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 prerogatives. Fiercely 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?”
“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.
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.
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 Myth. In 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.
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Copyright 2016 Bill Moyers
By Abrahm Lustgarten (Reprinted with permission from ProPublica)
ProPublica’s reporting on the water crisis in the American West has highlighted any number of confounding contradictions worsening the problem: Farmers are encouraged to waste water so as to protect their legal rights to its dwindling supply in the years ahead; Las Vegas sought to impose restrictions on water use while placing no checks on its explosive population growth; the federal government has encouraged farmers to improve efficiency in watering crops, but continues to subsidize the growing of thirsty crops such as cotton in desert states like Arizona.
Today, we offer another installment in the contradictions amid a crisis.
In parts of the western U.S., wracked by historic drought, you can get a tax break for using an abundance of water.
That’s a typo, right? A joke?
Ah, no. But we understand your bafflement. The Colorado River has been trickling, its largest reservoirs less than half full. As recently as 2014 parts of Texas literally almost dried up. The National Academy of Sciences predicts the Southwest may be on the cusp of its worst dry spell in 1,000 years. Scientists are warning that the backup plan — groundwater aquifers from California to Nebraska — are all being sucked dry.
But, yes, the tax break exists — in parts of eight High Plains states.
Here’s how it works: Farmers — or anyone who uses water in a business — can ask the Internal Revenue Service for a tax write-off for what’s called a “depleted asset.” In certain places, water counts as an asset, just like oil, or minerals like copper. The more water gets used, the more cash credit farmers can claim against their income tax. And that’s just what almost 3,000 Texas landowners in just one water district appear to have done last year — a year in which nearly half of Texas was in a state of “severe” or “extreme” drought.”
Yikes. How much can they write off?
A bunch it seems, especially if you’re a big farm and own a lot of land. We talked to an accountant in Levelland, Texas. He had a client who wrote off $10,000. “Whenever you buy land, you’re getting the dirt … and of course you are getting the water,” said Sham Myatt, the accountant. And the idea is that that water is part of what you paid for in the land deal. If the aquifer was 50 feet deep at the time of the land sale, and it drops 10 feet in a dry year, then the farmer can deduct one-fifth of the value, and so on, until all the water is gone.
That’s not going to do much to conserve water, is it?
No. It’s not. In fact it’s an incentive to do the exact opposite. A farmer who tries to use less water because of the drought, say, by switching to really efficient irrigation techniques, could actually make less money. His water might last longer, but producing his crop would get a lot more expensive.
We called Nicholas Brozovic, an associate professor of agricultural economics and director of policy at the University of Nebraska’s Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute. He’d actually never heard of the water deduction; it’s that obscure. But he laid out some textbook economics: If you’re overusing your water, then you are depreciating it, he said. And if the government pays for that, they are subsidizing that depreciation. “The more you deplete your groundwater, the higher your tax exemption and that must create an incentive not to conserve,” he said.
Hasn’t the federal government spent billions subsidizing conservation and the protection of the West’s groundwater, in part by building dams and encouraging people to use the water in rivers instead? Why would they forfeit federal tax dollars to do the opposite?
We called the IRS, and they initially shared our doubts. Not because they cared much about groundwater (it’s a tax agency!) but because they said they were pretty sure no such deduction was legal. They pointed us to section 613 of the tax code, and it couldn’t be more explicit: For the purposes of deducting the depreciating value of minerals, the definition “does not include soil, sod, dirt, turf, water, or mosses.” Ok, who would ever have thought of deducting mosses or sod? But anyway. That left us really confused.
Right, there were, after all, those farmers in Texas who seemed to have benefited from what the IRS said was not possible.
We encouraged the IRS to check again. They did. And then they found the provision they thought didn’t exist — right there in the text for Revenue Rule 65–296. An IRS spokesperson laid out for us the specifics: “Taxpayers are entitled to a cost depletion deduction for the exhaustion of their capital investment in the ground water extracted and disposed of by them in their business of irrigation farming specifically from the Ogallala Formation.”
Seems like some follow-up questions were in order.
For sure. We asked for clarification. The IRS said it would try to explain. Most importantly, they wanted to say it wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounded. The deduction is only available for one small part of the country — an area that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado. And it should only apply if people are using water from a source that is running dry anyway.
But wait, what? You get a break when you use resources that are already in danger of vanishing?
Yes, that’s why it is what’s called a depleted asset. It’s of less and less value with every day. Your car is worth less the moment you drive it off the lot. Or, more similarly, oil companies track the falling value of their reserves the more they pump out from underground. In fact, energy companies have been taking oil depletion breaks for decades. Texas landowners would say their property is getting less valuable the less water there is to use on it.
Okay, okay, but water isn’t oil. It’s not a commodity. Access to it is a basic right. Yes? Please say that’s right.
Wrong. Ouch. I know, it hurts. But ProPublica last year wrote about all the ways water is coveted and controlled — and then often wasted — by just a few powerful groups. In most of the West, only some people and businesses have rights to it, depending on who showed up to claim it first. One big trend is that water is increasingly being bought and sold — including by hedge funds and big Wall Street investors, and the less water there is, the more the price is going up.
That’s a little scary. Let’s get back to depleted assets. So when did this tax break start?
About 50 years ago. A farmer in the Texas panhandle — along with his local water district — successfully sued the IRS, arguing that the roughly 200 million gallons he drew from his groundwater each year was no different than the depletion of the state’s other great natural resource, oil. He won, and the IRS was obliged to create rule 65–296 — the special allowance for tax credits that the IRS almost forgot about.
Again, it was supposed to be limited — just to a slice of Texas and eastern New Mexico. The court even went so far as to warn that the case shouldn’t become a precedent for groundwater tax claims elsewhere, saying the conditions in that area of the country were unique. But it didn’t take long for the rule to be expanded, albeit just a little bit. By the mid 1980’s any landowner overlying the sprawling Ogallala aquifer — a giant underground vault of precious but dwindling water — was eligible to file for the deductions, not just in North Texas and New Mexico.
That still doesn’t sound like much of a big deal … why does it matter?
Well, the Ogallala, which spans from central Texas north to Nebraska and South Dakota is the nation’s largest groundwater reserve and is one of the most important, and (famously) threatened water supplies in the country. Its heavy overuse and plummeting water levels rang alarms among policymakers more than half a century ago. So this is no insignificant place to be even indirectly encouraging overuse. Texas’ High Plains are one of the most intensely irrigated and productive farming regions in the country. Hundreds of thousands of acres of cotton and corn, among other staple commodities, are grown there using this Ogallala water.
So, do we know what’s happening to the Ogallala where all this farming is taking place?
We looked at recent water level changes in just one district — the one with thousands of tax credit claims — and found a disturbing trend. Underground water levels in the 16 counties of the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District have dropped nearly 10 feet over the last 10 years. Some parts of Castro County saw water levels drop more than five feet over the course of 2015 alone. The federal government estimates nearly 100 cubic miles of water have been withdrawn from the Ogallala in that part of Texas. That doesn’t automatically mean the tax credits are responsible — water levels are dropping in most places thanks to overuse and it would take a lot more research to link up the cause and effect. But it certainly isn’t a portrait of sustainability.
Aquifers are at risk across Arizona, California and other states as well, right? At least people can’t claim tax breaks there?
Not yet. But that could change, as water supplies worsen and word of the tax break circulates more widely. Almost no one we spoke with had heard of it — not water lawyers in Arizona or groundwater conservation scientists in California. Armed with the knowledge, there’s a pretty good chance farmers and businesses across the West could seek tax relief.
Because there is precedent?
What does the IRS say to that?
They say it’s very unlikely, mostly because they think the conditions in the Ogallala are rare, and that the agency’s policy is to reject water allowance claims anywhere outside of the places covered in the original lawsuit. But if more landowners, in more places, were to file suits challenging the IRS to allow them to deduct for their water, or if they were to petition the IRS directly, the agency says it would undertake a review to consider it on a case by case basis. Landowners would have to present extensive scientific evidence that showed their situation was more or less the same as in North Texas.
Is the IRS equipped to make such judgments?
Fair question. John Leshy, professor emeritus at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, and a former solicitor for the U.S. Department of Interior, isn’t persuaded. “The IRS has really created a can of worms for itself,” he said. “It doesn’t have any hydrological expertise.”
Hmmm. Not ideal. But what’s the bottom line? Are these tax breaks going to make any real difference in how quickly we use up the water supply?
