwhile the traditional progressive groups watched it rise and fall from the outside. We were spectators as we continued to press forward in our issue silos.

Enter Bernie Sanders

We got a second chance. Bernie Sanders, an independent socialist with a clear social democratic agenda, decided to challenge Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee. At first, few of us took him seriously. After all, he’d been around for 40 years, saying the same things but never gaining any traction outside of Vermont.

But like Occupy, he and his message hit a nerve, especially among the young and among disaffected working people who were entirely fed up with the corporate Democrats.

In a flash, Sanders did the impossible. He beat Hillary in several primaries. He drew much larger crowds. He even raised more money from small donors than the Clinton machine could raise from the rich. Progressive unions like the Communications Workers of America and National Nurses United went all in. For a few months the dream looked possible.

But too many other large unions and liberal issue groups committed early to Clinton, thinking she would win easily. That would allow them to gain more access for their issues and for themselves. Didn’t happen.

Trump toppled the Clinton machine in the Rust Belt. Some say he did so with a toxic combination of racism, sexism and xenophobia and that certainly was the case for a good portion of his vote. Others are certain that Comey and Putin made the difference.

But in the Rust Belt Trump won because he picked up millions of those who previously had voted for Obama and Sanders. It is highly likely that runaway inequality, and the trade deals that exacerbated it, defeated Clinton in the Democratic strongholds of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In Michigan alone Hillary received 500,000 fewer votes than Obama. (see here)

What now?

We need to turn the marvelous anti-Trump resistance into a common national movement to that binds us together and that directly confronts runaway inequality. We need to come out of our silos because nearly every issue we work on is connected by growing inequality.

Such a movement requires the following:

1. A common analysis and agenda: As we’ve written elsewhere, resisting Trump is not enough. We need a proactive agenda about what we want that goes beyond halting the Trump lunacy.

The Sanders campaign offered a bold social democratic agenda to young people in particular. Progressive should be able to build broad support around a Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street, free higher education, criminal justice reform, humane immigration policies, Medicare for All, fair trade, real action on climate change, and a guaranteed job at a living wage for all those willing and able.

2. A common national organization: A big problem. We have no equivalent to the Tea Party. We have no grand alliance that links unions, community, groups, churches and our issue silos. There are excellent websites like Indivisible that are successfully encouraging widespread resistance on the congressional level. But they consider themselves to be purely defensive against Trump.

There are hundreds of demonstrations popping up all over but no organizational glue to hold them together. There’s Our Revolution ― an outgrowth of the Sanders campaign ― that is still getting its sea legs. But to date we have no common center of gravity that is moving us forward organizationally.

Ideally we should all be able to become dues paying members of a national progressive alliance. We should be able to go from Paterson to Pensacola to Pomona and walk into similar meetings dedicated to fighting for our common agenda to reverse runaway inequality. Perhaps the hundreds of town hall meetings will head that way? It’s too early to tell.

3. An education infrastructure: The Populist movement of the late 19th century waged a fierce battle against Wall Street. It wanted public ownership of banks and railroads. It wanted livestock and grain cooperatives. It wanted a progressive income tax on the rich and public banks. The organization grew by fielding 6,000 educators to explain to small farmers, black and white, how the system was rigged against them and what they could do about it.

We need about 30,000 educators to hold similar discussions with our neighbors about runaway inequality, how it binds us together and what we can do about. (If you’re interested in getting involved see here.)

4. A new identity: Our toughest challenge. For 40 years we’ve been conditioned to the idea that runaway inequality is an immutable fact of life ― the inevitable result of automation, technology and competitive globalization. Along the way, neoliberal (free market) values shaped our awareness.

  • We accepted the idea that going to college meant massive debts for ourselves and our families;
  • That there was nothing abnormal about having the largest prison population in the entire world;
  • That it was part of the game to pay high deductibles, co-pays and premiums for health insurance;
  • That it was OK for the super-rich to hide their money off-shore;
  • That there was nothing to be done about chronic youth unemployment, both rural and urban, other than to try harder and pull themselves up;
  • That it was perfectly natural for a factories to pick up and flee to low wages areas with no environmental enforcement;
  • And that somehow private sector jobs, by definition, were more valuable to society than public ones.

These mental constraints have got to go. We got here as the result of deliberative policy choices, not by acts of God. We need to reclaim a basic truth: the economy should work for its people and not the other way around.

Most importantly, we have to relearn the art of movement building which starts in our own minds―we have to believe that it is both necessary and possible, and that each and every one can contribute to it.

We desperately need a new identity―movement builder.

Is this so difficult to imagine?

Les Leopold

Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute in New York is working with unions, worker centers and community organization to build a national economics educational campaign. His latest book, Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice (Oct 2015), is a text for that effort. All proceeds go to support this educational campaign. (Please like the Runaway Inequality page on Facebook.) His previous book is The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green/2009).

(Join Us! at Runaway Inequality: Resistance is breaking out all over. Millions are eager to help take back our country from the hard right. To get there, we need educators — thousands of them — to spread the word.) 


Loving America and Resisting Trump: The New Patriotism

By Frida Berrigan

So reality has inexorably, inescapably penetrated my life.  It didn’t take long. Yes, Donald Trump is actually the president of the United States. In that guise, in just his first weeks in office, he’s already declared war on language, on loving, on people who are different from him — on the kind of world, in short, that I want to live in. He’s promised to erect high walls, keep some people in and others out and lock up those he despises, while threatening to torture and abuse with impunity.

Still, a small personal miracle emerges from this nightmare. It turns out that, despite growing up an anarchist protest kid who automatically read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States alongside the official textbooks, I love this country more each day.  So I find myself eternally upset about our new political reality-show, about a man so thin-skinned he lashes out at everything and so insulated in his own alt-reality that no response to him seems to matter.

Above all, I am so mad. Yeah, I’m mad at all those people who voted for Trump and even madder at the ones who didn’t vote at all. I’m mad at everyone who thinks the sum total of their contribution to the political well-being of this country is voting every two or four years. I’m mad at our corporate-political system and how easily distracted people are. I’m steaming mad, but mostly at myself.

Yep, I’m mad at myself and at the Obamas. They made empire look so good! Their grace and intelligence, their obvious love for one another and the way they telegraphed a certain approachability and reasonableness. So attractive! They were fun — or at least they looked like that on social media. Michelle in the karaoke car with Missy Elliot singing Beyoncé and talking about global girls’ education! Barack and a tiny Superman at a White House Halloween party. Michelle, unapologetically fierce after Trump’s demeaning Access Hollywood comments came to light. I loved those Obamas, despite my politics and my analysis. I was supposed to resist all his efforts at world domination through drones and sweeping trade deals and instead I fell a little bit in love, even as I marched and fasted and tried to resist.

Falling in Love With My Country

Now, we have a new president. And my love is gone, along with my admiration, my pride, and my secret wish to attend a state dinner and chat with the Obamas over local wine and grass-fed beef sliders.

What’s not gone, though, what’s strangely stronger than ever, is my love for this country.

I didn’t love the United States under Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or Bush the First. I was a kid and they were names on protest banners and headlines in the news. My parents were the Catholic peace activists Liz McAlister and Phil Berrigan, and I grew up in an anarchist collective of Christian resisters. My parents and their friends went to jail repeatedly and resolutely. We demonstrated, rallied, and railed at every institution of power in Washington. Those presidents made the adults around me angry and agitated, so they scared me.

I didn’t love the United States under Bill Clinton either — I was young and in college and opposed to everything — nor under George W. Bush. I was young and in New York City and still opposed to almost everything.

I started calling myself a “New Yorker” three years after moving there when, on a sunny Tuesday morning, airplanes became weapons, tall towers fell, and 3,000 people died. I emerged from my routine subway ride at 14th Street, unaware and unscathed, to stand still with the rest of the city and watch the sky turn black. I spent the rest of that day in Manhattan with friends trying to reach my parents and following the news, as we all tried (and failed) to come to grips with the new reality. Once the bridges reopened, we walked home to Brooklyn that evening, terrified and shell-shocked.

9/11 provided the rationale for sweeping changes in Washington. War by fiat, paid for in emergency supplementals that circumvented Congressional processes; a new Department of Homeland Security (where did that word “homeland” even come from?); a proliferation of increasingly muscular intelligence agencies; and a new brand of “legal” scholarship that justified both torture and indefinite detention, while tucking secret black sites away in foreign countries. All this as the United States went to war against “terrorism” — against, that is, an idea, a fringe sentiment that, no matter how heavily weaponized, had been marginalized until the United States put it on the map by declaring “war” on it.

The U.S. then invaded and occupied big time, including a country that had nothing to do with the terrorists who had attacked us, and we’ve been at war ever since at a heavy cost — now inching toward $5 trillion. Conservative estimates of how many people have been killed in the many war zones of what used to be called the Global War on Terror is 1.3 to 2 million. The number of U.S. military personnel who have lost their lives is easier to put a number to:more than 7,000, but that doesn’t count private contractors (aka mercenaries), or those (far more difficult to quantify) who later committed suicide. Now, President Trump has begun adding to this bloody death toll, having ordered his first (disastrous) strike, a Special Operations raid on Yemen, which killed as many as 30 civilians, including children, and resulted in the death of an American Navy SEAL as well.

September 11th was a long time ago. But I finally fell in love with my country in the days following that awful attack. I saw for the first time a certain strain of patriotism that swept me away, a strain that says we are stronger together than alone, stronger than any blow that strikes us, stronger in our differences, stronger in our unities. I’m talking about the kind of patriotism that said: don’t you dare tell us to go to Disney World, Mr. President! (That was, of course, after George W. Bush had assured us that, while he made war, our response as citizens to 9/11 should be to “get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”)

Instead of heeding that lame advice, some of us went out and began to try to solve problems and build community. I had read about it in books — the labor movement of the 1920s and 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — but I hadn’t seen it myself, hadn’t been a part of it before, and I fell in love.

Of course, the drumbeat for war started instantly in Washington and was echoed throughout the nation, but many of us — the intended victims of that attack — said “our grief is not a cry for war.” We circled around the victims’ families; we reminded America that it wasn’t only lawyers and hedge-fund managers who died that day, but cooks and couriers and homeless people and undocumented immigrants, too.

We pulled people from the rubble.  We made the “pile” a place of sacred memory long before a huge monument and gift shop were erected there.  We honored the first responders who died, we stood up for Muslims and Arabs and all those whom ignorance scapegoated.  We marched against war in Afghanistan and then in far vaster numbers against war in Iraq.  We called for an international police response to those acts of terrorism — that weapon of the weak, not the powerful — instead of the unilateral, militarized approach adopted by the Bush administration. We celebrated, and saw as a strength, New York’s incredible diversity. We made art and music and poetry. We prayed in all languages to all the names of God.

The Donald, a One-Man 9/11

I guess I’ve been thinking about September 2001 again because, only weeks into his presidency, Donald Trump already seems like a one-man 9/11. He’s ridden roughshod over business as usual without even a geopolitical crisis or calamity as an excuse — and that’s not so surprising since Trump himself is that calamity.

With a razor-thin mandate, considerable bluster, and a voracious appetite for alt-facts (lies), he’s not so much tipping over the apple cart as declaring war on apples, carts, and anything else beginning with the letter A or C.

It seems almost that random and chaotic. In these weeks, he’s shown a particular appetite for upending convention, saying screw you to just about everyone and everything, while scrapping the rules of decorum and diplomacy. With a sweep of his pen and a toss of his hair, he takes away visas, nullifies months of work by advocates for refugees, and sends U.S. Special Forces off to kill and be killed. With a few twitches of his thumbs he baits Mexico, disses China, and throws shade at federal judges. With a few ill-chosen words about Black History month (comments that would have been better written by my 10 year old), he resurrects Frederick Douglass, disparages inner cities, and slams the “dishonest” media again (and again and again). His almost-month as president can be described as busy and brash, but it barely hides the banality of greed.

Flying Our Flag

Sure, Donald Trump’s a new breed, but perhaps in the end our resistance will make him the aberration he should be, rather than the new normal. So many of his acts are aimed at demeaning, degrading, demonizing, and denigrating, but he’s already failing — by driving so many of us to a new radical patriotism. I’m not the only one falling in love with this country again and this love looks like resistance — a resistance that, from the first moments of the Trump era, has seemed to be almost everywhere you looked.

Even at his inauguration, a group of young people stood on chairs wearing matching sweatshirts spelling out R-E-S-I-S-T in big letters. They had positioned themselves in the inner ring of the Capitol and were loud and visible as Chief Justice John Roberts swore the new president into office. The environmental group Greenpeace greeted Trump’s White House with a daring banner drop from a crane across the street — a huge, bright banner also emblazoned with RESIST. Pink woolen “pussy hats” were popularized by the Women’s March, a global event and possibly the largest demonstration in American history, one that rekindled our hope and strengthened our resolve on inauguration weekend. Now, those hats help us recognize and salute one another.

We’re working hard. We’re tying up the phone lines all over Capitol Hill, turning town halls into rowdy rallies for health care and human rights, shelling out money to support Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the immigration lawyers fighting for people barred from the U.S. and the closest Black Lives Matter chapter. We’re getting organized, getting trained, getting prepared, and getting connected. And we’re doing it all with a sense of humor: the Bowling Green Massacre Victims Fund? Priceless!

We are, in short, resisting in old ways and new.

