As a preface, let’s clear up a few things.
1. I am not depressed. Unless you count reading until my eyes bleed and maintaining an unpredictable sleep schedule as abnormal, I’m not going through a particularly rough patch in my life, and am in fact rather happy with my personal state of affairs.
2. I do not hate America. As a natural-born Frenchman, I get this one a lot, but for all the criticism I dish out, I’m quite fond of this place, and I’m pretty sure this is where I want to study, get my degree, and spend the rest of my life. It’s important to understand the possibility of liking something yet still being able to criticize it. My being a little slow to jump on the ‘MURICA FUCK YEAH bandwagon is not indicative of any larger plans to cleanse you all in the fires of holy jihad.
3. If you’re offended by this, good. It’s meant to challenge perceptions of our nation’s state of affairs, and that can sometimes involve some personal discomfort. However, don’t leave it at feeling angry or, even worse, closing the tab. Look it up, and decide for yourself what’s right. Nothing against Fox News here (OK, everything against Fox News), but I’m not sure they’re the source you’re looking for.
As some of you may be aware, I’ve spent too much of the last week playing the PC version of Grand Theft Auto V. A series infamous for pushing the envelope of what’s acceptable to show in games as well as meticulously recreating American cities then giving you the power to shoot, run over, burn, punch, and explode everything in them, Grand Theft Auto is lesser know for its biting satire of American life. The people are all shallow; the politicians callous, overtly corrupt, and often criminal; and even the policemen and EMTs you can encounter are parodies of what their professions are stereotyped to be today. What I noticed this week is just how close to the truth GTA V’s dystopia American really is, especially with regards to celebrity and political culture. Let’s take the recent Trans-Pacific Partnership debate, for example. While you may have heard the name in the news recently, you’re probably not aware of any significant information about the bill itself, beyond maybe that it’s the biggest trade agreement since NAFTA. And there’s a reason for that. The entire agreement is shrouded in corporate secrecy, having been negotiated behind closed doors between the heads of major transnational corporations including pharmaceuticals, banks, and media giants. And everyone involved has tried their hardest to keep any real details out of the hands of everyone else, including members of Congress. The next step, if President Obama and the corporations represented by this treaty have their way, is to fast-track the agreement through Congress, preventing any amendments or obstacles to the agreement’s passing from coming up, which is bound to succeed given that most of Congress is in the pocket of those same corporations. As illustrated by the TPP, across the aisle and both in and out of government, America is a country of the people governed by the rich, for the rich, with the biggest corporations and interest groups buying political influence and the American people too disinterested to do anything besides accept wholesale what those same corporations sell them.
For some, articulating such beliefs seems like socialism, like class warfare, like fear-mongering. Important to realize, however, is that those terms, “class warfare” in particular, are very often used to stifle debate when someone brings up unpleasant truths. For example, perhaps the most widespread recent use of this term was in response to President Obama’s plan to raise taxes on and close loopholes for the highest-earning Americans. Met with near-unanimous criticism on the right, the proposal was ridiculed as a low type of “class warfare” that many Republican politicians did not even want to engage in, leaving the problem unaddressed and the issue in many ways forgotten. The same goes for “socialism,” which also carries with it Cold War-era implications about national loyalty and belief in American values. For more examples of this, watch 5 minutes of literally any Fox News program concerning the Obama administration. These terms ought not to be the end of debate, however, and are not conversation-killers like their users believe. Irresponsible and immature as their use is, national discourse should be able to push past these terms, preventing defenders of the status quo and an imaginary past (more on that next week) from emerging victorious through inaction.
The most easily visible corporate influence remains in Washington. In the wake of Citizens United, the Supreme Court case which ruled that corporate money in elections was covered under constitutional free speech, campaign donations are reaching all time highs. Special interest groups and corporations alike are flooding election after election with funding, support, and advertising, which, in theory doesn’t sound all that bad. After all, the CEO’s of big businesses are people too, and it is often easier for Americans with strong views to organize into larger groups in order for their voices to be better heard. However, now that there are no more restrictions on how much money such groups can spend, these campaign contributions often determine a candidate’s ideology and lead to exactly the situation we have now, where the federal government as a whole can be described as anywhere from meekly ineffectual to aggressively destructive. I’m no legal scholar, but as far as I understand it, bribery is illegal, especially at the federal level. It would be not only illegal but immoral for an oil company, let’s say BP, to give a Congressman with a few million dollars in exchange for a vote against an environmental protection bill that would cut down on petroleum companies’ ability to drill wherever they wanted. However, under current US law, it is totally legal for BP to give as much money as it wants to a Political Action Committee (PAC) during a campaign, with that PAC then running attack ads against a certain Congressman’s opponent during the election. That same Congressman, while not under the same pressure as in the bribery case, is still going to think twice about crossing that corporation, and is most likely going to vote against environmental protection legislation when it comes up, simply to secure future advertisements during his or her inevitable reelection bid. Add to that the possibility of non-profits (including, among others, the NRA) donating as much money as they want directly to the campaigns of elected officials, and you get a phenomenon I like to call “trickle-down politics.”