It’s hard to tell, partly because no one appears to have examined that question. We asked the IRS for data on the number of claims and it hasn’t responded. Folks in Texas dismiss the suggestion that the tax benefits are incentivizing water use as ludicrous. Myatt, the accountant, points out that only about one-third of the deducted value translates to cash in hand, and says for many smaller farmers that amounts to just a few hundred dollars. Jason Coleman, manager of the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, says his members are as concerned about conserving their water for the future as anyone. “Its already a declining resource,” he said. “I just can’t imagine someone saying I’m going to depreciate our resource any more because of a tax claim.”
But the academic consensus is that incentives encourage use, even overuse. And if the effect of depletion allowances on oil production are any guide — Leshy says they have spurred overproduction and led to artificially cheap, subsidized fuel prices — any significant expansion of the groundwater tax credit to other states could have lasting impacts on the way groundwater is used across the country.
So is anyone trying to do anything about this?
Not really, which is why people like Brent Blackwelder, president emeritus of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which has long been involved in rooting out tax policy disincentives to conservation, are fuming. “It’s a pretty major outrage that we would so stupidly reward the over extraction and non-sustainable use of groundwater,” he told me. Blackwelder helped push to purge the tax code of perverse anti-conservation incentives like this one way back in the Reagan administration, with the 1986 Tax Reform Act. They were largely successful, weeding out several other odd loopholes. But the groundwater depletion allowance persisted. And since then, apparently, it’s been forgotten about by all but the farmers who rely on it.
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“There is no moral core inside Donald Trump.”
Reprinted with permission from AlterNet
David Cay Johnston has been one of the nation’s premier investigative reporters for decades, specializing in the ways government works for the wealthy at the expense of everyday Americans. He first met and covered Donald Trump in the 1980s. In his latest book, The Making of Donald Trump, he profiles the many ways the Republican presidential nominee has gotten wealthy by bilking others, colluding with criminals, evading prosecution, and romancing the press. I spoke with Johnston recently about his new book.
Steven Rosenfeld: What are you trying to show readers about Donald Trump that they might not know?
David Cay Johnston: As you know, I’ve been trying to show people how government is creating inequality though all of these rules and laws that nobody knows about. The political donor class—a phrase that I coined by the way—are doing what economists call rent seeking. So I understand people who are terrified—they should be—and who think the government has worked against them. What’s nutty is this belief that Donald Trump is their friend.
This is a man who started his [presidential] campaign by saying wages are too high. This is a man who, when he does construction projects, deals with mob-controlled unions. That’s why Trump Towers [in Manhattan] are concrete, because the steelworkers are an honest union. This is a man who cheats workers out of their pay. Four dollars an hour he paid, and he cheated them out of some of their pay. That’s what a judge found. This is a man who tells vendors, Do this work. They do it and then he says, I am not going to pay you.
I don’t know if you saw the piece the other day where the manager, or whoever was responsible as his witness, at the Doral [Miami], over this guy who didn’t get paid the last $34,000 for his paint—he was a Benjamin Moore paint dealer—testified Mr. Trump felt he had paid enough. Nobody runs their business on that basis. You can think, and with good reason, of all sorts of bad things that corporations do. But they don’t go around saying to vendors or workers, “Uh, we paid enough. We’re not going to pay you.”
He is an enemy of these people. He is an active enemy of the people who have been ruined by this economy. And they’re buying his con job.
SR: Did he get his con artist skills from his dad, the builder Fred Trump?
DCJ: Partly he got it from his dad, whose business partner was a mob front and, as I show in the book, cheated and profiteered on the housing for returning GIs [after WW2]. But Donald also learned a lot from Roy Cohn [New York City mob lawyer and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s assistant in the 1950s anti-communist witch hunts] about how to create a falsehood. Like when the government went after Trump and his dad for discriminating against blacks and Puerto Ricans, and they said, “This was an effort to put people on welfare in our buildings.” No it wasn’t. The [government’s] housing testers who were sent were black and Hispanic people who were economically qualified and they were turned away and then white people showed up with the exact same economics and they were shown multiple apartments.
SR: Since we are seeing some of that in other aspects of the campaign, tell me more about the lessons from Roy Cohn, like Trump’s assertion that if he doesn’t win big, the election is rigged.
DCJ: Always go on the attack. Always accuse the other side of dishonesty. And be ruthless. Remember one of the reasons he loved Roy Cohn—I quote him in the book—whom he regarded as not just as a mentor but as a second father, was he said Roy would brutalize for you. That’s the lesson. Listen, for Donald’s entire life he has broken the rules or ignored the rules and it’s done well for him. So why would you behave any other way? If you were raised in the household where your parents told you be immoral, and you got away with it, well, of course you’d be immoral.
SR: Have you seen that impulse change since you started covering him in the ’80s?
DCJ: Donald is 70 years old. I’m almost the same age, I’m 67. He’s not any different than when I met him, when he was in his early 40s. Donald is a guy who has no empathy for other people, who doesn’t see other people as human beings. He sees them as things to be used. That’s why when he was challenged about cutting off health care for his sickly grandnephew, over money, and he was asked, as I report in the book, “Don’t you think that will look cold-hearted?” [He replied] “What else can I do?” There is no moral core inside Donald Trump. There is no moral compass. It doesn’t exist.
SR: These stories in your book remind me of the badly behaving men in my grandfather’s generation. They were born around WW1, grew up in Brooklyn, didn’t have much to do with people outside their ethnicity and religion. They were sexist, bigots, didn’t need or want college education. They felt if they could just bluff and boss their way around and take whatever they could home, that they were big-time successes. Am I imagining something there?
DCJ: That’s a perfectly accurate way to view this… Donald is a product of his family history, of his time and place, and of his belief that he’s a really superior person, therefore all these other things don’t matter. You either worship and recognize Donald’s greatness or he has a word for you: loser! And it has worked for him. You do things that work for you.
His skill at shutting down law enforcement investigations—I cite those four grand juries, etc.—is extraordinary. He knows when to run to the cops and rat out people, or tell them information that will help them. He knows how to use the court system to cover up what he’s done by making a settlement on the condition that the record be sealed. And he’s masterful at this. It’s just astonishing how masterful he is at it. And then he’s masterful at the conventions of journalism.
All journalists who keep their jobs accurately quote what people tell them. Most journalists, even at the best papers, they don’t have a deep understanding of the things that they are reporting on. I can show you people at the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Wall Street Journal, who really know their stuff. But I can also show you a lot of them who don’t and have pretty superficial knowledge of what they’re doing. Donald avoids group A and he goes for group B.
And his hiring of this guy from Breitbart [Stephen K. Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News site, as his campaign’s new chief executive]. There’s a very good piece I read this morning, how Donald’s lines line up with what’s in Breitbart. Because he clearly reads it. He’s brought this guy over. And so this is Donald’s view of reality, these people who are way off on the fringe crazy.
SR: Tell us how he typically overplays his hand and then reacts and treats others.
DCJ: Donald is not a good negotiator. He’s not a good businessman. And he often overplays his hand because of hubris. What he does when that happens is that he threatens to make terrible trouble for people with litigation, to tie them all up, so what they’ll do is settle with him, because who wants to spend—as one brave guy in the demolition workers did—spend 18 years in litigation with Trump. You just want it to go away. And he knows that. And he uses it. And if you don’t have the money to pursue him for 18 years, you have to have a lawyer who’s really willing to do that, you’re going to be told by the lawyers, there’s no gain here. And he knows that.
SR: The pollster Celinda Lake told me you can’t do much to convince people who believe in Trump to change their minds, but that he can do something to turn them off. Does that sound right to you?
DCJ: I would agree with you, sort of. George Lakoff points out that the people who are drawn to the father figure are very, very loyal, unless something happens that breaks that connection, and then they become fiercely opposed. Where Donald goes too far somewhere, or his statements appear to people to be outside of their acceptable range, some of them will justify it, but some of them will begin pulling away.
On the other side of this, however, is that a lot of the people supporting him—not all of them, but a lot of them—they believe all of this stuff that’s been planted for years about Hillary. I have had grown men with college degrees or advanced degrees who I know personally, because they are in my social circle, who are successful, tell me they can’t vote for Hillary. Well, why, I ask? “Well, because of all the people she’s had killed.” You mean Benghazi, I say? They go, “No. No. No. All the people that she’s had killed and murdered.” You look at them and say this is crazy. But they believe that. And if you believe that Hillary Clinton is really this evil person, then now you are faced with this choice between two evils and you’d rather take the guy who says he’s your champion as you understand the world.
People don’t know that Hillary Clinton, when she graduated from Yale and could have gotten an extraordinarily well-paying job at a top law firm—she would have been in complete demand—she went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund building a case for disabled children, kids in wheelchairs and things, who were denied a public education because of their disability.