Given my background, it’s no surprise that I’m not a flag waver. While growing up, I learned a lot more about what was wrong with my country than about what was right with it. But I’m seeing so much that’s right about it in this new Trump era of engagement or, if you prefer, call it radical patriotism. I’m mad… I’m scared… I’m hopeful… I’m still in love — more so than ever — with this country Trump is trying to hijack.

I don’t live in a big city any more. I’m not a scrappy kid in my early thirties either. I’m a mother of three kids and a homeowner. I’ve sunk my roots in a small, struggling, stalwart community along Connecticut’s eastern shoreline and I’m planning to live here for the rest of my life.

New London is a community of 27,000 or so, poor and diverse.  It’s almost a majority-minority community, in fact. We’re home to three refugee families settled from Syria and Sudan. We have a good school system, getting better all the time. Every Wednesday, the chefs at the middle school up the street from my house cook a meal, open the cafeteria, and invite the whole community to eat dinner for five dollars per person. I went with my girls a couple of weeks ago for Cajun shrimp stew and white rice. The room was full and the mood was high. Young professionals and hipsters with kids ate alongside folks who had just stood in line for an hour and a half for a free box of food from the United Way across the street and gotten a free meal coupon as well for their troubles.

New London’s mayor held a press conference soon after in the lobby of City Hall where the heads of all the city departments asserted their support for immigrants and refugees in our community. The last city council meeting was standing room only as people pushed an ordinance to keep fracking waste out of our area.

The weekend after the inauguration, my husband and I raised a flagpole on the second story porch of our house and hung a rainbow peace flag from it. I look up at it every morning waving in the breeze and I’m glad I live here, in this country, in this moment of radical upsurge and a new spirit of patriotism.

I’m talking to my neighbors. I’m going to city council meetings. I’m writing letters to the editor of our local paper. I’m taking my Sudanese neighbors grocery shopping and to the post office. I’m loaded for bear (nonviolently, of course) if anyone tries to mess with them.

american_rainbow_flags_thumbMy kids are the anti-Trumps. “We went to the women’s march in Hartford, Mommy,” two-year-old Madeline shouts every time she hears the word woman. She knows enough to be proud of that. “Look, Mommy! They have a flag like ours!” says four-year-old Seamus with delight whenever he sees another rainbow, even if it’s just a sticker. He’s learning to recognize our tribe of patriots.

We’re engaged, we’re awake, we’re in love, and no one is taking our country from us.


Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for WagingNonviolence.org, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood, and lives in New London, Connecticut.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Frida Berrigan


10 Films to Keep You Inspired After the Women’s March

Movies to remind you there’s hope in the fight for justice and equality.

By 
Reprinted from Yes! Magazine under a Creative Commons License

 

In the days since his inauguration, Donald Trump has given women around the country—and the world—new motivation to fight for equality.

After the Women’s March ended, which was estimated to be the largest peaceful demonstration in U.S. history, many were left wondering: Now what?

If you’re reading this, we’re confident there will be more marches, calls to senators, and civic engagement in your future. But in between those and the normal business of living, it’s important to stay inspired.

So we’ve compiled a list of films to do just that—inspire you, make you mad, and remind you that there’s hope in the fight for justice and equality.

1. 20th Century Women (2016)

When you want role models, or want to know how to raise a good feminist.

This film (in theaters now) follows an independent single mom, her teen son, and their housemates in 1979 Santa Barbara. When the mother, stellarly played by Annette Bening, asks her son’s girl friends to help him figure out how to grow into a man, they do their best, and end up teaching him to be a feminist in the process. It’s uplifting and honest.


2. Mustang (2015)

When you need an achingly beautiful reminder of why you’re fighting for equality.

Mustang follows five orphan sisters as they grow up in a conservative village in rural Turkey. Spirited and vivacious, they’re confined to their home as their family prepares to marry them off. It’s a good movie for anyone who wants to feel motivated to fight for women’s rights around the world.


3. Whale Rider (2002)

When you need to believe in the next generation of women leaders.

Set in New Zealand, Whale Rider is the story of a 12-year-old girl named Pai who knows she’s destined to be her tribe’s next chief. But in order to become their leader, she has to change the mind of her conservative grandfather, who believes the next chief can only be a man.


4. Miss Representation (2011)

When you want teen girls to understand that they are more than their pretty faces.

This documentary explores the ways in which American culture undermines women in power, and the way the media often reduces women to their appearance, rather than focusing on their substance. While some trappings of this film already feel a little dated (flip phones are featured in the opening scenes), the message and content are, unfortunately, not dated at all.


5. Sisters in Law (2005)

When you want to be inspired by brave women’s work for justice.

Two women magistrates in Cameroon work for justice and heal their community as they handle cases of those who have been neglected, abused, and raped. A documentary tear-jerker.


6. Frida (2002)

For anyone striving to find their own voice and live unapologetically, despite great obstacles.

Based on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, this biopic follows the painter through the dramatic ups and downs of her life. Kahlo, played by Salma Hayek, must overcome a debilitating childhood accident and fight for her own place in the art world when many overlook her in favor of her famous husband, muralist Diego Rivera. Despite the challenges she faces, Kahlo lives with unapologetic verve and passion—and does things her own way until the end.


7. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (2014)

When girls want a role model who defends her community, fights for survival, and wins.

In this post-apocalyptic world, a cruel gladiatorial game pits teens against one another in a fight to the death. Everyone expects Katniss Everdeen, a girl from the country’s poorest district, to lose. But her bravery and love of family and friends disrupt her world’s cruel social order.


8. Saving Face (2004)

When you’re having a hard time with family members who have different views from you.

This film follows a young Chinese-American surgeon, Wil, who’s scared to come out to her mother and her community. But when her mom becomes pregnant by an unknown man and comes to live with Wil, the two must bridge the gap between them with honesty, understanding, and love.


9. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

When you want to imagine that a post-apocalyptic future could still hold hope.

This film might be named after a guy, but it’s the women in this movie who steal the show, especially Charlize Theron, who plays badass desert renegade Imperator Furiosa. Over the course of the film, she and other brave women go from prisoners to revolutionaries, overturning a scary despot and fighting for a new reign of respect for the earth.


10. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

When you want to get angry about gender injustice.

Based on a real-life story, this film follows a transgender man named Brandon Teena who goes to Nebraska to make a life for himself. Along the way, he finds love but struggles to live in the midst of other people’s hatred and prejudice when they realize he was assigned female at birth. This tragic story reminds us that the fight for gender equality—for all—is far from over.

Producing in-depth, thoughtful journalism for a better world is expensive – but supporting us isn’t. If you value ad-free independent journalism,consider subscribing to YES! today.

Breena Kerr wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Breena is a writer and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about feminism, social justice, crime, science, travel, psychology, gender, and sexuality. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, Vice, the Baltimore Sun, Teen Vogue, The Wisdom Daily, and many others.

Hope In Dark Times

“Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.”

From Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope In The Dark

Hope_In_The_Dark


Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage

[Editor’s Note: An essay from 2003, with a  bit of history and a message more urgent today than ever]
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com

By Tom Engelhardt at 3:47am, May 19, 2003.

hopeYou know how, out of the blue, someone can walk into your life? Sometimes, for a book editor, a manuscript walks in the same way. Sometimes, for a reader, a voice drifts in.

It happened to me recently, and it was the voice of Rebecca Solnit, arriving enfolded in an essay about hope. Hope and consequences, you might say. It seemed to have everything in it I’ve been wanting to say (but, for whatever reason, couldn’t) – or rather everything I’ve been feeling all of us needed to hear and hadn’t.

“Activism,” Solnit writes, “is not a journey to the corner store; it is a plunge into the dark.” Exactly. And history, she adds, “is like weather, not like checkers. A game of checkers ends. The weather never does.” At the end of a game, she might have added, it’s so simple. You tote up the score, sort out the winners and losers, close up the board, and go on to something else. At a pause in history, as at present, if you tote up the score, close up the board, and go home, you’re making a disastrous mistake.

A lot of the antiwar movement has done that in the wake of our second Iraq war. And I don’t blame them. All those people marching. All that opposition. And still a war — and look at the opinion polls now! But what’s so beautiful about Solnit’s piece, the gorgeous writing aside, is that she wants us to stop adding up the score in that game-like way. She wants us to acknowledge the darkness of our moment and our world, but also realize that the score isn’t in, that it can’t be known. Not ever. Not really. And then she wants us to make a wager, to take that leap into the dark, and bet on hope. She wants that because we simply can’t know the consequences of our acts, a point she makes with particular grace.

The pleasure of having a weblog is that — thanks, in this case, to the kindness of an author and a magazine — I can share with you the experience of that unexpected stranger entering the room. Solnit, an activist (environmental and antinuclear) as well as a writer, is the author most recently of River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. But as for myself, I’m now reading an older book of hers, a beauty called Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West about, among other things, our dress rehearsals for Armageddon, those atomic tests our government carried out above and then under the Nevada desert from the 1950s into the 1990s (tests the Bush administration wants to start up again).

Solnit is also a columnist for Orion, a twenty-one year old environmental magazine that describes its task as exploring “an emerging alternative worldview. Informed by a growing ecological awareness and the need for cultural change, it is a forum for thoughtful and creative ideas and practical examples of how we might live justly, wisely, and artfully on Earth.” Orion, which has already posted “Acts of Hope” at its site, and Solnit have together given me permission to publish it as well. It’s important. Please do read it and share it widely.Tom

Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage
By Rebecca Solnit

What We Hope For

On January 18, 1915, eighteen months into the first world war, the first terrible war in the modern sense — slaughter by the hundreds of thousands, poison gas, men living and dying in the open graves of trench warfare, tanks, barbed wire, machine guns, airplanes — Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. People imagine the end of the world is nigh because the future is unimaginable. Who twenty years ago would have pictured a world without the USSR and with the Internet? We talk about “what we hope for” in terms of what we hope will come to pass but we could think of it another way, as why we hope. We hope on principle, we hope tactically and strategically, we hope because the future is dark, we hope because it’s a more powerful and more joyful way to live. Despair presumes it knows what will happen next. But who, two decades ago, would have imagined that the Canadian government would give a huge swathe of the north back to its indigenous people, or that the imprisoned Nelson Mandela would become president of a free South Africa?

Twenty-one years ago this June, a million people gathered in Central Park to demand a nuclear freeze. They didn’t get it. The movement was full of people who believed they’d realize their goal in a few years and then go home. Many went home disappointed or burned out. But in less than a decade, major nuclear arms reductions were negotiated, helped along by European antinuclear movements and the impetus they gave Gorbachev. Since then, the issue has fallen off the map and we have lost much of what was gained. The US never ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Bush administration is planning to resume the full-fledged nuclear testing halted in 1991, to resume manufacture, to expand the arsenal, and perhaps even to use it in once-proscribed ways.

It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect. I once read an anecdote by someone in Women Strike for Peace, the first great antinuclear movement in the United States in 1963, the one that did contribute to a major victory: the end of aboveground nuclear testing with its radioactive fallout that was showing up in mother’s milk and baby teeth. She told of how foolish and futile she felt standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House. Years later she heard Dr. Benjamin Spock — one of the most high-profile activists on the issue then — say that the turning point for him was seeing a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration himself.

Unending Change

A lot of activists expect that for every action there is an equal and opposite and punctual reaction, and regard the lack of one as failure. After all, activism is often a reaction: Bush decides to invade Iraq, we create a global peace movement in which 10 to 30 million people march on seven continents on the same weekend. But history is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent. It’s a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect. Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary. And though huge causes sometimes have little effect, tiny ones occasionally have huge consequences.

Some years ago, scientists attempted to create a long-range weather forecasting program, assuming that the same initial conditions would generate the same weather down the road. It turned out that the minutest variations, even the undetectable things, things they could perhaps not yet even imagine as data, could cause entirely different weather to emerge from almost identical initial conditions. This was famously summed up as the saying about the flap of a butterfly’s wings on one continent that can change the weather on another.

History is like weather, not like checkers. A game of checkers ends. The weather never does. That’s why you can’t save anything. Saving is the wrong word. Jesus saves and so do banks: they set things aside from the flux of earthly change. We never did save the whales, though we might’ve prevented them from becoming extinct. We will have to continue to prevent that as long as they continue not to be extinct. Saving suggests a laying up where neither moth nor dust doth corrupt, and this model of salvation is perhaps why Americans are so good at crisis response and then going home to let another crisis brew. Problems seldom go home. Most nations agree to a ban on hunting endangered species of whale, but their oceans are compromised in other ways. DDT is banned in the US, but exported to the third world, and Monsanto moves on to the next atrocity.

The world gets better. It also gets worse. The time it will take you to address this is exactly equal to your lifetime, and if you’re lucky you don’t know how long that is. The future is dark. Like night. There are probabilities and likelihoods, but there are no guarantees.

As Adam Hochschild points out, from the time the English Quakers first took on the issue of slavery, three quarters of a century passed before it was abolished it in Europe and America. Few if any working on the issue at the beginning lived to see its conclusion, when what had once seemed impossible suddenly began to look, in retrospect, inevitable. And as the law of unintended consequences might lead you to expect, the abolition movement also sparked the first widespread women’s rights movement, which took about the same amount of time to secure the right to vote for American women, has achieved far more in the subsequent 83 years, and is by no means done. Activism is not a journey to the corner store; it is a plunge into the dark.