Trickle-down politics is what happens when citizens hear their elected officials loudly proclaiming their belief about a certain issue that their voter base does not know very much about. These voters, then, seeing the politician that they voted into office standing for a certain position, take up that position themselves. After all, if elected officials aren’t knowledgeable about policy matters, what’s the point of a constitutional republic? Let’s take a look at climate change denial as an example. There’s a reason that my above campaign funding example involved BP and environmental legislation, specifically because oil companies have money to burn and have every interest in fighting climate change legislation, as it would lead to regulations and possibly new taxes on fossil fuels. So, in order to maintain guaranteed oil money on their side in future elections, anti-regulation politicians fight climate change wherever it rears its head. The easiest way to do this is to simply deny human influence on climate change, therefore precluding the necessity for solutions to a problem they claim doesn’t exist. After all, it’s pretty difficult to argue that humans are responsible for climate change by burning fossil fuel and then argue, in spite of that, to reduce regulation on the consumption and production of those same fossil fuels. From there, Americans see their elected officials denying the reality of climate change in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence, and think it’s acceptable for them to do the same. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you wind up in a country where 40% of the population (as opposed to less than 3% of scientists) think our planet’s current changing climate is the result of natural processes as opposed to human activity.
In terms of non-corporate influences on politics, you really need look no further than the NRA. The most powerful lobby in Washington, the NRA has long established itself as a firm protector against imaginary threats to American gun owners. Since, under Citizens United, it can give as much money as it sees fit, the NRA has established a stranglehold on the US Congress. Remember the awful tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut? Remember the widespread push for and reopening of debate over gun control that resulted? Remember the sweeping gun control legislation signed in its aftermath? No to that last one? That’s because going against the NRA and its powerful funding base is political suicide, and the unlimited donation potential of the NRA is enough to deter any would-be gun control advocates from speaking up, lest the NRA put extra effort and money into preventing them from regaining their seat in the next election. Again, while the debate over gun control is a topic for another time, it is nevertheless a debate that deserves to be had, rather than just smothered by unlimited donations from a powerful and malignant superlobby.
Despite the political affiliation of this blog, despite my own political convictions, despite my choice of examples, this is not a uniquely Republican issue. The rhetoric, to be sure, would be infinitely more likely to see you booed off stage at a Ted Cruz rally than at an Elizabeth Warren one, but Democrats are far from immune from criticism here. To return to TPP, the shadowy trade deal that was negotiated in secret by huge multinational corporations and that everyone seems hell-bent on not revealing anything about, the blame lies on President Obama’s shoulder. Is he being strong-armed by forces beyond his control? Possibly (so much for most powerful man in the free world). Did he benefit from donations by at least some of the corporations involved? No doubt. Still, it seems difficult to absolve him of responsibility when this thing is obviously so fundamentally screwed up. If it weren’t screwed up, why would the administration label the entire thing as classified? Why would they try to fast-track it through Congress, wanting it passed without amendments or debate, in roughly the amount of time it would take to skim the goddamn thing? Why would he assure the American people that there’s nothing at all wrong with it, going so far as to call out individual critics, when in politics there literally is never a perfect solution? Forgive me for thinking this thing is all a little shady, and given that the criticisms aimed towards the TPP are very much in line with Obama’s own ideology, shouldn’t he at least leave the option of passing amendments? Instead, he’s once again playing directly into the hands of the biggest corporations in the world, allowing them to gain even more influence at the expense of everyone else.
Moving out of politics directly, the nation currently faces some very disheartening statistics. Income inequality, measured by comparing the income of the top 1% of earners with the rest of the country, is at its highest since 1928. What followed 1928, as a reminder, was a little financial crisis that starts with “Great” and ends with FDR socializing the shit out of everything. The top earners in this country earn more compared to the rest of the population (after taxes) than every other nation on earth save Chile, which, given how much economic clout the US has, is an absolutely preposterous wealth disparity. Why is the gap so large? Well, much to my parents’ chagrin, I am not an econ major, however, I’m pretty sure that the ridiculously low taxes on the rich have something to do with it. Next logical question, where did those tax cuts come from? It all comes back to campaign donations and individual greed.