SR: I hear this all the time too.
DCJ: I’ll you one thing I do tell people. Without a question, Hillary Clinton said she was under sniper fire—I think it was Bosnia. And it wasn’t true. What was true was they were warned about that. But here’s where she’s different from some other people. As soon as it was pointed out to her that that’s not right, she didn’t repeat it. She didn’t expand the story. She didn’t double down or triple down. She didn’t do what [former NBC anchor] Brian Williams did, where he enhanced the story and it got bigger and bigger. She immediately stopped.
All of us remember things that were wrong. When I was writing The Making of Donald Trump, I did half of a chapter and thought, that’s really good. And then I took a nap. I woke up and took a look and said, Okay, now I have to back and check my clips. I had it wrong. I misremembered what was there. And then I had to rewrite the chapter. Our memories are not computer records. Our memories change with time. We conflate things. We get them wrong. But the difference is Donald just makes things up. And he does it all the time.
SR: I wonder if the people reading your book or hearing about it will finally get that. He’s masterful at knowing that if you throw the first punch in the press, it will be quoted and nine times out of 10 no one will come around to question what’s behind it.
DCJ: That’s right. But to people who are in economic terror—that’s about half the population—Donald Trump poses as a savior. “I will save you.” “Only I can save you.” And to people who have been abandoned by both parties, they’ve been actively worked against by both parties, that’s a powerful message.
And basically it’s the same people who Bernie had, except they don’t have all the baggage with racism and hatred. I hear some of these young Bernie folks being interviewed on TV, and I am sure it’s a relatively small number of them and it’s misleading, but to see them on TV, saying, “I’m going to vote for Trump.” It’s like, how politically ignorant are you?
And I don’t believe the polls are reliable here at all. The polls have been all over the place this year. We have cell phones that have changed the nature of things, and I think lots of people do not want to sit next to a black person on an airplane, or in a restaurant, or work with them, but know if they say that it’s very bad for their work life. I think there are lot of people who will vote for Donald who will never tell a pollster that.
SR: He’s still dominating the news every day.
DCJ: Let me tell you one more thing that I think your audience would cotton to. Last week I did 19 hours on TV and radio one day, and then 12 hours, and 12, and 11. It’s all I’ve been doing since the book came out. It’s TV and radio to the point where it’s all a big blur. I have been on national television in Australia, multiple channels; Japan, Canada, multiple channels; England, multiple channels; France, multiple channels; Germany, national news programs.
None of the three U.S. networks have had a word bout my book. And they have not had me on the Sunday morning talk shows.
I had a producer for a cable show, who I know and bitched about some of this with, and who said to me, “David, they would never have you on a Sunday morning talk show for the most obvious reason. You should know that.” I said, “What’s the obvious reason?” She said, “Well, you would talk actual facts and substance. Watch these shows, they’re all superficial nonsense.” That’s my word—superficial nonsense. It would show up to audiences—the paucity of this. PBS had me on. Everything I said that dealt with Donald and crooks and mobsters, they cut out.
When the election is over, I am going to write some big pieces. One of them is about the press.
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.”]
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.
Elsewhere in the biased media, check out the lies that have been propagated about the convention fracas in Nevada:
Jon Ralston, the dean of political reporting in Nevada, has spread nothing less than a pack of lies about what went down at the state’s Democratic convention on Saturday. And the fact averse oligarchic national media has run completely riot with the provable falsehoods. No chairs were thrown at the convention Saturday. No death threats were made against the chair of the convention Roberta Lange. And Bernie Sanders delegates were not simply mad because their louder shouting was ignored.
Rachel Maddow ran a deceptive clip on MSNBC saying chairs were thrown while reportedly showing footage of chairs thrown at a wrestling production. (I cannot find the original Maddow clip with this as of yet). People on social media then insisted that networks had shown actual footage of chairs thrown at the convention. Maddow retreated only a bit by having Ralston on to say that even though he had not seen the chairs thrown, other eyewitnesses have told him the video is wrong. CNN had Debbie Wasserman-Schultz on to denounce Bernie Bros throwing chairs at the stage.
The biggest truth I’ve learned during this election season:
It’s not about the candidates. It’s never just about the candidates and the “horse race.” It’s always about something much much bigger. And most of us — because of our fascination with celebrity and the seemingly larger-than-life individuals in history — end up acting like enablers of the pernicious lie that it’s just about Bernie and Hillary (and their personal ambitions).
It’s difficult to conceive of a candidate who’s committed to the more prosaic truth that it’s really about all of us … and about the hard work of building a movement, and about our responsibility to work for the success of our principles down-ballot, and in our neighborhood.
How the Raid on Malheur Screened a Future Raid on Real Estate
By William deBuys
Reprinted with permission from Tomdispatch.com
It goes without saying that in a democracy everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions. The trouble starts when people think they are also entitled to their own facts.
Away out West, on the hundreds of millions of acres of public lands that most Americans take for granted (if they are aware of them at all), the trouble is deep, widespread, and won’t soon go away. Last winter’s armed take-over and 41-day occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon is a case in point. It was carried out by people who, if they hadn’t been white and dressed as cowboys, might have been called “terrorists” and treated as such. Their interpretation of the history of western lands and of the judicial basis for federal land ownership — or at least that of their leaders, since they weren’t exactly a band of intellectuals — was only loosely linked to reality.
At least some of them took inspiration from the notion that Jesus Christ wrote the Constitution (which would be news to the Deists, like James Madison, who were its actual authors) and that it prohibits federal ownership of any land excepting administrative sites within the United States — a contention that more than two centuries of American jurisprudence has emphatically repudiated.
The troubling thing is that similar delusions infect pockets of unrest throughout the West, lending a kind of twisted legitimacy to efforts at both the state and national level to transfer western public lands to states and counties. To be sure, not all the proponents of this liquidation of America’s national patrimony subscribe to wing-nut doctrines; sometimes they just use them.
Greed can suffice to motivate those who lust for the real estate bonanzas and resource giveaways that would result if states gained title to, say, the 264 million acres presently controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). General combativeness and hostility toward government also play their roles, and the usual right-wing mega-donors, including the Koch brothers, pump money into a bewildering array of agitator groups to help keep the fires of resentment burning.
The louder the drum chant of crazy “facts” gets, the more the Alice-in-Wonderland logic behind them threatens to seize the popular narrative about America’s public lands — how they came to be and what they represent. This, in turn, prepares the way for the betrayal of one of the nation’s deepest traditions and for the loss of yet more of its natural heritage. Conversely, those who value American public lands have been laggard in articulating an updated vision for those open spaces appropriate to the twenty-first century and capable of expressing what the unsettled “fruited plains” and “purple mountain majesties” of the West still mean for our national experience and our capacity to meet the challenges of the future.
The Malice at Malheur
The leaders of the Malheur occupation, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, are the sons of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher and public lands scofflaw who gained notoriety two years ago following a standoff with federal law enforcement officers. Back in the 1990s, the elder Bundy had stopped paying grazing fees, claiming that the federal government had no authority to regulate the public lands where his cattle fed. In 2014, with Bundy $1.1 million in arrears and his grazing permits transferred to the local county government, the Bureau of Land Management moved to round up and confiscate his 400 head of cattle.
Via social media, Bundy appealed to militia and “patriot” groups for support, and hundreds of armed resisters rallied to his ranch 90 miles north of Las Vegas. When the ensuing showdown threatened to become a bloodbath like the Waco siege of 1993, the authorities withdrew.
The government’s retreat and its failure to arrest members of the Bundy family or their allies for acts of armed resistance set the stage for the Malheur takeover, but the roots of the incident go back to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s and the Wise Use Movement that succeeded it. The Sagebrush Rebellion was triggered by a national inventory of public lands to identify areas appropriate for designation as “wilderness” (under the National Wilderness Preservation System). Its advocates also protested the enforcement of government protections for archaeological sites and endangered species. Wise Use groups echoed those complaints and essentially argued against anything the environmental movement was for, urging the amped-up exploitation of natural resources on western lands.
Ammon Bundy put his own rogue-Mormon spin on that message by claiming divine inspiration and sanction for his actions. Ostensibly, the Malheur occupation was intended to show support for nearby ranchers Dwight and Stephen Hammond, who faced jail terms for setting illegal range fires (and who immediately distanced themselves from the occupation). But Bundy didn’t stop there. He called on “patriots all over the country” to join his cause and help “free up” federal land for ranching, mining, and logging, pointedly adding, “We need you to bring your guns.”