Writers understand that action is seldom direct. You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them, or they might just rot. In California, some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire. Sharon Salzberg, in her book Faith, recounts how she put together a book of teachings by the Buddhist monk U Pandita and consigned the project to the “minor-good-deed category.” Long afterward, she found out that when Burmese democracy movement’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was kept isolated under house arrest by that country’s dictators, the book and its instructions in meditation “became her main source of spiritual support during those intensely difficult years.” Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Walter Benjamin and Arthur Rimbaud, like Henry David Thoreau, achieved their greatest impact long after their deaths, long after weeds had grown over the graves of the bestsellers of their times. Gandhi’s Thoreau-influenced nonviolence was as important in the American South as it was in India, and what transpired with Martin Luther King’s sophisticated version of it has influenced civil disobedience movements around the world. Decades after their assassinations they are still with us.

At the port of Oakland, California, on April 7, several hundred peace activists came out at dawn to picket the gates of a company shipping arms to Iraq. The longshoreman’s union had vowed not to cross our picket. The police arrived in riot gear and, unprovoked and unthreatened, began shooting wooden bullets and beanbags of shot at the activists. Three members of the media, nine longshoremen, and fifty activists were injured. I saw the bloody welts the size of half grapefruits on the backs of some of the young men–they had been shot in the back — and a swelling the size of an egg on the jaw of a delicate yoga instructor. Told that way, violence won. But the violence inspired the union dock workers to form closer alliances with antiwar activists and underscored the connections between local and global issues. On May 12 we picketed again, with no violence. This time, the longshoremen acted in solidarity with the picketers and — for the first time in anyone’s memory — the shipping companies cancelled the work shift rather than face the protesters. Told that way, the story continues to unfold, and we have grown stronger. And there’s a third way to tell it. The picket stalled a lot of semi trucks. Some of the drivers were annoyed. Some sincerely believed that the war was a humanitarian effort. Some of them — notably a group of South Asian drivers standing around in the morning sun looking radiant — thought we were great. After the picket was broken up, one immigrant driver honked in support and pulled over to ask for a peace sign for his rig. I stepped forward to pierce holes into it so he could bungee-cord it to the chrome grille. We talked briefly, shook hands, and he stepped up into the cab. He was turned back at the gates –they weren’t accepting deliveries from antiwar truckers. When I saw him next he was sitting on a curb all alone behind police lines, looking cheerful and fearless. Who knows what will ultimately come of the spontaneous courage of this man with a job on the line?

Victories of the New Peace Movement

It was a setup for disappointment to expect that there would be an acknowledged cause and effect relationship between the antiwar actions and the Bush administration. On the other hand… • We will likely never know, but it seems that the Bush administration decided against the “Shock and Awe” saturation bombing of Baghdad because we made it clear that the cost in world opinion and civil unrest would be too high. We millions may have saved a few thousand or a few hundred thousand lives.

• The global peace movement was grossly underreported on February 15th. A million people marching in Barcelona was nice, but I also heard about the thousands in Chapel Hill, NC, the hundred and fifty people holding a peace vigil in the small town of Las Vegas, NM, the antiwar passion of people in even smaller villages from Bolivia to Thailand.

• Activists are often portrayed as an unrepresentative, marginal rabble, but something shifted in the media last fall. Since then, antiwar activists have mostly been represented as a diverse, legitimate, and representative body, a watershed victory for our representation and our long-term prospects.

• Many people who had never spoken out, never marched in the street, never joined groups, written to politicians, or donated to campaigns, did so; countless people became political as never before. That is, if nothing else, a vast aquifer of passion now stored up to feed the river of change. New networks and communities and websites and listserves and jail solidarity groups and coalitions arose.

• In the name of the so-called war on terror, which seems to inculcate terror at home and enact it abroad, we have been encouraged to fear our neighbors, each other, strangers, (particularly middle-eastern, Arab, and Moslem people), to spy on them, to lock ourselves up, to privatize ourselves. By living out our hope and resistance in public together with strangers of all kinds, we overcame this catechism of fear, we trusted each other; we forged a community that bridged all differences among the peace loving as we demonstrated our commitment to the people of Iraq.

• We achieved a global movement without leaders. There were many brilliant spokespeople, theorists and organizers, but when your fate rests on your leader, you are only as strong, as incorruptible, and as creative as he — or, occasionally, she — is. What could be more democratic than millions of people who, via the grapevine, the Internet, and various groups from churches to unions to direct-action affinity groups, can organize themselves? Of course leaderless actions and movements have been organized for the past couple of decades, but never on such a grand scale. The African writer Laurens Van Der Post once said that no great new leaders were emerging because it was time for us to cease to be followers. Perhaps we have.

• We succeeded in doing what the anti-Vietnam War movement infamously failed to do: to refuse the dichotomies. We were able to oppose a war on Iraq without endorsing Saddam Hussein. We were able to oppose a war with compassion for the troops who fought it. Most of us did not fall into the traps that our foreign policy so often does and that earlier generations of radicals did: the ones in which our enemy’s enemy is our friend, in which the opponent of an evil must be good, in which a nation and its figurehead, a general and his troops, become indistinguishable. We were not against the US and for Iraq; we were against the war, and many of us were against all war, all weapons of mass destruction — even ours — and all violence, everywhere. We are not just an antiwar movement. We are a peace movement.

• Questions the peace and anti-globalization movements have raised are now mainstream, though no mainstream source will say why, or perhaps even knows why. Activists targeted Bechtel, Halliburton, Chevron and Lockheed Martin, among others, as war profiteers with ties to the Bush administration. The actions worked not by shutting the places down in any significant way but by making their operations a public question. Direct action seldom works directly, but now the media scrutinizes those corporations as never before. Representative Henry Waxman publicly questioned Halliburton’s ties to terrorist states the other day, and the media is closely questioning the administration’s closed-door decision to award Halliburton, the company vice-president Cheney headed until he took office, a $7 billion contract to administer Iraqi oil. These are breakthroughs.

The Angel of Alternate History

American history is dialectical. What is best about it is called forth by what is worst. The abolitionists and the underground railroad, the feminist movement and the civil rights movement, the environmental and human rights movements were all called into being by threats and atrocities. There’s plenty of what’s worst afoot nowadays. But we need a progressive activism that is not one of reaction but of initiation, one in which people of good will everywhere set the agenda. We need to extend the passion the war brought forth into preventing the next one, and toward addressing all the forms of violence besides bombs. We need a movement that doesn’t just respond to the evils of the present but calls forth the possibilities of the future. We need a revolution of hope. And for that we need to understand how change works and how to count our victories.

While serving on the board of Citizen Alert, a Nevada nonprofit environmental and antinuclear group, I once wrote a fundraising letter modeled after “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Frank Capra’s movie is a model for radical history, because what the angel Clarence shows the suicidal George Bailey is what the town would look like if he hadn’t done his best for his neighbors. This angel of alternate history shows not what happened but what didn’t, and that’s what’s hardest to weigh. Citizen Alert’s victories were largely those of what hadn’t happened to the air, the water, the land, and the people of Nevada. And the history of what the larger movements have achieved is largely one of careers undestroyed, ideas uncensored, violence and intimidation uncommitted, injustices unperpetrated, rivers unpoisoned and undammed, bombs undropped, radiation unleaked, poisons unsprayed, wildernesses unviolated, countryside undeveloped, resources unextracted, species unexterminated.

I was born during the summer the Berlin Wall went up, into a country in which there weren’t even words, let alone redress, for many of the practices that kept women and people of color from free and equal citizenship, in which homosexuality was diagnosed as a disease and treated as a crime, in which the ecosystem was hardly even a concept, in which extinction and pollution were issues only a tiny minority heeded, in which “better living through chemistry” didn’t yet sound like black humor, in which the US and USSR were on hair-trigger alert for a nuclear Armageddon, in which most of the big questions about the culture had yet to be asked. It was a world with more rainforest, more wild habitat, more ozone layer, and more species; but few were defending those things then. An ecological imagination was born and became part of the common culture only in the past few decades, as did a broader and deeper understanding of human diversity and human rights.

The world gets worse. It also gets better. And the future stays dark.

Nobody knows the consequences of their actions, and history is full of small acts that changed the world in surprising ways. I was one of thousands of activists at the Nevada Test Site in the late 1980s, an important, forgotten history still unfolding out there where the US and UK have exploded more than a thousand nuclear bombs, with disastrous effects on the environment and human health, (and where the Bush Administration would like to resume testing, thereby sabotaging the unratified Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty). We didn’t shut down our test site, but our acts inspired the Kazakh poet Olzhas Suleimenov, on February 27, 1989, to read a manifesto instead of poetry on live Kazakh TV — a manifesto demanding a shutdown of the Soviet nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, and calling a meeting. Five thousand Kazakhs gathered at the Writer’s Union the next day and formed a movement to shut down the site. They named themselves the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement.

The Soviet Test Site was indeed shut down. Suleimenov was the catalyst, and though we in Nevada were his inspiration, what gave him his platform was his poetry in a country that loved poets. Perhaps Suleimenov wrote all his poems so that one day he could stand up in front of a TV camera and deliver not a poem but a manifesto. And perhaps Arundhati Roy wrote a ravishing novel that catapulted her to stardom so that when she stood up to oppose dams and destruction of the local for the benefit of the transnational, people would notice. Or perhaps these writers opposed the ravaging of the earth so that poetry too — poetry in the broadest sense — would survive in the world.

American poets became an antiwar movement themselves when Sam Hamill declined an invitation to Laura Bush’s “Poetry and the American Voice” symposium shortly after her husband’s administration announced their “Shock and Awe” plan, and he circulated his letter of outrage. His e-mail box filled up, he started www.poetsagainstthewar.org, to which about 11,000 poets have submitted poems to date. Hamill became a major spokesperson against the war and his website has become an organizing tool for the peace movement.

Not Left But Forward

The glum traditional left often seems intent upon finding the cloud around every silver lining. This January, when Governor Ryan of Illinois overturned a hundred and sixty-seven death sentences, there were left-wing commentators who found fault with the details, carped when we should have been pouring champagne over our heads like football champs. And joy is one of our weapons and one of our victories. Non-activists sometimes chide us for being joyous at demonstrations, for having fun while taking on the serious business of the world, but in a time when alienation, isolation, and powerlessness are among our principal afflictions, just being out in the streets en masse is not a demand for victory: it is a victory.

But there’s an increasing gap between this new movement with its capacity for joy and the old figureheads. Their grumpiness is often the grumpiness of perfectionists who hold that anything less than total victory is failure, a premise that makes it easy to give up at the start or to disparage the victories that are possible. This is earth. It will never be heaven. There will always be cruelty, always be violence, always be destruction. There is tremendous devastation now. In the time it takes you to read this, acres of rainforest will vanish, a species will go extinct, women will be raped, men shot, and far too many children will die of easily preventable causes. We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its source and foundation: these are victories.

Nearly everyone felt, after September 11, 2001, along with grief and fear, a huge upwelling of idealism, of openness, of a readiness to question and to learn, a sense of being connected and a desire to live our lives for something more, even if it wasn’t familiar, safe, or easy. Nothing could have been more threatening to the current administration, and they have done everything they can to repress it.

But that desire is still out there. It’s the force behind a huge new movement we don’t even have a name for yet, a movement that’s not a left opposed to a right, but perhaps a below against above, little against big, local and decentralized against consolidated. If we could throw out the old definitions, we could recognize where the new alliances lie; and those alliances — of small farmers, of factory workers, of environmentalists, of the poor, of the indigenous, of the just, of the farseeing — could be extraordinarily powerful against the forces of corporate profit and institutional violence. Left and right are terms for where the radicals and conservatives sat in the French National Assembly after the French Revolution. We’re not in that world anymore, let alone that seating arrangement. We’re in one that for all its ruins and poisons and legacies is utterly new. Anti-globalization activists say, “Another world is possible.” It is not only possible, it is inevitable; and we need to participate in shaping it.

I’m hopeful, partly because we don’t know what is going to happen in that dark future and we might as well live according to our principles as long as we’re here. Hope, the opposite of fear, lets us do that. Imagine the world as a lifeboat: the corporations and the current administration are smashing holes in it as fast (or faster) than the rest of us can bail or patch the leaks. But it’s important to take account of the bailers as well as the smashers and to write epics in the present tense rather than elegies in the past tense. That’s part of what floats this boat. And if it sinks, we all sink, so why not bail? Why not row? The reckless Bush Administration seems to be generating what US administrations have so long held back: a world in which the old order is shattered and anything is possible.

Zapatista spokesman Subcommandante Marcos adds, “History written by Power taught us that we had lost…. We did not believe what Power taught us. We skipped class when they taught conformity and idiocy. We failed modernity. We are united by the imagination, by creativity, by tomorrow. In the past we not only met defeat but also found a desire for justice and the dream of being better. We left skepticism hanging from the hook of big capital and discovered that we could believe, that it was worth believing, that we should believe — in ourselves. Health to you, and don’t forget that flowers, like hope, are harvested.”

And they grow in the dark. “I believe,” adds Thoreau, “in the forest, and the meadow, and the night in which the corn grows.”


 

This article first appeared on OrionOnline.org. To see Orion magazine’s illustrated version of the piece click here.

Or if you would simply like to sample Orion’s website, go to www.oriononline.org.


The Sometimes Huge Power Of Small Acts of Resistance

small_actsWe were not among the millions of people who took to the streets of the world yesterday, in the most inspiring outburst of protest in my long lifetime … against everything vile that Donald Trump stands for.

If you were among the demonstrators, I’m inclined to ask you: Did you feel like a small part of a great movement, or a great part of a great movement?