Supply-side economics is the macroeconomic theory that by cutting taxes, especially on top earners, the government can eventually get more revenue back because people will be spending their new-found income either investing or buying goods, both of which are good for the economy and will lead to larger incomes later. Now, many economists claim this to be total bullshit, but I’m not qualified to speak about that. Instead, let’s take a look at the trickle-down politics of trickle-down economics. When looking at the current U.S. Congress by education, it should come as little surprise that the most common highest degree is by far a law degree, as when one intends to make new laws, it helps to have a solid understanding of existing ones too. Demographically, this is something of a generalization, but those who get law degrees tend to be from upper- or upper-middle class families, given the added cost of law school. It should come as no surprise, then, that many members of Congress are very wealthy, especially when you add on the $174,000 per annum salary that the position comes with. Members of Congress, therefore, have personal interest in lowering tax rates on the very wealthy since, in many cases, they themselves would benefit. In addition, campaign funding comes back into play. Because of how money works, the campaign donors who will be giving the greatest amount of money are usually those with the biggest amount of available money to spend. In order to keep those donors happy (and thus keep the money coming), Congress is under some pressure to lower, or, at least, not raise taxes on the very rich. And therefore, an idea which originates in the desire of wealthy people to keep more of their money (Reagan, who pioneered the popularization of tax cuts, was said to be infuriated at how much of his income was being lost in taxes during his acting days) is presented as reasonable economic theory in public discourse (despite being somewhere between disputed and refuted among economists) and thus echoed by people who in many cases stand to lose much more than they gain from such tax cuts. Tax cuts become a viable economic option et voila, income inequality soars.
Depressed yet? We should do something about this, right? Repeal Citizens United, move towards public funding of elections, vote down the TPP, make sure regulatory agencies aren’t influenced by the companies they’re supposed to be regulating, get rid of members of Congress who aren’t interested in anything except their own personal gain, maybe break up corporations and partnerships that are veering dangerously close to monopolies, raise taxes on the richest Americans, support some up and coming ideologue with the power to make a real change etc? So why don’t we? As a nation, we can’t, and we don’t want to.
The common denominator to all of these possible actions is that they require unity. A constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United, for example, would require a supermajority of either Congress or the states, both of which is close to impossible given the extremely polarized current state of politics. Congress, as it is now, has no interest in reforming its own attitudes towards money and regulation, since it is directly benefiting from the current system. Even if some sort of majority wanted to because their optimistically ideological sides suddenly shone through, there would be enough opposition from Congressmen in the pockets of big donors that nothing could possibly get through. Even among voters, everything is becoming a political issue. Climate change, the teaching of evolution, institutionalized racism, gun control, the deficit, defense spending… all issues that are becoming more and more aligned along party lines even though they’re not inherently divisive issues. Because the Republican party has treated President Obama like pre-Civil War Democrats treated Lincoln (hint: not well) and made their agenda from the 2010 midterms onward nothing less than the total discrediting of the Obama administration, the American public has again followed suit (which wouldn’t be a bad thing, if Congress weren’t so broken) by becoming even more polarized and divided.
Furthermore, many Americans simply don’t care about politics. The 2014 midterm elections saw an absolutely pathetic voter turnout of roughly 36%, which was the lowest since 1942. Living in the post-Watergate era of general political disillusionment, politicians seem even less trustworthy than before. And, as I hope I’ve demonstrated above, those who distrust Congress do so with good reason, as government has time and again advanced the interests of the wealthiest Americans and their businesses over those of everyone else. The same faces get elected time and time again despite having little new to offer besides a guaranteed vote solidly among party lines, and do nothing to distinguish themselves or help their constituents, but still maintain enough of the donor base and existing campaign capabilities to win elections year after year. And, those issues that Americans do care about have little bearing on the larger political structure of the nation. That is not to say that issues such as same-sex marriage and police racism are in any way unimportant or irrelevant, simply that those are the issues that rightly get Americans riled up and ready for change since they are in many ways more exciting than campaign finance reform or banking regulation. An ideal situation would be one in which that same fervor and political intensity is applied to the larger structure of power in addition to these controversial issues.
The real kicker, though is that I have no good solutions to offer you. I wish I could sit here, as comfortable as one can get at a dorm room desk, and list out steps X, Y, and Z that you, my dear reader (thanks for coming this far, by the way), can follow to see real lasting change in how our country is run. But I can’t. I have no fucking idea what any of us can do, and that’s what’s so goddamn terrifying about the entire situation. Get out and vote? Vote for who? Anyone in any way involved with this system, barring some minor exceptions, is already tainted by our broken political system. Tell other people, I guess? Spread the word? Even that, as the thought that has probably crossed your mind by now indicates, can lead to nothing more than you being called out as a conspiracy theorist or, worse still, a socialist. Our politicians care about little save their own positions and the next election. Big corporations and multi-millionaires, for the most part, concern themselves with personal profit first and the eventual ruin of our country and of our planet second and third. Elections are dominated by big donors with the backing of those same corporations, leading to an infuriating standstill that seems to do nothing except cut taxes and regulations beyond their already feeble state. And most Americans either don’t know what’s going on or don’t care enough to involve themselves in the process. Our hands are tied, their ears mostly deaf, and still, something must change. For the good of the country, of the planet, of each other, something has to give. I just hope it doesn’t take a Great Depression or something equally catastrophic to finally bring us all together in demanding that this broken system be fixed.