Malheur was an odd place for white guys to make a stand in favor of “returning” federal land to its “rightful owners” — that is, themselves. The refuge was established in 1908 when Teddy Roosevelt declared a modest area of public domain to be a wildlife refuge. If anyone then occupied the land, it was members of the Burns Paiute tribe, not white settlers. In the 1930s, the refuge expanded when the government bought the bankrupt remnants of a former cattle baron’s empire. At the time, Malheur was its own mini-Dust Bowl. The purchase, which enlarged protection for once-fabulous wetlands supporting thousands of migrating birds, was essentially a bailout.
The people who joined the Bundys in the Malheur occupation were a strange lot. Few had any relationship to ranching or actual cows, aside from sitting down to eat a hamburger. Some were ex-military; others claimed to be (but weren’t). Quite a few had links to Tea Party groups or to “patriot” organizations including the Oath Keepers, theThree Percenters, and an assortment of other militia outfits. One described himself as “an old hippie from San Francisco,” jazzed by the excitement of the occupation and uncaring about its purposes. He also happened to be a convicted murderer (second degree) — of his father.
Straight thinking was not a requirement for admission to the occupiers’ cause. The fellow who photogenically rode his horse around the refuge while displaying a large American flag, for example, turned out to be acutely concerned lest the federal government divest itself of public lands. He feared the loss of access to cherished places where he liked to ride his horse. Because of that, he joined an armed effort aimed at forcing the government to do exactly what he didn’t want. Go figure.
Following the shooting death of LaVoy Finicum, the Malheur occupier who committed suicide-by-cop at a roadblock on January 26th, the occupation unraveled. At last count, the Bundy brothers and 24 others had been arrested and charged with a laundry list of crimes, including conspiracy to prevent federal employees from carrying out their duties and destruction of public property. All but one or two of them are still in jail.
Nor did the feds stop there. They finally nabbed Cliven Bundy at an airport after he attended a memorial service for Finicum, and also charged 18 others in connection with the 2014 Nevada standoff. Some of the 18 were already in custody for their involvement at Malheur. Bundy’s illegal cattle, which the government unsuccessfully tried to confiscate in 2014, remain at large.
More Mad Cowboy Disease in Utah
Despite the government’s thorough, if belated, crackdown, the hostility toward public lands on display at Malheur has hardly been contained. Such resentments are of a piece with the anger suffusing the presidential campaigns, although paradoxically enough Donald Trump has spoken out in favor of retaining federal lands. (Ted Cruz, by contrast, campaigned against Trump in Nevada by promising to “fight day and night to return full control of Nevada’s lands to its rightful owners, its citizens.”)
The darkest side of this “movement” is undoubtedly its well-documented association with armed militia groups and their persistent threat of violence. Gunmen from the Oath Keepers, for instance, obstructed federal officials from shutting down mines violating environmental regulations in both Oregon and Montana. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the current, rapid growth of militia groups is unprecedented and appears to have been spurred by the 2014 standoff at the Bundy ranch. Notices for “meet-ups” among “patriots” to show support for the incarcerated Bundys and the “martyred” Finicum are abundant on social media.
A similar virus has infected several western state legislatures, including those of Montana, Oregon, Wyoming, and Nevada. Representative Michele Fiore, who hovered at the fringes of the Malheur occupation, for instance, introduced a bill in the Nevada legislature to transfer federal lands there to state control, irrespective of federal wishes. Considered patently unconstitutional, it was quickly dismissed. A Nevada senate resolution calling on Washington D.C. to initiate action to transfer those lands received more serious consideration.
The game is being played more cagily in Utah. There, lawmakers approved legislation in March that authorized and partly funded the state’s attorney general to sue the federal government for title to approximately 30 million acres of Utah public lands. The suit would pursue strategies advanced via a study produced by a New Orleans law firm outlining “legitimate legal theories” that, it contended, might lead to the wholesale transfer of lands to the state.
The expected cost of the litigation has been estimated at $14 million and Utah has sought allies among other western states. So far, they’ve found no takers willing to join the suit, possibly because other attorneys general have concluded that the legal theories behind it are rubbish.
Utah has also exported its anti-federalism to Capitol Hill. One of its congressmen, Rob Bishop, currently chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and sympathetically held hearings in February on several bills, introduced by representatives from Alaska, Idaho, and Utah, that would place federal lands under state control. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska and chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has promoted similar bills in the Senate.
Hanging on to “the Solace of Open Spaces”
Lost among the headlines, sound bites, and posturing is any serious discussion of America’s public lands and their purposes. Ammon Bundy was completely correct, early in the occupation of Malheur, when he said, “This refuge is rightfully owned by the people.” His problem was that his definition of “people” only included people like him. The Burns Paiute tribe, whose ancestral homeland includes Malheur and whose sacred sites are protected by federal law, certainly did not figure into his plans. The thousands of annual visitors to Malheur, who appreciate its 320 bird species and other wildlife, and the millions more who support the National Wildlife Refuge System, also seem not to be the “people” Bundy had in mind. The same might be said for anyone attracted to the idea of intact natural landscapes and functioning ecosystems.
The greatest vulnerability of America’s public lands is that the millions of their rightful owners scarcely know they exist. Ask the average New Yorker what the Bureau of Land Management is, and the odds are that you’ll get a confused stare. Even many people in the West, who live close to those public lands, have trouble differentiating the National Parks from the National Forests, though those two classes of land are administered for substantially different purposes by two different government departments, Interior and Agriculture. Yet most people agree that the wild open spaces of the nation’s grandest landscapes constitute a collective treasure.
In essence, they are our national commons, our shared resource, not just for material goods, like timber, clean water, and minerals, but for recreation and inspiration. Seventy percent of all hunters are said to use public lands, and the percentages of birders, campers, hikers, and other recreationists must be at least as high. Public lands also help buffer us against the uncertainties of the future. Only public lands, for instance, spread unbroken over great enough distances to offer the connectedness that many plants and animals will require to adapt, to the extent possible, to a warming climate. Moreover, as the struggle to wean the economy away from fossil fuels continues, only public lands, with their unified federal ownership, are susceptible to the kind of sweeping shift in national energy policy necessary to “keep it in the ground.”
For all these reasons, the future of the nation’s 640 million acres of public lands deserves a more prominent place in our national discourse. The patterns of the past, emphasizing extractive, industrial uses of those lands, have long been in decline. An alternate path focused on restoration and biodiversity conservation has instead steadily gained traction, and indeed, its priorities — which include making room for endangered species — have inspired many of the objections of the Malheur occupiers.
Two things are certain: when large acreages of public domain are transferred to the states, significant portions of them end up being sold off to private interests. That creates a new kind of inequality that, in the natural world, parallels this era’s growing economic gap between rich and poor. It is an inequality of access to big, wild lands and to the ineffable something that Wyoming writer Gretel Ehrlich called the “solace of open spaces” and Pulitzer-winning novelist Wallace Stegner termed “the native home of hope.”
Thanks to the great western commons, which the Bundys and their legislative champions would like to dismantle, all Americans still enjoy the freedom to roam on some of the most spectacular lands on the planet. That access and that connection have been part of the American experience from Plymouth Rock through the westward migration to the present day. It is part of what makes us Americans.
The Depression-era folksinger Woody Guthrie understood the issues attending the privatization of common land. He offered his opinion of them in the least sung verse of his most famous song:
“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
Sign was painted, said: “Private Property”
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.”
William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of eight books, the most recent of which is The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures. He has written extensively on water, drought, and climate in the West, including A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. Based in New Mexico, he has managed ranches and devised cooperative grazing programs involving both ranchers and government land managers.
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Copyright 2016 William deBuys
In January 2011, I presented a futures research project to the Progressive Caucus in Congress, then the largest of all the caucuses in that body. The report, Progressives 2040 — which was sponsored by ProgressiveCongress.org and published by Demos — analyzed a large set of major trends that would shape the future of the progressive movement for the next three decades, and offered a set of scenarios that illustrated how these trends might work together to create a range of possible futures that the movement will need to be prepared for.
This is the first post in “What We Know About The Progressive Future” — a series that I imagine will be a long (probably 10-12 post) look at that research five years on, updating my conclusions and taking a fresh look at the big drivers and high leverage points that will determine the future of our movement.
For most pundits, the most striking thing about the Iowa Caucus was the virtual tie between the two Democratic candidates (which portends a longer and perhaps more exciting election season and higher ratings for those in the media to look forward to), and the surprising 1-2-and-3 order of Cruz, Trump, and Rubio. I’m writing this less than 24 hours after the caucuses ended, and more than enough on both these topics has already been written by others (for God’s sake, people, it’s just Iowa), so I’m going to spare you another analysis ex cathedra from my belly button as to What It All Means For November.