Did it feel — from the inside — as powerful as it looked from the outside?

If you are in doubt — as I have sometimes been about my own activism — about the effectiveness of your small action, consider this beautiful bit of history by Rebecca Solnit, the best writer on hope at work in the world today, in her collection of essays, “Hope In The Dark“:

Twenty-one years ago this June, a million people gathered in Central Park to demand a nuclear freeze. They didn’t get it. The movement was full of people who believed they’d realize their goal in a few years and then go home. Many went home disappointed or burned out. But in less than a decade, major nuclear arms reductions were negotiated, helped along by European antinuclear movements and the impetus they gave Gorbachev. Since then, the issue has fallen off the map and we have lost much of what was gained. The US never ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Bush administration is planning to resume the full-fledged nuclear testing halted in 1991, to resume manufacture, to expand the arsenal, and perhaps even to use it in once-proscribed ways.

It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect. I once read an anecdote by someone in Women Strike for Peace, the first great antinuclear movement in the United States in 1963, the one that did contribute to a major victory: the end of aboveground nuclear testing with its radioactive fallout that was showing up in mother’s milk and baby teeth. She told of how foolish and futile she felt standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House. Years later she heard Dr. Benjamin Spock — one of the most high-profile activists on the issue then — say that the turning point for him was seeing a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration himself.

Never question your commitment, or the value of even your smallest acts and gestures in the service of your beliefs.

 


It Can Happen Here (In Fact, It Did!)

By Tom Engelhardt

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com

Know thyself. It was what came to mind in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory and my own puzzling reaction to it. And while that familiar phrase just popped into my head, I had no idea it was so ancient, or Greek, or for that matter a Delphic maxim inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo according to the Greek writer Pausanias (whom I’d never heard of until I read his name in Wikipedia). Think of that as my own triple helix of ignorance extending back to… well, my birth in a very different America 72 years ago.

Anyway, the simple point is that I didn’t know myself half as well as I imagined.  And I can thank Donald Trump for reminding me of that essential truth.  Of course, we can never know what’s really going on inside the heads of all those other people out there on this curious planet of ours, but ourselves as strangers?  I guess if I were inscribing something in the forecourt of my own Delphic temple right now, it might be: Who knows me? (Not me.)

Consider this my little introduction to a mystery I stumbled upon in the early morning hours of our recent election night that hasn’t left my mind since.  I simply couldn’t accept that Donald Trump had won. Not him. Not in this country. Not possible. Not in a million years.

Mind you, during the campaign I had written about Trump repeatedly, always leaving open the possibility that, in the disturbed (and disturbing) America of 2016, he could indeed beat Hillary Clinton.  That was a conclusion I lost when, in the final few weeks of the campaign, like so many others, I got hooked on the polls and the pundits who went with them. (Doh!)

In the wake of the election, however, it wasn’t shock based on pollsters’ errors that got to me.  It was something else that only slowly dawned on me.  Somewhere deep inside, I simply didn’t believe that, of all countries on this planet, the United States could elect a narcissistic, celeb billionaire who was also, in the style of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, a right-wing “populist” and incipient autocrat.

Plenty of irony lurked in that conviction, which outlasted the election and so reality itself.  In these years, I’ve written critically of the way just about every American politician but Donald Trump has felt obligated to insist that this is an “exceptional” or “indispensable” nation, “the greatest country” on the planet, not to speak of in history.  (And throw in as well the claim of recent presidents and so many others that the U.S. military represents the “greatest fighting force” in that history.)  President Obama, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John McCain — it didn’t matter.  Every one of them was a dutiful or enthusiastic American exceptionalist.  As for Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, she hit the trifecta plus one in a speech she gave to the American Legion’s national convention during the campaign.  In it, she referred to the United States as “the greatest country on Earth,” “an exceptional nation,” and “the indispensable nation” that, of course, possessed “the greatest military” ever.  (“My friends, we are so lucky to be Americans. It is an extraordinary blessing.”)  Only Trump, with his “make America great again,” slogan seemed to admit to something else, something like American decline.

Post-election, here was the shock for me: it turned out that I, too, was an American exceptionalist.  I deeply believed that our country was simply too special for The Donald, and so his victory sent me on an unexpected journey back into the world of my childhood and youth, back into the 1950s and early 1960s when (despite the Soviet Union) the U.S. really did stand alone on the planet in so many ways. Of course, in those years, no one had to say such things.  All those greatests, exceptionals, and indispensables were then dispensable and the recent political tic of insisting on them so publicly undoubtedly reflects a defensiveness that’s a sign of something slipping.

Obviously, in those bedrock years of American power and strength and wealth and drive and dynamism (and McCarthyism, and segregation, and racism, and smog, and…), the very years that Donald Trump now yearns to bring back, I took in that feeling of American specialness in ways too deep to grasp.  Which was why, decades later, when I least expected it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it couldn’t happen here.  In actuality, the rise to power of Trumpian figures — Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia — has been a dime-a-dozen event elsewhere and now looks to be a global trend.  It’s just that I associated such rises with unexceptional, largely tinpot countries or ones truly down on their luck.

So it’s taken me a few hard weeks to come to grips with my own exceptionalist soul and face just how Donald Trump could — indeed did — happen here.

It Can Happen Here

So how did it happen here?

Let’s face it: Donald Trump was no freak of nature.  He only arrived on the scene and took the Electoral College (if not the popular vote) because our American world had been prepared for him in so many ways.  As I see it, at least five major shifts in American life and politics helped lay the groundwork for the rise of Trumpism:

* The Coming of a 1% Economy and the 1% Politics That Goes With It: A singular reality of this century has been the way inequality became embedded in American life, and how so much money was swept ever upwards into the coffers of 1% profiteers.  Meanwhile, a yawning gap grew between the basic salaries of CEOs and those of ordinary workers.  In these years, as I’m hardly the first to point out, the country entered a new gilded age.  In other words, it was already a Mar-a-Lago moment before The Donald threw his hair into the ring.

Without the arrival of casino capitalism on a massive scale (at which The Donald himself proved something of a bust), Trumpism would have been inconceivable.  And if, in its Citizens United decision of 2010, the Supreme Court hadn’t thrown open the political doors quite so welcomingly to that 1% crew, how likely was it that a billionaire celebrity would have run for president or become a favorite among the white working class?

Looked at a certain way, Donald Trump deserves credit for stamping the true face of twenty-first-century American plutocracy on Washington by selecting mainly billionaires and multimillionaires to head the various departments and agencies of his future government.  After all, doesn’t it seem reasonable that a 1% economy, a 1% society, and a 1% politics should produce a 1% government?  Think of what Trump has so visibly done as American democracy’s version of truth in advertising.  And of course, if billionaires hadn’t multiplied like rabbits in this era, he wouldn’t have had the necessary pool of plutocrats to choose from.

Something similar might be said of his choice of so many retired generals and other figures with significant military backgrounds (ranging from West Point graduates to a former Navy SEAL) for key “civilian” positions in his government. Think of that, too, as a truth-in-advertising moment leading directly to the second shift in American society.

* The Coming of Permanent War and an Ever More Militarized State and Society: Can there be any question that, in the 15-plus years since 9/11, what was originally called the “Global War on Terror” has become a permanent war across the Greater Middle East and Africa (with collateral damage from Europe to the Philippines)?  In those years, staggering sums of money — beyond what any other country or even collection of countries could imagine spending — has poured into the U.S. military and the arms industry that undergirds it and monopolizes the global trade in weaponry.  In the process, Washington became a war capital and the president, as Michelle Obama indicated recently when talking about Trump’s victory with Oprah Winfrey, became, above all, the commander in chief.  (“It is important for the health of this nation,” she told Winfrey, “that we support the commander in chief.”)  The president’s role in wartime had, of course, always been as commander in chief, but now that’s the position many of us vote for (and even newspapers endorse), and since war is so permanently embedded in the American way of life, Donald Trump is guaranteed to remain that for his full term.

And the role has expanded strikingly in these years, as the White House gained the power to make war in just about any fashion it chose without significant reference to Congress.  The president now has his own air force of drone assassins to dispatch more or less anywhere on the planet to take out more or less anyone.  At the same time, cocooned inside the U.S. military, an elite, secretive second military, the Special Operations forces, has been expanding its personnel, budget, and operations endlessly and its most secretive element, the Joint Special Operations Command, might even be thought of as the president’s private army.

Meanwhile, the weaponry and advanced technology with which this country has been fighting its never-ending (and remarkably unsuccessful) conflicts abroad — from Predator drones to the Stingray that mimics a cell phone tower and so gets nearby phones to connect to it — began migrating home, as America’s borders and police forces were militarized.  The police have been supplied with weaponry and other equipment directly off the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, while veterans from those wars have joined the growing set of SWAT teams, the domestic version of special-ops teams, that are now a must-have for police departments nationwide.

It’s no coincidence that Trump and his generals are eager to pump up a supposedly “depleted” U.S. military with yet more funds or, given the history of these years, that he appointed so many retired generals from our losing wars to key “civilian” positions atop that military and the national security state.  As with his billionaires, in a decisive fashion, Trump is stamping the real face of twenty-first-century America on Washington.

* The Rise of the National Security State: In these years, a similar process has been underway in relation to the national security state.  Vast sums of money have flowed into the country’s 17 intelligence outfits (and their secret black budgets), into the Department of Homeland Security, and the like.  (Before 9/11, Americans might have associated that word “homeland” with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but never with this country.)  In these years, new agencies were launched and elaborate headquarters and other complexes built for parts of that state within a state to the tune of billions of dollars.  At the same time, it was “privatized,” its doors thrown open to the contract employees of a parade of warrior corporations.  And, of course, the National Security Agency created a global surveillance apparatus so all-encompassing that it left the fantasies of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century in the dust.

As the national security state rose in Washington amid an enveloping shroud of secrecy (and the fierce hounding or prosecution of any whistleblower), it became the de facto fourth branch of government.  Under the circumstances, don’t think of it as a happenstance that the 2016 election might have been settled 11 days early thanks to FBI Director James Comey’s intervention in the race, which represented a historical first for the national security state. Argue as you will over how crucial Comey’s interference was to the final vote tallies, it certainly caught the mood of the new era that had been birthed in Washington long before Donald Trump’s victory.  Nor should you consider it a happenstance that possibly the closest military figure to the new commander in chief is his national security adviser, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency until forced out by the Obama administration.  No matter the arguments Trump may have with the CIA or other agencies, they will be crucial to his rule (once brought to heel by his appointees).

Those billionaires, generals, and national security chieftains had already been deeply embedded in our American world before Trump made his run. They will now be part and parcel of his world going forward. The fourth shift in the landscape is ongoing, not yet fully institutionalized, and harder to pin down.

* The Coming of the One-Party State: Thanks to the political developments of these years, and a man with obvious autocratic tendencies entering the Oval Office, it’s possible to begin to imagine an American version of a one-party state emerging from the shell of our former democratic system.  After all, the Republicans already control the House of Representatives (in more or less perpetuity, thanks to gerrymandering), the Senate, the White House, and assumedly in the years to come the Supreme Court.  They also control a record 33 out of 50 governorships, have tied a record by taking 68 out of the 98 state legislative chambers, and have broken another by gaining control of 33 out of 50 full legislatures.  In addition, as the North Carolina legislature has recently shown, the urge among state Republicans to give themselves new, extra-democratic, extra-legal powers (as well as a longer term Republican drive to restrict the ballot in various ways, claiming nonexistent voter fraud) should be considered a sign of the direction in which we could be headed in a future embattled Trumpist country.

In addition, for years the Democratic Party saw its various traditional bases of support weaken, wither, or in the recent election simply opt for a candidate competing for the party’s nomination who wasn’t even a Democrat.  Until the recent election loss, however, it was at least a large, functioning political bureaucracy.  Today, no one knows quite what it is.  It’s clear, however, that one of America’s two dominant political parties is in a state of disarray and remarkable weakness. Meanwhile, the other, the Republican Party, assumedly the future base for that Trumpian one-party state, is in its own disheveled condition, a party of apparatchiks and ideologues in Washington and embattled factions in the provinces.

In many ways, the incipient collapse of the two-party system in a flood of 1% money cleared the path for Trump’s victory.  Unlike the previous three shifts in American life, however, this one is hardly in place yet.  Instead, the sense of party chaos and weakness so crucial to the rise of Donald Trump still holds, and the same sense of chaos might be said to apply to the fifth shift I want to mention. 

* The Coming of the New Media Moment: Among the things that prepared the way for Trump, who could leave out the crumbling of the classic newspaper/TV world of news?  In these years, it lost much of its traditional advertising base, was bypassed by social media, and the TV part of it found itself in an endless hunt for eyeballs to glue, normally via 24/7 “news” events, eternally blown out of proportion but easy to cover in a nonstop way by shrinking news staffs.  As an alternative, there was the search for anything or anyone (preferably of the celebrity variety) that the public couldn’t help staring at, including a celebrity-turned-politician-turned-provocateur with the world’s canniest sense of what the media so desperately needed: him.  It may have seemed that Trump inaugurated our new media moment by becoming the first meister-elect of tweet and the shout-out master of that universe, but in reality he merely grasped the nature of our new, chaotic media moment and ran with it.