I’m far more interested in another trend that emerged last night — a small detail that will almost certainly have a much longer historical tail than anything else that might happen between now and Election Day. This trend was crystallized by the stunning fact that Bernie Sanders got 85% of the votes of caucus-goers under 30.
That’s not a typo. Eighty-five percent.
That’s a number that strategists from every end of the political spectrum need to be paying attention to, because it is heralding the arrival of the Millennial Generation as a political force to be reckoned with.
My report saw this coming. Back in January 2011, I wrote this about them:
The Millennial generation (born 1980-2000) is the largest and most ethnically diverse generation in American history, with 44% identifying as members of a racial minority. They are the most globally connected generation to date: they travel more, speak more languages, and have friends all over the world. They are more progressive in their core values and attitudes that any cohort we’ve seen in at least a century. And they are rising fast: by 2020, they will be outvoting their elders, dominating elections and bringing their own priorities to the table. We can expect the Millennials to launch their first serious presidential candidate in 2020, and elect their first president probably no later than 2024.
Perhaps the most important fact about the Millennials is the sheer size of this generation. They’re the first cohort we’ve seen in the past 40 years that’s actually big enough to swamp their Boomer parents, whose interests and worldviews have dominated American politics ever since the youngest of them hit voting age in the late 1970s. The Boom was the biggest generation in American history, to the point where their sheer size itself was transformative (as they say: quantity has a quality all its own). But the Millennials are even bigger. And between now and 2020, the youngest edge of this generation will finally turn 18 and register to vote. The results stand to be at least as transformative for us as a nation as the moment when the Boomers themselves arrived.
Conservative Millennials? Don’t hold your breath
Any number of GOP pundits have written thumb-sucking articles explaining how this cohort is going to become more conservative as it ages (because every generation does, right?) Feel free to rip those up: it’s not likely to happen, for several reasons — starting with the fact that no, not every generation does. The Boomers did, because from left to right and youth through their approaching old age, they’ve shared a belief in radical individualism — the primacy of the individual over any claims made by society — that fed everything from Evangelicalism and free market fundamentalism on the right to New Age religions and social experimentation on the left. That individualism is the one shining through-line that defines everything that generation has ever embraced. It made them hippies. And it also made them vote for Reagan.
The Millennials are their historical opposite number — a generation raised from babyhood to cooperate, share, include, network, and self-organize. They value conformity (Boomers and Xers are horrified by the “calling out” ritual that Millennials run on each other constantly as they vigilantly police each other’s behavior. We’d have choked on our own spit before telling each other what to say, think or do; and would have rightly expected to be told to fuck off if we tried it), and as this pervades their politics in the coming decades, it’s going to involve a lot of telling other people how they should live. That’s how their GI grandparents created and enforced the great American Consensus of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, and it’s how they’re going to re-create a new consensus about the Next America they’re going to build.
That bred-in-the-bone collectivism is likely to be as durable a lifelong feature as Boomer individualism has been; but it stands in stark opposition to conservatism as it’s currently constituted. It’s possible to imagine another, distinctively Millennial form of conservatism emerging in time — but it would have to be rooted in the idea of a strong social contract, one that obligates individuals to cede some of their desires to the greater good, represented by trusted authorities — and is willing to use social shame as an enforcement mechanism. The GOP is a long way from offering any narratives along these lines now. If they do emerge, it could take another 20 years or more, becoming something today’s Millennials embrace as they age on through their 40s, 50s and 60s.
Other conservatives hold out hope that that all-time-high number of Millennials from immigrant families will benefit them in time, since the usual pattern has been for second-generation immigrants (the first generation born here) to do very well educationally and economically, and to vote more conservatively than either their parents or their third-gen kids. That might be a very plausible scenario — except for the nasty fact that Millennials have already grown up scarred and terrorized by a GOP that has never been able to lay off immigrant-bashing. Again, it’s going to take a radical change within that party — plus another 15 years of over-the-top effort — to win even the grudging trust of a generation that’s already marinated in decades of conservative anti-immigrant hysteria before that’s even remotely likely.
In any event: anybody waiting for the Great Millennial Conservative Revival probably shouldn’t hold their breath. If it comes at all, it’s going to be a very long while indeed. In the meantime, these young adults have a revolution to pull off. And that moment is coming — much sooner than anybody seems ready to think.
Millennials and Elections
Obama, to his credit, was the first candidate to recognize the raw political power and profound unrest of this rising cohort in 2008. Even though fully half of the Millennial generation was still too young to vote, his overt efforts to capture the energy and attention of the half that could was a conscious strategy. The Millennials ended up supplying him with the margin that put him over the top in the election — support he later rewarded by bringing home the troops (most of whom were Millennials) and restructuring the federal student loan program to make over $30 billion more in Pell Grants available and reduce the loan burden on new graduates (both of which were policies I pointed to in my original 2011 report).
But the Millennials want more. They’re looking into a future that most of them understand is a fatal dead end without a radical, rip-up-the-floorboards restructuring of how the entire planet works — how we do everything from energy and money to community and education to transportation and agriculture. This yearning for a different kind of world even has the potential to upend our current understandings of “right” and “left,” as I wrote in my report:
Some research suggests that this generation’s politics lean toward the “independent” and the “centrist.” However, those words don’t mean the same thing to under-30 Americans that they do to older ones. The self-described “independents” also express core values that are deeply collectivist and inclusive, which gives them a strong affinity for progressive ideas and solutions. (Studies by Pew and Barna have even found these same affinities among self-identified conservatives in this cohort.) Likewise, these “centrists” see their generation’s communal focus on a shared future and shared prosperity as a matter of plain common sense. To them, “we’re in this together” is not a radical idea; indeed, it stands at the center of their politics.
The Millennials spurned Hillary in 2008 because they were craving a true change candidate — and Obama promised to be that. But in the end, the change he could deliver wasn’t enough. And that’s why this generation is going, overwhelmingly, for Bernie Sanders, whom they see as sitting entirely outside the corrupt party system that made it impossible for Obama to give them the goods, unbeholden to Wall Street, uncontaminated by party cronyism, unfiltered in the media — someone who seems to be entirely their own. This is what their candidates look like — and are going to continue to look like for the next several election cycles.
Given that the youngest 15% or so of the Millennial cohort is still too young to vote, it’s not clear that the Millennials will get their revolution this year. My prediction above that they’d dominate our elections by 2020 was based on the fact that that’s when the very tail end of the cohort — the ones born in 2000 — will all have reached adulthood, putting them finally at their full political strength. Whether or not they show up for 2016 is also complicated by a few other factors, including:
- How disillusioned the older ones are following their experience with Obama, whom many of them feel very disappointed by — a real problem that surfaced in 2012, when many of them didn’t return to the polls.
- The general tendency of young adults in their 20s to not vote. Voting is a behavior that becomes more reliable with age. By 2020, the oldest Millennials will be 40, and half will be over 30 — which means they should start showing up far more regularly.
- Persistent efforts on the part of the GOP to disenfranchise students, which have large effects in some parts of the country.
- How well Sanders survives the onslaught of conservative attacks that we all know are coming.
It’s safe to say that the Millennials will be a vastly bigger factor in 2016 than they were in either 2008 or 2012 — and that Sanders’ success to date can and should be interpreted as this generation’s announcement of its growing political presence with far louder and more insistent authority than we’ve ever heard from them before.
However, in this election cycle, it’s not at all clear that it will be enough to get them what they want. We are tantalizingly close to a generational tipping point, but have not completely arrived at it just quite yet. But by the next cycle, that point will almost certainly be well behind us — and from then on, for the next 40 years, our politics will be pretty much entirely dominated, owned, and determined by the Millennials’ collectivist worldviews, interests, desires, and priorities. They will, this time or next, succeed in voting themselves the transformation they seek. It’s not a question of if, but when.
What we’re seeing when we look at the Bernie Sanders phenomenon is a direct window into our own political future. When will it emerge? Maybe not today, and maybe not this November — but it’s coming soon, and it or something like it will be the dominant political reality for the rest of our lives.
Photo: Ian Buck via Flickr
Sara Robinson is a Seattle-based futurist and veteran blogger on culture, politics, and religion. Since 2006, her work (gathered in the Archive section of her blog) regularly appeared at Orcinus, Our Future, Group News Blog, and Alternet. She’s also written for Salon, Huffington Post, Grist, the New Republic, New York Magazine, Firedoglake, and many other sites.
Robinson holds an MS in Futures Studies from the University of Houston, and a BA in Journalism from the USC Annenberg School of Communication. She was a Schumann Fellow, and also held senior fellowships at the Campaign for America’s Future and the Commonweal Foundation. She currently serves on the national board of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
By Robert Reich
Reprinted from Robert Reich’s blog at robertreich.org
A crowning achievement of the historic March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech, was pushing through the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Recognizing the history of racist attempts to prevent Black people from voting, that federal law forced a number of southern states and districts to adhere to federal guidelines allowing citizens access to the polls.
But in 2013 the Supreme Court effectively gutted many of these protections. As a result, states are finding new ways to stop more and more people—especially African-Americans and other likely Democratic voters—from reaching the polls.
Several states are requiring government-issued photo IDs—like drivers licenses—to vote even though there’s no evidence of the voter fraud this is supposed to prevent. But there’s plenty of evidence that these ID measures depress voting, especially among communities of color, young voters, and lower-income Americans.
Alabama, after requiring photo IDs, has practically closed driver’s license offices in counties with large percentages of black voters. Wisconsin requires a government-issued photo ID but hasn’t provided any funding to explain to prospective voters how to secure those IDs.
Other states are reducing opportunities for early voting.
And several state legislatures—not just in the South—are gerrymandering districts to reduce the political power of people of color and Democrats, and thereby guarantee Republican control in Congress.
We need to move to the next stage of voting rights—a new Voting Rights Act—that renews the law that was effectively repealed by the conservative activists on the Supreme Court.
That new Voting Rights Act should also set minimum national standards—providing automatic voter registration when people get driver’s licenses, allowing at least 2 weeks of early voting, and taking districting away from the politicians and putting it under independent commissions.
Voting isn’t a privilege. It’s a right. And that right is too important to be left to partisan politics. We must not allow anyone’s votes to be taken away.
ROBERT B. REICH is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock, “The Work of Nations,” and”Beyond Outrage,” and, his most recent, “Saving Capitalism.” He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, INEQUALITY FOR ALL.
By Thomas Frank, author of the just-published Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books) from which this essay is adapted. He has also written Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, and What’s the Matter With Kansas? among other works. He is the founding editor of The Baffler. Reprinted with permission from Tomdispatch.com
When you press Democrats on their uninspiring deeds — their lousy free trade deals, for example, or their flaccid response to Wall Street misbehavior — when you press them on any of these things, they automatically reply that this is the best anyone could have done. After all, they had to deal with those awful Republicans, and those awful Republicans wouldn’t let the really good stuff get through. They filibustered in the Senate. They gerrymandered the congressional districts. And besides, change takes a long time. Surely you don’t think the tepid-to-lukewarm things Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have done in Washington really represent the fiery Democratic soul.
So let’s go to a place that does. Let’s choose a locale where Democratic rule is virtually unopposed, a place where Republican obstruction and sabotage can’t taint the experiment.
Let’s go to Boston, Massachusetts, the spiritual homeland of the professional class and a place where the ideology of modern liberalism has been permitted to grow and flourish without challenge or restraint. As the seat of American higher learning, it seems unsurprising that Boston should anchor one of the most Democratic of states, a place where elected Republicans (like the new governor) are highly unusual. This is the city that virtually invented the blue-state economic model, in which prosperity arises from higher education and the knowledge-based industries that surround it.
The coming of post-industrial society has treated this most ancient of American cities extremely well. Massachusetts routinely occupies the number one spot on the State New Economy Index, a measure of how “knowledge-based, globalized, entrepreneurial, IT-driven, and innovation-based” a place happens to be. Boston ranks high on many of Richard Florida’s statistical indices of approbation — in 2003, it was number one on the “creative class index,” number three in innovation and in high tech — and his many books marvel at the city’s concentration of venture capital, its allure to young people, or the time it enticed some firm away from some unenlightened locale in the hinterlands.
Boston’s knowledge economy is the best, and it is the oldest. Boston’s metro area encompasses some 85 private colleges and universities, the greatest concentration of higher-ed institutions in the country — probably in the world. The region has all the ancillary advantages to show for this: a highly educated population, an unusually large number of patents, and more Nobel laureates than any other city in the country.
The city’s Route 128 corridor was the original model for a suburban tech district, lined ever since it was built with defense contractors and computer manufacturers. The suburbs situated along this golden thoroughfare are among the wealthiest municipalities in the nation, populated by engineers, lawyers, and aerospace workers. Their public schools are excellent, their downtowns are cute, and back in the seventies their socially enlightened residents were the prototype for the figure of the “suburban liberal.”
Another prototype: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, situated in Cambridge, is where our modern conception of the university as an incubator for business enterprises began. According to a report on MIT’s achievements in this category, the school’s alumni have started nearly 26,000 companies over the years, including Intel, Hewlett Packard, and Qualcomm. If you were to take those 26,000 companies as a separate nation, the report tells us, its economy would be one of the most productive in the world.
Then there are Boston’s many biotech and pharmaceutical concerns, grouped together in what is known as the “life sciences super cluster,” which, properly understood, is part of an “ecosystem” in which PhDs can “partner” with venture capitalists and in which big pharmaceutical firms can acquire small ones. While other industries shrivel, the Boston super cluster grows, with the life-sciences professionals of the world lighting out for the Athens of America and the massive new “innovation centers” shoehorning themselves one after the other into the crowded academic suburb of Cambridge.
To think about it slightly more critically, Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and which increase at a far more rapid pace than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, 30 grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has madethis city so very rich.
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that another category in which Massachusetts ranks highly is inequality. Once the visitor leaves the brainy bustle of Boston, he discovers that this state is filled with wreckage — with former manufacturing towns in which workers watch their way of life draining away, and with cities that are little more than warehouses for people on Medicare. According to one survey, Massachusetts has the eighth-worst rate of income inequality among the states; by another metric it ranks fourth. However you choose to measure the diverging fortunes of the country’s top 10% and the rest, Massachusetts always seems to finish among the nation’s most unequal places.
Seething City on a Cliff
You can see what I mean when you visit Fall River, an old mill town 50 miles south of Boston. Median household income in that city is $33,000, among the lowest in the state; unemployment is among the highest, 15% in March 2014, nearly five years after the recession ended. Twenty-three percent of Fall River’s inhabitants live in poverty. The city lost its many fabric-making concerns decades ago and with them it lost its reason for being. People have been deserting the place for decades.
Many of the empty factories in which their ancestors worked are still standing, however. Solid nineteenth-century structures of granite or brick, these huge boxes dominate the city visually — there always seems to be one or two of them in the vista, contrasting painfully with whatever colorful plastic fast-food joint has been slapped up next door.
Most of the old factories are boarded up, unmistakable emblems of hopelessness right up to the roof. But the ones that have been successfully repurposed are in some ways even worse, filled as they often are with enterprises offering cheap suits or help with drug addiction. A clinic in the hulk of one abandoned mill has a sign on the window reading simply “Cancer & Blood.”
The effect of all this is to remind you with every prospect that this is a place and a way of life from which the politicians have withdrawn their blessing. Like so many other American scenes, this one is the product of decades of deindustrialization, engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats. This is a place where affluence never returns — not because affluence for Fall River is impossible or unimaginable, but because our country’s leaders have blandly accepted a social order that constantly bids down the wages of people like these while bidding up the rewards for innovators, creatives, and professionals.
Even the city’s one real hope for new employment opportunities — an Amazon warehouse that is now in the planning stages — will serve to lock in this relationship. If all goes according to plan, and if Amazon sticks to the practices it has pioneered elsewhere, people from Fall River will one day get to do exhausting work with few benefits while being electronically monitored for efficiency, in order to save the affluent customers of nearby Boston a few pennies when they buy books or electronics.
But that is all in the future. These days, the local newspaper publishes an endless stream of stories about drug arrests, shootings, drunk-driving crashes, the stupidity of local politicians, and the lamentable surplus of “affordable housing.” The town is up to its eyeballs in wrathful bitterness against public workers. As in: Why do they deserve a decent life when the rest of us have no chance at all? It’s every man for himself here in a “competition for crumbs,” as a Fall River friend puts it.