Unexceptional Billionaires and Dispensable Generals

Let’s add a final point to the other five: Donald Trump will inherit a country that has been hollowed out by the new realities that made him a success and allowed him to sweep to what, to many experts, looked like an improbable victory.  He will inherit a country that is ever less special, a nation that, as Trump himself has pointed out, has an increasingly third-worldish transportation system (not a single mile of high-speed rail and airports that have seen better days), an infrastructure that has been drastically debased, and an everyday economy that offers lesser jobs to ever more of his countrymen.  It will be an America whose destructive power only grows but whose ability to translate that into anything approaching victory eternally recedes.

With its unexceptional billionaires, its dispensable generals, its less than great national security officials, its dreary politicians, and its media moguls in search of the passing buck, it’s likely to be a combustible country in ways that will seem increasingly familiar to so many elsewhere on this planet, and increasingly strange to the young Tom Engelhardt who still lives inside me.

It’s this America that will tumble into the debatably small but none-too-gentle hands of Donald Trump on January 20th.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Tom Engelhardt


We, the Plutocrats vs. We, the People: Saving the Soul of Democracy

By Bill Moyers

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com

Sixty-six years ago this summer, on my 16th birthday, I went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town of Marshall where I grew up. It was a good place to be a cub reporter — small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy and learning something every day.  I soon had a stroke of luck.  Some of the paper’s old hands were on vacation or out sick and I was assigned to help cover what came to be known across the country as “the housewives’ rebellion.”

Fifteen women in my hometown decided not to pay the social security withholding tax for their domestic workers.  Those housewives were white, their housekeepers black. Almost half of all employed black women in the country then were in domestic service.  Because they tended to earn lower wages, accumulate less savings, and be stuck in those jobs all their lives, social security was their only insurance against poverty in old age. Yet their plight did not move their employers.

The housewives argued that social security was unconstitutional and imposing it was taxation without representation. They even equated it with slavery.  They also claimed that “requiring us to collect [the tax] is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage.”  So they hired a high-powered lawyer — a notorious former congressman from Texas who had once chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee — and took their case to court. They lost, and eventually wound up holding their noses and paying the tax, but not before their rebellion had become national news.

The stories I helped report for the local paper were picked up and carried across the country by the Associated Press. One day, the managing editor called me over and pointed to the AP Teletype machine beside his desk. Moving across the wire was a notice citing our paper and its reporters for our coverage of the housewives’ rebellion.

I was hooked, and in one way or another I’ve continued to engage the issues of money and power, equality and democracy over a lifetime spent at the intersection between politics and journalism. It took me awhile to put the housewives’ rebellion into perspective.  Race played a role, of course.  Marshall was a segregated, antebellum town of 20,000, half of whom were white, the other half black.  White ruled, but more than race was at work. Those 15 housewives were respectable townsfolk, good neighbors, regulars at church (some of them at my church).  Their children were my friends; many of them were active in community affairs; and their husbands were pillars of the town’s business and professional class.

So what brought on that spasm of rebellion?  They simply couldn’t see beyond their own prerogativesFiercely loyal to their families, their clubs, their charities, and their congregations — fiercely loyal, that is, to their own kind — they narrowly defined membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.  They expected to be comfortable and secure in their old age, but the women who washed and ironed their laundry, wiped their children’s bottoms, made their husbands’ beds, and cooked their family’s meals would also grow old and frail, sick and decrepit, lose their husbands and face the ravages of time alone, with nothing to show from their years of labor but the crease in their brow and the knots on their knuckles.

In one way or another, this is the oldest story in our country’s history: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a metaphysical reality — one nation, indivisible — or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.

“I Contain Multitudes”

There is a vast difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud, a democracy in name only.  I have no doubt about what the United States of America was meant to be.  It’s spelled out right there in the 52 most revolutionary words in our founding documents, the preamble to our Constitution, proclaiming the sovereignty of the people as the moral base of government:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

What do those words mean, if not that we are all in the business of nation-building together?

Now, I recognize that we’ve never been a country of angels guided by a presidium of saints.  Early America was a moral morass.  One in five people in the new nation was enslaved.  Justice for the poor meant stocks and stockades.  Women suffered virtual peonage. Heretics were driven into exile, or worse. Native people — the Indians — would be forcibly removed from their land, their fate a “trail of tears” and broken treaties.

No, I’m not a romantic about our history and I harbor no idealized notions of politics and democracy.  Remember, I worked for President Lyndon Johnson.  I heard him often repeat the story of the Texas poker shark who leaned across the table and said to his mark: “Play the cards fair, Reuben. I know what I dealt you.” LBJ knew politics.

Nor do I romanticize “the people.” When I began reporting on the state legislature while a student at the University of Texas, a wily old state senator offered to acquaint me with how the place worked.  We stood at the back of the Senate floor as he pointed to his colleagues spread out around the chamber — playing cards, napping, nipping, winking at pretty young visitors in the gallery — and he said to me, “If you think these guys are bad, you should see the people who sent them there.”

And yet, despite the flaws and contradictions of human nature — or perhaps because of them — something took hold here. The American people forged a civilization: that thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. Because it can snap at any moment, or slowly weaken from abuse and neglect until it fades away, civilization requires a commitment to the notion (contrary to what those Marshall housewives believed) that we are all in this together.

American democracy grew a soul, as it were — given voice by one of our greatest poets, Walt Whitman, with his all-inclusive embrace in Song of Myself:

“Whoever degrades another degrades me,
and whatever is done or said returns at last to me…
I speak the pass-word primeval — I give the sign of democracy;
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms…
(I am large — I contain multitudes.)”

Author Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has vividly described Whitman seeing himself in whomever he met in America. As he wrote in I Sing the Body Electric:

“– the horseman in his saddle,
Girls, mothers, house-keepers, in all their performances,
The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles and their wives waiting,
The female soothing a child — the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard,
The young fellow hoeing corn –”

Whitman’s words celebrate what Americans shared at a time when they were less dependent on each other than we are today.  As Townsend put it, “Many more people lived on farms in the nineteenth century, and so they could be a lot more self-reliant; growing their own food, sewing their clothes, building their homes.  But rather than applauding what each American could do in isolation, Whitman celebrated the vast chorus: ‘I hear America singing.’” The chorus he heard was of multitudinous voices, a mighty choir of humanity.

Whitman saw something else in the soul of the country: Americans at work, the laboring people whose toil and sweat built this nation.  Townsend contrasts his attitude with the way politicians and the media today — in their endless debates about wealth creation, capital gains reduction, and high corporate taxes — seem to have forgotten working people. “But Whitman wouldn’t have forgotten them.” She writes, “He celebrates a nation where everyone is worthy, not where a few do well.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood the soul of democracy, too.  He expressed it politically, although his words often ring like poetry.  Paradoxically, to this scion of the American aristocracy, the soul of democracy meant political equality.  “Inside the polling booth,” he said, “every American man and woman stands as the equal of every other American man and woman. There they have no superiors. There they have no masters save their own minds and consciences.”

God knows it took us a long time to get there.  Every claim of political equality in our history has been met by fierce resistance from those who relished for themselves what they would deny others. After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation it took a century before Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a hundred years of Jim Crow law and Jim Crow lynchings, of forced labor and coerced segregation, of beatings and bombings, of public humiliation and degradation, of courageous but costly protests and demonstrations. Think of it: another hundred years before the freedom won on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War was finally secured in the law of the land.

And here’s something else to think about: Only one of the women present at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 — only one, Charlotte Woodward — lived long enough to see women actually get to vote.

“We Pick That Rabbit Out of the Hat”

So it was, in the face of constant resistance, that many heroes — sung and unsung — sacrificed, suffered, and died so that all Americans could gain an equal footing inside that voting booth on a level playing field on the ground floor of democracy.  And yet today money has become the great unequalizer, the usurper of our democratic soul.

No one saw this more clearly than that conservative icon Barry Goldwater, longtime Republican senator from Arizona and one-time Republican nominee for the presidency. Here are his words from almost 30 years ago:

“The fact that liberty depended on honest elections was of the utmost importance to the patriots who founded our nation and wrote the Constitution.  They knew that corruption destroyed the prime requisite of constitutional liberty: an independent legislature free from any influence other than that of the people.  Applying these principles to modern times, we can make the following conclusions: To be successful, representative government assumes that elections will be controlled by the citizenry at large, not by those who give the most money. Electors must believe that their vote counts.  Elected officials must owe their allegiance to the people, not to their own wealth or to the wealth of interest groups that speak only for the selfish fringes of the whole community.”

About the time Senator Goldwater was writing those words, Oliver Stone released his movie Wall Street.  Remember it? Michael Douglas played the high roller Gordon Gekko, who used inside information obtained by his ambitious young protégé, Bud Fox, to manipulate the stock of a company that he intended to sell off for a huge personal windfall, while throwing its workers, including Bud’s own blue-collar father, overboard.  The younger man is aghast and repentant at having participated in such duplicity and chicanery, and he storms into Gekko’s office to protest, asking, “How much is enough, Gordon?”

Gekko answers:

“The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars… You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip.  We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it.  Now, you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, Buddy?  It’s the free market. And you’re part of it.”

That was in the high-flying 1980s, the dawn of today’s new gilded age.  The Greek historian Plutarch is said to have warned that “an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of a Republic.” Yet as theWashington Post pointed out recently, income inequality may be higher at this moment than at any time in the American past.

When I was a young man in Washington in the 1960s, most of the country’s growth accrued to the bottom 90% of households.  From the end of World War II until the early 1970s, in fact, income grew at a slightly faster rate at the bottom and middle of American society than at the top.  In 2009, economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez explored decades of tax data and found that from 1950 through 1980 the average income of the bottom 90% of Americans had grown, from $ 17,719 to $ 30,941.  That represented a 75% increase in 2008 dollars.

Since 1980, the economy has continued to grow impressively, but most of the benefits have migrated to the top.  In these years, workers were more productive but received less of the wealth they were helping to create. In the late 1970s, the richest 1% received 9% of total income and held 19% of the nation’s wealth. The share of total income going to that 1% would then rise to more than 23% by 2007, while their share of total wealth would grow to 35%. And that was all before the economic meltdown of 2007-2008.

Even though everyone took a hit during the recession that followed, the top 10% now hold more than three-quarters of the country’s total family wealth.

I know, I know: statistics have a way of causing eyes to glaze over, but these statistics highlight an ugly truth about America: inequality matters. It slows economic growth, undermines health, erodes social cohesion and solidarity, and starves education. In their study The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett found that the most consistent predictor of mental illness, infant mortality, low educational achievement, teenage births, homicides, and incarceration was economic inequality.  

So bear with me as I keep the statistics flowing.  The Pew Research Center recently released a new study indicating that, between 2000 and 2014, the middle class shrank in virtually all parts of the country.  Nine out of ten metropolitan areas showed a decline in middle-class neighborhoods. And remember, we aren’t even talking about over 45 million people who are living in poverty.  Meanwhile, between 2009 and 2013, that top 1% captured 85% percent of all income growth.  Even after the economy improved in 2015, they still took in more than half of the income growth and by 2013 held nearly half of all the stock and mutual fund assets Americans owned. 

Now, concentrations of wealth would be far less of an issue if the rest of society were benefitting proportionally.  But that isn’t the case.

Once upon a time, according to Isabel Sawhill and Sara McClanahan in their 2006 report Opportunity in America, the American ideal was one in which all children had “a roughly equal chance of success regardless of the economic status of the family into which they were born.”

Almost 10 years ago, economist Jeffrey Madrick wrote that, as recently as the 1980s, economists thought that “in the land of Horatio Alger only 20 percent of one’s future income was determined by one’s father’s income.” He then cited research showing that, by 2007, “60 percent of a son’s income [was] determined by the level of income of the father. For women, it [was] roughly the same.” It may be even higher today, but clearly a child’s chance of success in life is greatly improved if he’s born on third base and his father has been tipping the umpire.

This raises an old question, one highlighted by the British critic and public intellectual Terry Eagleton in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

”Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality?… Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with public squalor? Is it plausible to maintain that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates deprivation and inequality?”

The answer, to me, is self-evident.  Capitalism produces winners and losers big time.  The winners use their wealth to gain political power, often through campaign contributions and lobbying.  In this way, they only increase their influence over the choices made by the politicians indebted to them. While there are certainly differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic and social issues, both parties cater to wealthy individuals and interests seeking to enrich their bottom lines with the help of the policies of the state (loopholes, subsidies, tax breaks, deregulation).  No matter which party is in power, the interests of big business are largely heeded.

More on that later, but first, a confession.  The legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow told his generation of journalists that bias is okay as long as you don’t try to hide it. Here’s mine: plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. As the late (and great) Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Of course the rich can buy more homes, cars, vacations, gadgets, and gizmos than anyone else, but they should not be able to buy more democracy. That they can and do is a despicable blot on American politics that is now spreading like a giant oil spill.

In May, President Obama and I both spoke at the Rutgers University commencement ceremony.  He was at his inspirational best as 50,000 people leaned into every word.  He lifted the hearts of those young men and women heading out into our troubled world, but I cringed when he said, “Contrary to what we hear sometimes from both the left as well as the right, the system isn’t as rigged as you think…”

Wrong, Mr. President, just plain wrong. The people are way ahead of you on this.  In a recent poll, 71% of Americans across lines of ethnicity, class, age, and gender said they believe the U.S. economy is rigged.  People reported that they are working harder for financial security.  One quarter of the respondents had not taken a vacation in more than five years.  Seventy-one percent said that they are afraid of unexpected medical bills; 53% feared not being able to make a mortgage payment; and, among renters, 60% worried that they might not make the monthly rent.

Millions of Americans, in other words, are living on the edge.  Yet the country has not confronted the question of how we will continue to prosper without a workforce that can pay for its goods and services.

Who Dunnit?

You didn’t have to read Das Kapital to see this coming or to realize that the United States was being transformed into one of the harshest, most unforgiving societies among the industrial democracies.  You could instead have read the Economist, arguably the most influential business-friendly magazine in the English-speaking world.  I keep in my files a warning published in that magazine a dozen years ago, on the eve of George W. Bush’s second term.  The editors concluded back then that, with income inequality in the U.S. reaching levels not seen since the first Gilded Age and social mobility diminishing, “the United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.”

And mind you, that was before the financial meltdown of 2007-2008, before the bailout of Wall Street, before the recession that only widened the gap between the super-rich and everyone else. Ever since then, the great sucking sound we’ve been hearing is wealth heading upwards. The United States now has a level of income inequality unprecedented in our history and so dramatic it’s almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around.

Contrary to what the president said at Rutgers, this is not the way the world works; it’s the way the world is made to work by those with the money and power.  The movers and shakers — the big winners — keep repeating the mantra that this inequality was inevitable, the result of the globalization of finance and advances in technology in an increasingly complex world.  Those are part of the story, but only part. As G.K. Chesterton wrote a century ago, “In every serious doctrine of the destiny of men, there is some trace of the doctrine of the equality of men.  But the capitalist really depends on some religion of inequality.”

Exactly.  In our case, a religion of invention, not revelation, politically engineered over the last 40 years. Yes, politically engineered.  On this development, you can’t do better than read Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Classby Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of political science.

They were mystified by what had happened to the post-World War II notion of “shared prosperity”; puzzled by the ways in which ever more wealth has gone to the rich and super rich; vexed that hedge-fund managers pull in billions of dollars, yet pay taxes at lower rates than their secretaries; curious about why politicians kept slashing taxes on the very rich and handing huge tax breaks and subsidies to corporations that are downsizing their work forces; troubled that the heart of the American Dream — upward mobility — seemed to have stopped beating; and dumbfounded that all of this could happen in a democracy whose politicians were supposed to serve the greatest good for the greatest number. So Hacker and Pierson set out to find out “how our economy stopped working to provide prosperity and security for the broad middle class.”

In other words, they wanted to know: “Who dunnit?” They found the culprit. With convincing documentation they concluded, “Step by step and debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many.”

There you have it: the winners bought off the gatekeepers, then gamed the system.  And when the fix was in they turned our economy into a feast for the predators, “saddling Americans with greater debt, tearing new holes in the safety net, and imposing broad financial risks on Americans as workers, investors, and taxpayers.” The end result, Hacker and Pierson conclude, is that the United States is looking more and more like the capitalist oligarchies of Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, where most of the wealth is concentrated at the top while the bottom grows larger and larger with everyone in between just barely getting by.

Bruce Springsteen sings of “the country we carry in our hearts.” This isn’t it.

“God’s Work”

Looking back, you have to wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs.  In the 1970s, Big Business began to refine its ability to act as a class and gang up on Congress.  Even before the Supreme Court’s Citizens Uniteddecision, political action committees deluged politics with dollars. Foundations, corporations, and rich individuals funded think tanks that churned out study after study with results skewed to their ideology and interests. Political strategists made alliances with the religious right, with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, to zealously wage a cultural holy war that would camouflage the economic assault on working people and the middle class.

To help cover-up this heist of the economy, an appealing intellectual gloss was needed.  So public intellectuals were recruited and subsidized to turn “globalization,” “neo-liberalism,” and “the Washington Consensus” into a theological belief system.  The “dismal science of economics” became a miracle of faith.  Wall Street glistened as the new Promised Land, while few noticed that those angels dancing on the head of a pin were really witchdoctors with MBAs brewing voodoo magic.  The greed of the Gordon Gekkos — once considered a vice — was transformed into a virtue.  One of the high priests of this faith, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, looking in wonder on all that his company had wrought, pronounced it “God’s work.”

A prominent neoconservative religious philosopher even articulated a “theology of the corporation.”  I kid you not.  And its devotees lifted their voices in hymns of praise to wealth creation as participation in the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth.  Self-interest became the Gospel of the Gilded Age.

No one today articulates this winner-take-all philosophy more candidly than Ray Dalio.  Think of him as the King Midas of hedge funds, with a personal worth estimated at almost $16 billion and a company, Bridgewater Associates, reportedly worth as much as $154 billion.

Dalio fancies himself a philosopher and has written a book of maximsexplaining his philosophy. It boils down to: “Be a hyena. Attack the Wildebeest.” (Wildebeests, antelopes native to southern Africa — as I learned when we once filmed a documentary there — are no match for the flesh-eating dog-like spotted hyenas that gorge on them.)  Here’s what Dalio wrote about being a Wall Street hyena:

“…when a pack of hyenas takes down a young wildebeest, is this good or bad? At face value, this seems terrible; the poor wildebeest suffers and dies. Some people might even say that the hyenas are evil. Yet this type of apparently evil behavior exists throughout nature through all species… like death itself, this behavior is integral to the enormously complex and efficient system that has worked for as long as there has been life… [It] is good for both the hyenas, who are operating in their self-interest, and the interests of the greater system, which includes the wildebeest, because killing and eating the wildebeest fosters evolution, i.e., the natural process of improvement… Like the hyenas attacking the wildebeest, successful people might not even know if or how their pursuit of self-interest helps evolution, but it typically does.”

He concludes: “How much money people have earned is a rough measure of how much they gave society what it wanted…”

Not this time, Ray.  This time, the free market for hyenas became a slaughterhouse for the wildebeest. Collapsing shares and house prices destroyed more than a quarter of the wealth of the average household.  Many people have yet to recover from the crash and recession that followed. They are still saddled with burdensome debt; their retirement accounts are still anemic.  All of this was, by the hyena’s accounting, a social good, “an improvement in the natural process,” as Dalio puts it.  Nonsense.  Bull.  Human beings have struggled long and hard to build civilization; his doctrine of “progress” is taking us back to the jungle.

And by the way, there’s a footnote to the Dalio story.  Early this year, the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, and by many accounts the richest man in Connecticut where it is headquartered, threatened to take his firm elsewhere if he didn’t get concessions from the state. You might have thought that the governor, a Democrat, would have thrown him out of his office for the implicit threat involved.  But no, he buckled and Dalio got the $22 million in aid — a $5 million grant and a $17 million loan — that he was demanding to expand his operations. It’s a loan that may be forgiven if he keeps jobs in Connecticut and creates new ones. No doubt he left the governor’s office grinning like a hyena, his shoes tracking wildebeest blood across the carpet.

Our founders warned against the power of privileged factions to capture the machinery of democracies.  James Madison, who studied history through a tragic lens, saw that the life cycle of previous republics had degenerated into anarchy, monarchy, or oligarchy. Like many of his colleagues, he was well aware that the republic they were creating could go the same way.  Distrusting, even detesting concentrated private power, the founders attempted to erect safeguards to prevent private interests from subverting the moral and political compact that begins, “We, the people.” For a while, they succeeded.

When the brilliant young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1830s, he was excited by the democratic fervor he witnessed.  Perhaps that excitement caused him to exaggerate the equality he celebrated.  Close readers of de Tocqueville will notice, however, that he did warn of the staying power of the aristocracy, even in this new country.  He feared what he called, in the second volume of his masterwork, Democracy in America, an “aristocracy created by business.”  He described it as already among “the harshest that ever existed in the world” and suggested that, “if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter.”

And so it did.  Half a century later, the Gilded Age arrived with a new aristocratic hierarchy of industrialists, robber barons, and Wall Street tycoons in the vanguard.  They had their own apologist in the person of William Graham Sumner, an Episcopal minister turned professor of political economy at Yale University.  He famously explained that “competition… is a law of nature” and that nature “grants her rewards to the fittest, therefore, without regard to other considerations of any kind.”

From Sumner’s essays to the ravenous excesses of Wall Street in the 1920s to the ravings of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Fox News, to the business press’s wide-eyed awe of hyena-like CEOs; from the Republican war on government to the Democratic Party’s shameless obeisance to big corporations and contributors, this “law of nature” has served to legitimate the yawning inequality of income and wealth, even as it has protected networks of privilege and monopolies in major industries like the media, the tech sector, and the airlines.

A plethora of studies conclude that America’s political system has already been transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy (the rule of a wealthy elite).  Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, for instance, studied data from 1,800 different policy initiatives launched between 1981 and 2002.  They found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”  Whether Republican or Democratic, they concluded, the government more often follows the preferences of major lobbying or business groups than it does those of ordinary citizens.

We can only be amazed that a privileged faction in a fervent culture of politically protected greed brought us to the brink of a second Great Depression, then blamed government and a “dependent” 47% of the population for our problems, and ended up richer and more powerful than ever.

The Truth of Your Life

Which brings us back to those Marshall housewives — to all those who simply can’t see beyond their own prerogatives and so narrowly define membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.

How would I help them recoup their sanity, come home to democracy, and help build the sort of moral compact embodied in the preamble to the Constitution, that declaration of America’s intent and identity?

First, I’d do my best to remind them that societies can die of too much inequality.

Second, I’d give them copies of anthropologist Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed to remind them that we are not immune.  Diamond won the Pulitzer Prize for describing how the damage humans have inflicted on their environment has historically led to the decline of civilizations.  In the process, he vividly depicts how elites repeatedly isolate and delude themselves until it’s too late.  How, extracting wealth from commoners, they remain well fed while everyone else is slowly starving until, in the end, even they (or their offspring) become casualties of their own privilege.  Any society, it turns out, contains a built-in blueprint for failure if elites insulate themselves endlessly from the consequences of their decisions.

Third, I’d discuss the real meaning of “sacrifice and bliss” with them.  That was the title of the fourth episode of my PBS series Joseph Campbell and the Power of MythIn that episode, Campbell and I discussed the influence on him of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed that the will to live is the fundamental reality of human nature.  So he puzzled about why some people override it and give up their lives for others.

“Can this happen?” Campbell asked. “That what we normally think of as the first law of nature, namely self-preservation, is suddenly dissolved. What creates that breakthrough when we put another’s well-being ahead of our own?”  He then told me of an incident that took place near his home in Hawaii, up in the heights where the trade winds from the north come rushing through a great ridge of mountains.  People go there to experience the force of nature, to let their hair be blown in the winds — and sometimes to commit suicide.

One day, two policemen were driving up that road when, just beyond the railing, they saw a young man about to jump.  One of the policemen bolted from the car and grabbed the fellow just as he was stepping off the ledge.  His momentum threatened to carry both of them over the cliff, but the policeman refused to let go.  Somehow he held on long enough for his partner to arrive and pull the two of them to safety.  When a newspaper reporter asked, “Why didn’t you let go? You would have been killed,” he answered: “I couldn’t… I couldn’t let go.  If I had, I couldn’t have lived another day of my life.”

Campbell then added: “Do you realize what had suddenly happened to that policeman? He had given himself over to death to save a stranger.  Everything else in his life dropped off. His duty to his family, his duty to his job, his duty to his own career, all of his wishes and hopes for life, just disappeared.” What mattered was saving that young man, even at the cost of his own life.

How can this be, Campbell asked?  Schopenhauer’s answer, he said, was that a psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical reality, which is that you and the other are two aspects of one life, and your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time.  Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life.

Sometimes, however instinctively or consciously, our actions affirm that reality through some unselfish gesture or personal sacrifice. It happens in marriage, in parenting, in our relations with the people immediately around us, and in our participation in building a society based on reciprocity.

The truth of our country isn’t actually so complicated.  It’s in the moral compact implicit in the preamble to our Constitution: we’re all in this together.  We are all one another’s first responders.  As the writer Alberto Rios once put it, “I am in your family tree and you are in mine.”

I realize that the command to love our neighbor is one of the hardest of all religious concepts, but I also recognize that our connection to others goes to the core of life’s mystery and to the survival of democracy.  When we claim this as the truth of our lives — when we live as if it’s so — we are threading ourselves into the long train of history and the fabric of civilization; we are becoming “we, the people.”

The religion of inequality — of money and power — has failed us; its gods are false gods.  There is something more essential — more profound — in the American experience than the hyena’s appetite.  Once we recognize and nurture this, once we honor it, we can reboot democracy and get on with the work of liberating the country we carry in our hearts.


Bill Moyers has been an organizer of the Peace Corps, a top White House aide, a publisher, and a prolific broadcast journalist whose work earned 37 Emmy Awards and nine Peabody Awards. He is president of the Schumann Media Center, which supports independent journalism. This essay is adapted from remarks he prepared for delivery this past summer at the Chautauqua Institution’s week-long focus on money and power. He is grateful to his colleagues Karen Kimball and Gail Ablow for their research and fact checking.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Bill Moyers


Hooked! The Unyielding Grip of Fossil Fuels on Global Life

By Michael Klare

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com

Here’s the good news: wind power, solar power, and other renewable forms of energy are expanding far more quickly than anyone expected, ensuring that these systems will provide an ever-increasing share of our future energy supply.  According to the most recent projections from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy, global consumption of wind, solar, hydropower, and other renewables will double between now and 2040, jumping from 64 to 131 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs).

And here’s the bad news: the consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas is also growing, making it likely that, whatever the advances of renewable energy, fossil fuels will continue to dominate the global landscape for decades to come, accelerating the pace of global warming and ensuring the intensification of climate-change catastrophes.

The rapid growth of renewable energy has given us much to cheer about.  Not so long ago, energy analysts were reporting that wind and solar systems were too costly to compete with oil, coal, and natural gas in the global marketplace.  Renewables would, it was then assumed, require pricey subsidies that might not always be available.  That was then and this is now.  Today, remarkably enough, wind and solar are already competitive with fossil fuels for many uses and in many markets.

If that wasn’t predicted, however, neither was this: despite such advances, the allure of fossil fuels hasn’t dissipated.  Individuals, governments, whole societies continue to opt for such fuels even when they gain no significant economic advantage from that choice and risk causing severe planetary harm.  Clearly, something irrational is at play.  Think of it as the fossil-fuel equivalent of an addictive inclination writ large.

The contradictory and troubling nature of the energy landscape is on clear display in the 2016 edition of the International Energy Outlook, the annual assessment of global trends released by the EIA this May.  The good news about renewables gets prominent attention in the report, which includes projections of global energy use through 2040.  “Renewables are the world’s fastest-growing energy source over the projection period,” it concludes.  Wind and solar are expected to demonstrate particular vigor in the years to come, their growth outpacing every other form of energy.  But because renewables start from such a small base — representing just 12% of all energy used in 2012 — they will continue to be overshadowed in the decades ahead, explosive growth or not.  In 2040, according to the report’s projections, fossil fuels will still have a grip on a staggering 78% of the world energy market, and — if you don’t mind getting thoroughly depressed — oil, coal, and natural gas will each still command larger shares of the market than all renewables combined.

Keep in mind that total energy consumption is expected to be much greater in 2040 than at present.  At that time, humanity will be using an estimated 815 quadrillion BTUs (compared to approximately 600 quadrillion today).  In other words, though fossil fuels will lose some of their market share to renewables, they will still experience striking growth in absolute terms.  Oil consumption, for example, is expected to increase by 34% from 90 million to 121 million barrels per day by 2040.  Despite all the negative publicity it’s been getting lately, coal, too, should experience substantial growth, rising from 153 to 180 quadrillion BTUs in “delivered energy” over this period.  And natural gas will be the fossil-fuel champ, with global demand for it jumping by 70%.  Put it all together and the consumption of fossil fuels is projected to increase by 177 quadrillion BTUs, or 38%, over the period the report surveys.

Anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of climate science has to shudder at such projections.  After all, emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels account for approximately three-quarters of the greenhouse gases humans are putting into the atmosphere.  An increase in their consumption of such magnitude will have a corresponding impact on the greenhouse effect that is accelerating the rise in global temperatures.

At the United Nations Climate Summit in Paris last December, delegates from more than 190 countries adopted a plan aimed at preventing global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial level.  This target was chosen because most scientists believe that any warming beyond that will result in catastrophic and irreversible climate effects, including the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps (and a resulting sea-level rise of 10-20 feet).  Under the Paris Agreement, the participating nations signed onto a plan to take immediate steps to halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and then move to actual reductions.  Although the agreement doesn’t specify what measures should be taken to satisfy this requirement — each country is obliged to devise its own “intended nationally determined contributions” to the overall goal — the only practical approach for most countries would be to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

As the 2016 EIA report makes eye-poppingly clear, however, the endorsers of the Paris Agreement aren’t on track to reduce their consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas.  In fact, greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise by an estimated 34% between 2012 and 2040 (from 32.3 billion to 43.2 billion metric tons).  That net increase of 10.9 billion metric tons is equal to the total carbon emissions of the United States, Canada, and Europe in 2012.  If such projections prove accurate, global temperatures will rise, possibly significantly above that 2 degree mark, with the destructive effects of climate change we are already witnessing today — the fires, heat waves, floods, droughts, storms, and sea level rise — only intensifying.

Exploring the Roots of Addiction

How to explain the world’s tenacious reliance on fossil fuels, despite all that we know about their role in global warming and those lofty promises made in Paris?

To some degree, it is undoubtedly the product of built-in momentum: our existing urban, industrial, and transportation infrastructure was largely constructed around fossil fuel-powered energy systems, and it will take a long time to replace or reconfigure them for a post-carbon future.  Most of our electricity, for example, is provided by coal- and gas-fired power plants that will continue to operate for years to come.  Even with the rapid growth of renewables, coal and natural gas are projected to supply 56% of the fuel for the world’s electrical power generation in 2040 (a drop of only 5% from today).  Likewise, the overwhelming majority of cars and trucks on the road are now fueled by gasoline and diesel.  Even if the number of new ones running on electricity were to spike, it would still be many years before oil-powered vehicles lost their commanding position.  As history tells us, transitions from one form of energy to another take time.

Then there’s the problem — and what a problem it is! — of vested interests.  Energy is the largest and most lucrative business in the world, and the giant fossil fuel companies have long enjoyed a privileged and highly profitable status.  Oil corporations like Chevron and ExxonMobil, along with their state-owned counterparts like Gazprom of Russia and Saudi Aramco, are consistently ranked among the world’s most valuable enterprises.  These companies — and the governments they’re associated with — are not inclined to surrender the massive profits they generate year after year for the future wellbeing of the planet.

As a result, it’s a guarantee that they will employ any means at their disposal (including well-established, well-funded ties to friendly politicians and political parties) to slow the transition to renewables.  In the United States, for example, the politicians of coal-producing states are now at work on plans to block the Obama administration’s “clean power” drive, which might indeed lead to a sharp reduction in coal consumption.  Similarly, Exxon has recruited friendly Republican officials to impede the efforts of some state attorney generals to investigate that company’s past suppression of information on the links between fossil fuel use and climate change.  And that’s just to scratch the surface of corporate efforts to mislead the public that have included the funding of the Heartland Institute and other climate-change-denying think tanks.

Of course, nowhere is the determination to sustain fossil fuels fiercer than in the “petro-states” that rely on their production for government revenues, provide energy subsidies to their citizens, and sometimes sell their products at below-market rates to encourage their use.  According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2014 fossil fuel subsidies of various sorts added up to a staggering $493 billion worldwide — far more than those for the development of renewable forms of energy.  The G-20 group of leading industrial powers agreed in 2009 to phase out such subsidies, but a meeting of G-20 energy ministers in Beijing in June failed to adopt a timeline to complete the phase-out process, suggesting that little progress will be made when the heads of state of those countries meet in Hangzhou, China, this September.

None of this should surprise anyone, given the global economy’s institutionalized dependence on fossil fuels and the amounts of money at stake.  What it doesn’t explain, however, is the projected growth in global fossil fuel consumption.  A gradual decline, accelerating over time, would be consistent with a broad-scale but slow transition from carbon-based fuels to renewables.  That the opposite seems to be happening, that their use is actually expanding in most parts of the world, suggests that another factor is in play: addiction.

We all know that smoking tobacco, snorting cocaine, or consuming too much alcohol is bad for us, but many of us persist in doing so anyway, finding the resulting thrill, the relief, or the dulling of the pain of everyday life simply too great to resist.  In the same way, much of the world now seems to find it easier to fill up the car with the usual tankful of gasoline or flip the switch and receive electricity from coal or natural gas than to begin to shake our addiction to fossil fuels.  As in everyday life, so at a global level, the power of addiction seems regularly to trump the obvious desirability of embarking on another, far healthier path.

On a Fossil Fuel Bridge to Nowhere

Without acknowledging any of this, the 2016 EIA report indicates just how widespread and prevalent our fossil-fuel addiction remains.  In explaining the rising demand for oil, for example, it notes that “in the transportation sector, liquid fuels [predominantly petroleum] continue to provide most of the energy consumed.”  Even though “advances in nonliquids-based [electrical] transportation technologies are anticipated,” they will not prove sufficient “to offset the rising demand for transportation services worldwide,” and so the demand for gasoline and diesel will continue to grow.

Most of the increase in demand for petroleum-based fuels is expected tooccur in the developing world, where hundreds of millions of people are entering the middle class, buying their first gas-powered cars, and about to be hooked on an energy way of life that should be, but isn’t, dying.  Oil use is expected to grow in China by 57% between 2012 and 2040, and at a faster rate (131%!) in India.  Even in the United States, however, a growing preference for sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks continues to mean higher petroleum use.  In 2016, according to Edmunds.com, a car shopping and research site, nearly 75% of the people who traded in a hybrid or electric car to a dealer replaced it with an all-gas car, typically a larger vehicle like an SUV or a pickup.

The rising demand for coal follows a depressingly similar pattern.  Although it remains a major source of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change, many developing nations, especially in Asia, continue to favor it when adding electricity capacity because of its low cost and familiar technology.  Although the demand for coal in China — long the leading consumer of that fuel — is slowing, that country is still expected to increase its usage by 12% by 2035.  The big story here, however, is India: according to the EIA, its coal consumption will grow by 62% in the years surveyed, eventually making it, not the United States, the world’s second largest consumer.  Most of that extra coal will go for electricity generation, once again to satisfy an “expanding middle class using more electricity-consuming appliances.”

And then there’s the mammoth expected increase in the demand for natural gas.  According to the latest EIA projections, its consumption will rise faster than any fuel except renewables.  Given the small base from which renewables start, however, gas will experience the biggest absolute increase of any fuel, 87 quadrillion BTUs between 2012 and 2040.  (In contrast, renewables are expected to grow by 68 quadrillion and oil by 62 quadrillion BTUs during this period.)

At present, natural gas appears to enjoy an enormous advantage in the global energy marketplace.  “In the power sector, natural gas is an attractive choice for new generating plants given its moderate capital cost and attractive pricing in many regions as well as the relatively high fuel efficiency and moderate capital cost of gas-fired plants,” the EIA notes.  It is also said to benefit from its “clean” reputation (compared to coal) in generating electricity.  “As more governments begin implementing national or regional plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, natural gas may displace consumption of the more carbon-intensive coal and liquid fuels.”

Unfortunately, despite that reputation, natural gas remains a carbon-based fossil fuel, and its expanded consumption will result in a significant increase in global greenhouse gas emissions.  In fact, the EIA claims that it will generate a larger increase in such emissions over the next quarter-century than either coal or oil — a disturbing note for those who contend that natural gas provides a “bridge” to a green energy future.

Seeking Treatment

If you were to read through the EIA’s latest report as I did, you, too, might end up depressed by humanity’s addictive need for its daily fossil fuel hit.  While the EIA’s analysts add the usual caveats, including the possibility that a more sweeping than expected follow-up climate agreement or strict enforcement of the one adopted last December could alter their projections, they detect no signs of the beginning of a determined move away from the reliance on fossil fuels.

If, indeed, addiction is a big part of the problem, any strategies undertaken to address climate change must incorporate a treatment component.  Simply saying that global warming is bad for the planet, and that prudence and morality oblige us to prevent the worst climate-related disasters, will no more suffice than would telling addicts that tobacco and hard drugs are bad for them.  Success in any global drive to avert climate catastrophe will involve tackling addictive behavior at its roots and promoting lasting changes in lifestyle.  To do that, it will be necessary to learn from the anti-drug and anti-tobacco communities about best practices, and apply them to fossil fuels.

Consider, for example, the case of anti-smoking efforts.  It was the medical community that first took up the struggle against tobacco and began by banning smoking in hospitals and other medical facilities.  This effort was later extended to public facilities — schools, government buildings, airports, and so on — until vast areas of the public sphere became smoke-free.  Anti-smoking activists also campaigned to have warning labels displayed in tobacco advertising and cigarette packaging.

Such approaches helped reduce tobacco consumption around the world and can be adapted to the anti-carbon struggle.  College campuses and town centers could, for instance, be declared car-free — a strategy already embraced by London’s newly elected mayor, Sadiq Khan.  Express lanes on major streets and highways can be reserved for hybrids, electric cars, and other alternative vehicles.  Gas station pumps and oil advertising can be made to incorporate warning signs saying something like, “Notice: consumption of this product increases your exposure to asthma, heat waves, sea level rise, and other threats to public health.”  Once such an approach began to be seriously considered, there would undoubtedly be a host of other ideas for how to begin to put limits on our fossil fuel addiction.

Such measures would have to be complemented by major moves to combat the excessive influence of the fossil fuel companies and energy states when it comes to setting both local and global policy.  In the U.S., for instance, severely restricting the scope of private donations in campaign financing, as Senator Bernie Sanders advocated in his presidential campaign, would be a way to start down this path.  Another would step up legal efforts to hold giant energy companies like ExxonMobil accountable for malfeasance in suppressing information about the links between fossil fuel combustion and global warming, just as, decades ago, anti-smoking activists tried to expose tobacco company criminality in suppressing information on the links between smoking and cancer.

Without similar efforts of every sort on a global level, one thing seems certain: the future projected by the EIA will indeed come to pass and human suffering of a previously unimaginable sort will be the order of the day.


 

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of  The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Michael T. Klare


How to Make a Political Revolution

By David Morris

Reprinted with permission from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

[Editor’s Comment: Note in the article that follows the discussion of the Bank of North Dakota, which has received particular attention in the last few years because of its beneficial role in helping North Dakota weather the storms of the Great Recession. Note especially in this regard the writings of Ellen Brown, President of the Public Banking Institute, author of  Web of Debt and the The Public Bank Solution. See also her article, “NORTH DAKOTA’S ECONOMIC “MIRACLE”—IT’S NOT OIL.”]

nonpartisan league wagon

Nonpartisan League

On June 14th, North Dakotans voted to overrule their government’s decision to allow corporate ownership of farms. That they had the power to do so was a result of a political revolution that occurred almost exactly a century before, a revolution that may hold lessons for those like Bernie Sanders’ supporters who seek to establish a bottom-up political movement in the face of hostile political parties today.

Here’s the story. In the early 1900s North Dakota was effectively an economic colony of Minneapolis/Saint Paul. A Saint Paul based railroad tycoon controlled its freight prices. Minnesota companies owned many of the grain elevators that sat next to the rail lines and often cheated farmers by giving their wheat a lower grade than deserved. Since the flour mills were in Minneapolis, shipping costs reduced the price wheat farmers received. Minneapolis banks held farmers’ mortgages and their operating loans to farmers carried a higher interest than they charged at home.

Farmers, who represented a majority of the population, tried to free themselves from bondage by making the political system more responsive. In 1913 they gained an important victory when the legislature gave them the right, by petition, to initiate a law or constitutional amendment as well as to overturn a law passed by the legislature.

But this was a limited victory for while the people could enable they could not compel.

In 1914, for example, after a 30-year effort, voters authorized the legislature to build a state-owned grain elevator and mill. But in January 1915 a state legislative committee concluded it “would be a waste of the people’s money as well as a humiliating disappointment to the people of the state.” The legislature refused funding.

A few weeks later, two former candidates on the Socialist Party ticket, Arthur C. Townley and Albert Bowen, launched a new political organization, the Non Partisan League (NPL). The name conveyed their strategy: To rely more on program-based politics than party-based politics. According to the NPL its program intended to end the “utterly unendurable” situation in which “the people of this state have always been dependent on their existence on industries, banks, markets, storage and transportation facilities either existing altogether outside of the state or controlled by great private interests outside the state.”

The NPL’s platform contained concrete and specific measures: state ownership of elevators, flour mills, packing houses and cold storage plants; state inspection of grain grading and dockage; state hail insurance; rural credit banks operating at cost; exemption of farm improvements from taxation.

In his recent book, Insurgent Democracy Michael Lansing explains, “Small-property holders anxious to use government to create a more equitable form of capitalism cannot be easily categorized in contemporary political term.” The NPL “reminded Americans that corporate capitalism was not the only way forward.” Supporters of the NPL wanted state sponsored market fairness but not state control. They wanted public options, not public monopolies.

In the language of our 2016 political campaigns, it would not be much of a stretch to characterize the NPL as a movement for an American-style decentralized, anti-corporate, democratic socialism.

The NPL was as one contemporary observer, Thorstein Veblen described it, “large, loose, animated and untidy, but sure of itself in its settled disallowance of the Vested Interests… “

The movement was membership-based. Members were kept informed through a regular newsletter. This was part of a massive popular education effort. Membership fees allowed the NPL to hire organizers and lecturers who traveled throughout the state. Townley, the founder and leader of the NPL, proved an entertaining and charismatic speaker. Sometimes thousands would gather to hear him speak. Speeches themselves were community affairs.

The goal was to convince farmers that collectively they could significantly influence the decisions that would affect their personal and business lives.

To gain power the NPL relied on a political tool born of the Progressive movement: the political primary. To make government more responsive and transparent, Progressives urged states to bypass political conventions, political bosses and backroom deals and adopt direct primaries. By 1916, 25 of the then 48 U.S. states had adopted the primary as the vehicle for nominating political candidates.

The primary system gave people the power to elect candidates of their political party, but the key to the remarkable political revolution that swept through North Dakota was its adoption, in 1908, of an “open primary” law that allowed anyone to vote in a party’s primary even if unaffiliated with that party.

On March 29, 1916 the NPL took advantage of that law by convening its first convention. Attendees endorsed candidates who swore allegiance to its platform. These candidates ran in the June Republican primary, a primary targeted by the NPL because then (as now) the Republican Party dominated North Dakota.

In June 1916 the NPL effectively took over the Republican Party. In November 1916 NPL –endorsed candidates won every statewide office except one and gained a majority in the state Assembly, although not in the Senate. By that time the NPL boasted 40,000 members, an astonishing number given the state population of only 620,000.

In the succeeding legislative session the NPL was able to implement parts of its platform: a grain grading system, a 9-hour workday for women, regulation of railroad shipping rates and increased state aid to rural schools. But the Senate narrowly defeated the key to implementing NPL’s broad vision: a constitutional amendment to allow for state-owned businesses.

In 1918, the NPL gained a majority in the state Senate. That year North Dakotans voted on 10 constitutional amendments. They approved every one. One, endorsed by a resounding margin of 59-41 gave state, county and local governments permission “to engage in industry, enterprises or businesses.” Another allowed the state to guarantee $2 million in bonds and established voting requirements for future bonding. Another created state hail insurance.

Other amendments expanded the possibility of direct democracy by reducing the number of signatures required to put an initiative on the ballot, and by allowing constitutional amendments to be passed by a simple majority of the voters.

In June 1919, voters approved 6 of 7 legislatively referred statutes, including the establishment of a state bank, that latter by a vote of 56-44. The one ballot initiative North Dakotans rejected—giving the Governor the authority to appoint every county school superintendent—was itself revealing. North Dakotans wanted a state that could stand up to big out-of-state corporations but they preferred local control to state control.

The Bank of North Dakota (BND) was the centerpiece of the NPL’s effort to take back control of their economy. It was intended to strengthen, not undercut local banks. It established no branches, nor did it accept independent deposits or accounts. The Bank “strongly recommended” that borrowers seek mortgages by working through local institutions. Banks across the state used the BND as a clearinghouse for various financial transactions.

Farmers immediately benefited as their interest rates on loans dropped to about 6 percent from the prevailing 8.7 percent.

In November 1920 voters strengthened the BND by narrowly approving an initiative requiring all state, county, township, municipal and school district funds be deposited there.

In March 1920 the NPL legislature referred to the people a constitutional amendment allowing them to petition for the recall of any elected officials. That unprecedented extension of direct democracy proved its undoing, for in late 1918, at the peak of the NPL’s power, political opposition had coalesced into a new organization, the Independent Voters Association (IVA). As the NPL battled internal divisions and a growing unease that it had begun to pursue measures beyond its mandate, the IVA gained support.

The IVA used the political tools the NPL had created. In 1921 its members successfully petitioned for recall elections for the three state officers who constituted the membership of the Industrial Commission that oversaw state enterprises: the governor, attorney general and commissioner of agriculture. The IVA slate won by a whisker. It was the first and last time a U.S. Governor has been successfully recalled.

The IVA immediately set about to undo the NPL program by putting nine provisions on the ballot, including one to abolish the state Bank. Another intended to shrink the capacity of state government by reducing the amount of state bonded debt. Another would have undermined the open primary by requiring separate party ballots for primaries.

Every ballot measure lost, albeit by very narrow margins.

In November 1922 the IVA achieved what the NPL had four years before: Control of all three branches of state government. The NPL’s abrupt disintegration resulted from a number of factors. In 1921 the price of wheat dropped about 60 percent. The resulting economic pain would have reduced the support for any sitting government. The Russian Revolution ushered in a nationwide “Red Scare.” The opposition labeled the NPL’s leaders Communists and Bolsheviks and launched a new magazine called Red Flame. Townley himself was jailed under a Minnesota sedition law for opposing the U.S. involvement in WWI. Meanwhile, internal divisions continued to beset the NPL.

The Legacy of the NPL

As the Nation magazine observed in 1923, “…although the visible machinery largely melted away, a sentiment and a point of view had been established in the minds of hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers.” Looking back in 1955, Robert L. Morian, author of the classic Political Prairie Fire, comment that the NPL helped to develop “some of the most independently minded electorates in the country.”

Those independently minded electorates and their anti-corporate, pro-cooperative and independent business sentiment continued to inform and often guide policymakers in the decades to come.

The North Dakota Mill and Elevator Association began operation in a modern facility in 1922. Today it consists of 7 milling units, an elevator and flour mill and a packing warehouse to prepare bagged products for shipment. It is the largest flour mill in the U.S. and the only state-owned milling facility.

In 1932, North Dakotans voted 57 to 43 to ban corporations from owning or leasing farmland.

In 1963 the legislature enacted a law that required pharmacies be owned by a state-registered pharmacist. The effect was to ban chains, except those operating at the time the law was passed.

In 1980 North Dakotans voted to establish a State Housing Finance Agency to provide mortgages to low income households.

In recent years several of these laws protecting independent farmers and businesses have come under attack by big corporations. After several attempts by Big Pharmacy failed to convince the legislature to repeal the Pharmacy Ownership Law, Wal Mart spent $9.3 million to finance a ballot initiative. In November 2014, by a vote of 59-41 the initiative lost.

In 2015 big corporations did convince the legislature to overturn the 1932 anti-corporate farming law. This June, as noted at the beginning of this article, by a resounding margin of 76-24 North Dakotans voted to reinstate the old law.

Today the economic structure of North Dakota reflects its focus on independent and cooperative businesses.

The Pharmacy Ownership law, for example, has markedly benefited North Dakota. A report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) found that on every key measure of pharmacy care, including quality and the price of drugs, North Dakota’s independent pharmacies outperform those of neighboring states and the U.S. as a whole. Unsurprisingly North Dakota also has more pharmacies per capita than other states. Its rural residents are more likely to have a nearby pharmacist.

North Dakota’s banking system reflects a similar community-based structure. An analysis by ILSR found that, on a per capita basis, the state boasts almost six times as many locally owned financial institutions as the rest of the nation. (89 small and mid sized community banks and 38 credit unions). These control 83 percent of the deposits of the state. North Dakota’s community banks have given 400 percent more small business loans than the national average. Student loan rates are among the lowest in the country.

As Stacy Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Community-Scaled Economy Initiative observes, “While the publicly owned BND might well be characterized as a socialist institution, it has had the effect of enabling North Dakota’s local banks to be very successful capitalists.” In recent years local banks in North Dakota have earned a return on capital nearly twice that of the nation’s largest 20 banks.

In the last two decades years the BND has generated almost $1 billion in “profit” and returned almost half of that to the state’s general fund.

Recall that in 1919, voters had approved the Bank of North Dakota, by the very slim margin of 51-49. A switch of 2,000 votes would have killed the Bank in its infancy. Today no party would dare propose its destruction.

North Dakota’s impressive 21st century telecommunications infrastructure is also a testament to its historic focus on local and independent ownership. The state ranks 47th in population density. That means it has one of the highest costs per household for installing state-of-the-art high-speed fiber networks. Nevertheless it boasts the highest percentage of people with access to such networks in the country. Why? One reason is its abundance of rural cooperatives and small telecom companies, 41 providers in all, including 17 cooperatives.

North Dakota is also home to the Dakota Carrier Network. Owned by 15 independent rural telecommunications companies, the DCN crisscrosses the state with more 1,400 miles of fiber backbone. In the last five years independently owned companies have invested more than $100 million per year to bring fiber to the home. They now serve more than 164,000 customers in 250 communities.

What Should Bernie’s Brethren Do?

Certainly the road to political power faces many more obstacles now than the NPL faced a century ago. North Dakota was a largely agricultural state. The key to NPL’s organizing effort was access to a car and gas money, not an easy get in those days, but much easier than the amount of money now needed to mount a political campaign.

Most new movements will be unable to take advantage of the open primary. After the NPL gained power in more than half a dozen states, the existing parties fought back. Nevertheless, 11 states still have pure open primaries; about a dozen more have hybrid systems.

Recently the courts have not been sympathetic to the open primary. Not long ago the Supreme Court invented a new “right of association” and bestowed that right on political parties. In 2000, for example, by a 7-2 vote, the Court overturned a California form of open primary approved by the voters by a 60-40 vote. Writing for the Majority, Justice Antonin Scalia objected that the California law “forces political parties to associate with—to have their nominees, and hence their positions, determined by—those who, at best, have refused to affiliate with the party, and, at worst, have expressly affiliated with a rival.”

After the California decision the voters of Washington, by a similar 60-40 vote, adopted an open primary system similar to California’s but with a key difference: The candidate would have to declare a “party preference” that would appear next to his or her name on the ballot. In 2008, the Supreme Court, again by a 7-2 vote, this time upheld that law, a ruling that might allow for a variant of the NPL strategy.

Before we develop a strategy for winning office we need to take a page from the NPL playbook and develop a platform, one consisting of specific, concrete, policies, not a laundry list of all desirable policies.

Bernie Sanders and his followers currently are working to write a platform for the Democratic Party convention. That is important and useful, but that platform by its nature will have a national focus and speak to the exercise of power by the federal government. We also need platforms that focus on states and cities and counties and school districts and offer concrete measures they have the authority to enact.

Those platforms will provide the basis for endorsing candidates, regardless of their political affiliation or whether they run in a closed or open primary state. In those states that permit, we may be able to enact various planks of the platform through initiative and referendum. At this point 27 states have initiative and 24 have referendum. Nineteen allow constitutional amendments by initiative.

The Nonpartisan League’s tenure in power was brief, but its policies, the public institutions it built and perhaps most important, the public sentiment it nurtured and brought to maturity, endure to this day: A true example of a political revolution from the bottom up.


About David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its initiative on The Public Good. He is the author of the New City States, Seeing the Light, and three other non-fiction books. His essays on public policy are regularly published by On the Commons, Alternet, Common Dreams and the Huffington Post.

Connect David on twitter or email dmorris@ilsr.org

 


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