The Great Entrepreneurial Awakening
If Fall River is pocked with empty mills, the streets of Boston are dotted with facilities intended to make innovation and entrepreneurship easy and convenient. I was surprised to discover, during the time I spent exploring the city’s political landscape, that Boston boasts a full-blown Innovation District, a disused industrial neighborhood that has actually been zoned creative — a projection of the post-industrial blue-state ideal onto the urban grid itself. The heart of the neighborhood is a building called “District Hall” — “Boston’s New Home for Innovation” — which appeared to me to be a glorified multipurpose room, enclosed in a sharply angular façade, and sharing a roof with a restaurant that offers “inventive cuisine for innovative people.” The Wi-Fi was free, the screens on the walls displayed famous quotations about creativity, and the walls themselves were covered with a high-gloss finish meant to be written on with dry-erase markers; but otherwise it was not much different from an ordinary public library. Aside from not having anything to read, that is.
This was my introduction to the innovation infrastructure of the city, much of it built up by entrepreneurs shrewdly angling to grab a piece of the entrepreneur craze. There are “co-working” spaces, shared offices for startups that can’t afford the real thing. There are startup “incubators” and startup “accelerators,” which aim to ease the innovator’s eternal struggle with an uncaring public: the Startup Institute, for example, and the famous MassChallenge, the “World’s Largest Startup Accelerator,” which runs an annual competition for new companies and hands out prizes at the end.
And then there are the innovation Democrats, led by former Governor Deval Patrick, who presided over the Massachusetts government from 2007 to 2015. He is typical of liberal-class leaders; you might even say he is their most successful exemplar. Everyone seems to like him, even his opponents. He is a witty and affable public speaker as well as a man of competence, a highly educated technocrat who is comfortable in corporate surroundings. Thanks to his upbringing in a Chicago housing project, he also understands the plight of the poor, and (perhaps best of all) he is an honest politician in a state accustomed to wide-open corruption. Patrick was also the first black governor of Massachusetts and, in some ways, an ideal Democrat for the era of Barack Obama — who, as it happens, is one of his closest political allies.
As governor, Patrick became a kind of missionary for the innovation cult. “The Massachusetts economy is an innovation economy,” he liked to declare, and he made similar comments countless times, slightly varying the order of the optimistic keywords: “Innovation is a centerpiece of the Massachusetts economy,” et cetera. The governor opened “innovation schools,” a species of ramped-up charter school. He signed the “Social Innovation Compact,” which had something to do with meeting “the private sector’s need for skilled entry-level professional talent.” In a 2009 speech called “The Innovation Economy,” Patrick elaborated the political theory of innovation in greater detail, telling an audience of corporate types in Silicon Valley about Massachusetts’s “high concentration of brainpower” and “world-class” universities, and how “we in government are actively partnering with the private sector and the universities, to strengthen our innovation industries.”
What did all of this inno-talk mean? Much of the time, it was pure applesauce — standard-issue platitudes to be rolled out every time some pharmaceutical company opened an office building somewhere in the state.
On some occasions, Patrick’s favorite buzzword came with a gigantic price tag, like the billion dollars in subsidies and tax breaks that the governor authorized in 2008 to encourage pharmaceutical and biotech companies to do business in Massachusetts. On still other occasions, favoring inno has meant bulldozing the people in its path — for instance, the taxi drivers whose livelihoods are being usurped by ridesharing apps like Uber. When these workers staged a variety of protests in the Boston area, Patrick intervened decisively on the side of the distant software company. Apparently convenience for the people who ride in taxis was more important than good pay for people who drive those taxis. It probably didn’t hurt that Uber had hired a former Patrick aide as a lobbyist, but the real point was, of course, innovation: Uber was the future, the taxi drivers were the past, and the path for Massachusetts was obvious.
A short while later, Patrick became something of an innovator himself. After his time as governor came to an end last year, he won a job as a managing director of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that was founded by his predecessor Mitt Romney — and that had been so powerfully denounced by Democrats during the 2012 election. Patrick spoke about the job like it was just another startup: “It was a happy and timely coincidence I was interested in building a business that Bain was also interested in building,” he told theWall Street Journal. Romney reportedly phoned him with congratulations.
At a 2014 celebration of Governor Patrick’s innovation leadership, Google’s Eric Schmidt announced that “if you want to solve the economic problems of the U.S., create more entrepreneurs.” That sort of sums up the ideology in this corporate commonwealth: Entrepreneurs first. But how has such a doctrine become holy writ in a party dedicated to the welfare of the common man? And how has all this come to pass in the liberal state of Massachusetts?
The answer is that I’ve got the wrong liberalism. The kind of liberalism that has dominated Massachusetts for the last few decades isn’t the stuff of Franklin Roosevelt or the United Auto Workers; it’s the Route 128/suburban-professionals variety. (Senator Elizabeth Warren is the great exception to this rule.) Professional-class liberals aren’t really alarmed by oversized rewards for society’s winners. On the contrary, this seems natural to them — because they are society’s winners. The liberalism of professionals just does not extend to matters of inequality; this is the area where soft hearts abruptly turn hard.
Innovation liberalism is “a liberalism of the rich,” to use the straightforward phrase of local labor leader Harris Gruman. This doctrine has no patience with the idea that everyone should share in society’s wealth. What Massachusetts liberals pine for, by and large, is a more perfect meritocracy — a system where the essential thing is to ensure that the truly talented get into the right schools and then get to rise through the ranks of society. Unfortunately, however, as the blue-state model makes painfully clear, there is no solidarity in a meritocracy. The ideology of educational achievement conveniently negates any esteem we might feel for the poorly graduated.
This is a curious phenomenon, is it not? A blue state where the Democrats maintain transparent connections to high finance and big pharma; where they have deliberately chosen distant software barons over working-class members of their own society; and where their chief economic proposals have to do with promoting “innovation,” a grand and promising idea that remains suspiciously vague. Nor can these innovation Democrats claim that their hands were forced by Republicans. They came up with this program all on their own.
Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books) from which this essay is adapted. He has also written Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, and What’s the Matter With Kansas? among other works. He is the founding editor of The Baffler.
Copyright 2016 Thomas Frank
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The other week, feeling sick, I spent a day on my couch with the TV on and was reminded of an odd fact of American life. More than seven months before Election Day, you can watch the 2016 campaign for the presidency at any moment of your choosing, and that’s been true since at least late last year. There is essentially never a time when some network or news channel isn’t reporting on, discussing, debating, analyzing, speculating about, or simply drooling over some aspect of the primary campaign, of Hillary, Bernie, Ted, and above all — a million times above all — The Donald (from the violence at his rallies to the size of his hands). In case you’re young and think this is more or less the American norm, it isn’t. Or wasn’t.
Truly, there is something new under the sun. Of course, in 1994 with O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco chase (95 million viewers!), the 24/7 media event arrived full blown in American life and something changed when it came to the way we focused on our world and the media focused on us. But you can be sure of one thing: never in the history of television, or any other form of media, has a single figure garnered the amount of attention — hour after hour, day after day, week after week — as Donald Trump. If he’s the O.J. Simpson of twenty-first-century American politics and his run for the presidency is the eternal white Ford Bronco chase of our moment, then we’re in a truly strange world.
Or let me put it another way: this is not an election. I know the word “election” is being used every five seconds and somewhere along the line significant numbers of Americans (particularly, this season, Republicans) continue to enter voting booths or in the case of primary caucuses, school gyms and the like, to choose among various candidates, so it’s all still election-like. But take my word for it as a 71-year-old guy who’s been watching our politics for decades: this is not an election of the kind the textbooks once taught us was so crucial to American democracy. If, however, you’re sitting there waiting for me to tell you what it is, take a breath and don’t be too disappointed. I have no idea, though it’s certainly part bread-and-circuses spectacle, part celebrity obsession, and part media money machine.
Actually, before we go further, let me hedge my bets on the idea that Donald Trump is a twenty-first-century O.J. Simpson. It’s certainly a reasonable enough comparison, but I’ve begun to wonder about the usefulness of just about any comparison in our present situation. Even the most nightmarish of them — Donald Trump is Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, or any past extreme demagogue of your choice — may actually prove to be covert gestures of consolation, reassurance, and comfort. Yes, what’s happening in our world is increasingly extreme and could hardly be weirder, we seem to have the urge to say, but it’s still recognizable. It’s something we’ve encountered before, something we’ve made sense of in the past and, in the process, overcome.
Round Up the Usual SuspectsBut what if that’s not true? In some ways, the most frightening, least acceptable thing to say about our American world right now — even if Donald Trump’s overwhelming presence all but begs us to say it — is that we’ve entered uncharted territory and, under the circumstances, comparisons might actually impair our ability to come to grips with our new reality. My own suspicion: Donald Trump is only the most obvious instance of this, the example no one can miss.In these first years of the twenty-first century, we may be witnessing a new world being born inside the hollowed-out shell of the American system. As yet, though we live with this reality every day, we evidently just can’t bear to recognize it for what it might be. When we survey the landscape, what we tend to focus on is that shell — the usual elections (in somewhat heightened form), the usual governmental bodies (a little tarnished) with the usual governmental powers (a little diminished or redistributed), including the usual checks and balances (a little out of whack), and the same old Constitution (much praised in its absence), and yes, we know that none of this is working particularly well, or sometimes at all, but it still feels comfortable to view what we have as a reduced, shabbier, and more dysfunctional version of the known.
Perhaps, however, it’s increasingly a version of the unknown. We say, for instance, that Congress is “paralyzed,” and that little can be done in a country where politics has become so “polarized,” and we wait for something to shake us loose from that “paralysis,” to return us to a Washington closer to what we remember and recognize. But maybe this is it. Maybe even if the Republicans somehow lost control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, we would still be in a situation something like what we’re now labeling paralysis. Maybe in our new American reality, Congress is actually some kind of glorified, well-lobbied, and well-financed version of a peanut gallery.
Of course, I don’t want to deny that much of what is “new” in our world has a long history. The present yawning inequality gap between the 1% and ordinary Americans first began to widen in the 1970s and — as Thomas Frank explains so brilliantly in his new book, Listen, Liberal — was already a powerful and much-discussed reality in the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton ran for president. Yes, that gap is now more like an abyss and looks ever more permanently embedded in the American system, but it has a genuine history, as for instance do 1% elections and the rise and self-organization of the “billionaire class,” even if no one, until this second, imagined that government of the billionaires, by the billionaires, and for the billionaires might devolve into government of the billionaire, by the billionaire, and for the billionaire — that is, just one of them.
Indeed, much of our shape-shifting world can be written about as a set of comparisons and in terms of historical reference points. Inequality has a history. The military-industrial complex and the all-volunteer military, like the warrior corporation, weren’t born yesterday; neither was our state of perpetual war, nor the national security state that now looms over Washington, nor its surveilling urge, the desire to know far too much about the private lives of Americans. (A little bow of remembrance to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is in order here.)
And yet, true as all that may be, Washington increasingly seems like a new land, sporting something like a new system in the midst of our much-described polarized and paralyzed politics. The national security state doesn’t seem faintly paralyzed or polarized to me. Nor does the Pentagon. On certain days when I catch the news, I can’t believe how strange and yet humdrum this uncharted new territory is. Remind me, for instance, where in the Constitution the Founding Fathers wrote about that national security state? And yet there it is in all its glory, all its powers, an ever more independent force in our nation’s capital. In what way, for instance, did those men of the revolutionary era prepare the ground for the Pentagon to loose its spy drones from our distant war zones over the United States? And yet, so it has. And no one even seems disturbed by the development. The news, barely noticed or noted, was instantly absorbed into what’s becoming the new normal.
Graduation Ceremonies in the Imperium
Let me mention here the almost random piece of news that recently made me wonder just what planet I was actually on. And I know you won’t believe it, but it had absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump.
Given the carnage of America’s wars and conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa, which I’ve been following closely these last years, I’m unsure why this particular moment even got to me. Best guess? Maybe that, of all the once-obscure places — from Afghanistan to Yemen to Libya — in which the U.S. has been fighting recently, Somalia, where this particular little slaughter took place, seems to me like the most obscure of all. Yes, I’ve been half-attending to events there from the 1993 Blackhawk Down moment to the disastrous U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of 2006 to the hardly less disastrous invasion of that country by Kenyan and other African forces. Still, Somalia?
Recently, U.S. Reaper drones and manned aircraft launched a set of strikes against what the Pentagon claimed was a graduation ceremony for “low-level” foot soldiers in the Somali terror group al-Shabab. It was proudly announced that more than 150 Somalis had died in this attack. In a country where, in recent years, U.S. drones and special ops forces had carried out a modest number of strikes against individual al-Shabab leaders, this might be thought of as a distinct escalation of Washington’s endless low-level conflict there (with a raid involving U.S. special ops forces following soon after).
Now, let me try to put this in some personal context. Since I was a kid, I’ve always liked globes and maps. I have a reasonable sense of where most countries on this planet are. Still, Somalia? I have to stop and give that one some thought to truly locate it on a mental map of eastern Africa. Most Americans? Honestly, I doubt they’d have a clue. So the other day, when this news came out, I stopped a moment to take it in. If accurate, we killed 150 more or less nobodies (except to those who knew them) and maybe even a top leader or two in a country most Americans couldn’t locate on a map.
I mean, don’t you find that just a little odd, no matter how horrible the organization they were preparing to fight for? 150 Somalis? Blam!
Remind me: On just what basis was this modest massacre carried out? After all, the U.S. isn’t at war with Somalia or with al-Shabab. Of course, Congress no longer plays any real role in decisions about American war making. It no longer declares war on any group or country we fight. (Paralysis!) War is now purely a matter of executive power or, in reality, the collective power of the national security state and the White House. The essential explanation offered for the Somali strike, for instance, is that the U.S. had a small set of advisers stationed with African Union forces in that country and it was just faintly possible that those guerrilla graduates might soon prepare to attack some of those forces (and hence U.S. military personnel). It seems that if the U.S. puts advisers in place anywhere on the planet — and any day of any year they are now in scores of countries — that’s excuse enough to validate acts of war based on the “imminent” threat of their attack.
Or just think of it this way: a new, informal constitution is being written in these years in Washington. No need for a convention or a new bill of rights. It’s a constitution focused on the use of power, especially military power, and it’s being written in blood.
These days, our government (the unparalyzed one) acts regularly on the basis of that informal constitution-in-the-making, committing Somalia-like acts across significant swathes of the planet. In these years, we’ve been marrying the latest in wonder technology, our Hellfire-missile-armed drones, to executive power and slaughtering people we don’t much like in majority Muslim countries with a certain alacrity. By now, it’s simply accepted that any commander-in-chief is also our assassin-in-chief, and that all of this is part of a wartime-that-isn’t-wartime system, spreading the principle of chaos and dissolution to whole areas of the planet, leaving failed states and terror movements in its wake.
When was it, by the way, that “the people” agreed that the president could appoint himself assassin-in-chief, muster his legal beagles to write new “law” that covered any future acts of his (including the killing of American citizens), and year after year dispatch what essentially is his own private fleet of killer drones to knock off thousands of people across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa? Weirdly enough, after almost 14 years of this sort of behavior, with ample evidence that such strikes don’t suppress the movements Washington loathes (and often only fan the flames of resentment and revenge that help them spread), neither the current president and his top officials, nor any of the candidates for his office have the slightest intention of ever grounding those drones.
And when exactly did the people say that, within the country’s vast standing military, which now garrisons much of the planet, a force of nearly 70,000 Special Operations personnel should be birthed, or that it should conduct covert missions globally, essentially accountable only to the president (if him)? And what I find strangest of all is that few in our world find such developments strange at all.
A Planet in Decline?
In some way, all of this could be said to work. At the very least, it is a functioning new system-in-the-making that we have yet to truly come to grips with, just as we haven’t come to grips with a national security state that surveils the world in a way that even science fiction writers (no less totalitarian rulers) of a previous era could never have imagined, or the strange version of media overkill that we still call an election. All of this is by now both old news and mind-bogglingly new.
Do I understand it? Not for a second.
This is not war as we knew it, nor government as we once understood it, nor are these elections as we once imagined them, nor is this democracy as it used to be conceived of, nor is this journalism of a kind ever taught in a journalism school. This is the definition of uncharted territory. It’s a genuine American terra incognita and yet in some fashion that unknown landscape is already part of our sense of ourselves and our world. In this “election” season, many remain shocked that a leading candidate for the presidency is a demagogue with a visible authoritarian side and what looks like an autocratic bent. All such labels are pinned on Donald Trump, but the new American system that’s been emerging from its chrysalis in these years already has just those tendencies. So don’t blame it all on Donald Trump. He should be far less of a shock to this country than he continues to be. After all, a Trumpian world-in-formation has paved the way for him.
Who knows? Perhaps what we’re watching is the new iteration of a very old story: a twenty-first-century version of an ancient tale of a great imperial power, perhaps the greatest ever — the “lone superpower” — sinking into decline. It’s a tale humanity has experienced often enough in the course of our long history. But lest you think once again that there’s nothing new under the sun, the context for all of this, for everything now happening in our world, is so new as to be quite literally outside of thousands of years of human experience. As the latest heat records indicate, we are, for the first time, on a planet in decline. And if that isn’t uncharted territory, what is?
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 him on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt