I've asked Yak, one of the friends I mentioned Sunday, to give us his two cents. He gave us a couple of bucks and said "keep the change." And just before posting this, CBS and Time Warner announced a merger. Interesting, no?
I think the first idea I need to reinforce is that I am not a Democrat and do not embrace the hope that if Democrats can "take back" the federal government, this should in turn "take back" America. I do not believe there is a fundamental difference between Republican and Democrat in this country, though at the local and perhaps at the state levels this may not be as true. Perhaps this is the opposite of what conventional poli-sci takes as truth. One of the reasons I don't see a substantive difference is that both sides are predominantly older, rich, white male lawyers. When so many members of Congress have such common backgrounds, I don't think we can expect much real difference among them. With a deeply entrenched bureaucracy handling the day-to-day operations of the federal government—see James Q. Wilson's "Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It" for the most objective and generally lucid explanation I've seen about this—our policy makers argue about semantics, posturing for sound bites and empty rhetoric. I know this is generalization, but I just don't see enough of a difference between Dem/Rep to view either as "the problem." To me, they both are.
Let me also add that I do not believe a Republican conspiracy is driving the problems I've asked about (rhetorically, or at least Socratically). If Dem basically equals Rep in my opinion, then neither is intrinsically less desirable as a political representative, and neither is conspiring against anyone. You're right, most of our crises can be attributed to human vices or apathy. Put someone in power and he (yes, he, still vastly more likely than "she") will likely bend his power to serve his personal needs. The Greeks understood this. But then, they had a democracy; we live in a republic, and most Americans don't seem to understand (or, you're right) care about the difference.
Let me throw a Supreme Court case at you: Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 11 US 394 (1886). This is the decision that is widely identified as the case that gave corporations the same protections under the 14th Amendment as individuals. With this precedent, the courts were quick to extend this interpretation to giving corporations the same legal rights and protections as individuals. When that happened, I think, the American political landscape changed forever. Now a legal amalgamation of assets and financial resources far dwarfing almost any individual could operate in ways that served its best interests even when those interests ran contrary to individual citizens—or when those interests were predicated on the illusion of what Marjorie Kelly calls "shareholder primacy." Over time the corporation rose in power and influence, and nobody could stop it. It is virtually impossible to fight a corporation - and where one falls, several more rise from its legal corpse. Re-read Heinlein's Friday starting on page 120 (of the edition I borrowed):
Any territorial state is a sitting duck. But fighting a multinational is like trying to slice a fog. Where's your target? You want to fight IBM? Where is IBM? Its registered home office is a P.O. box number in Delaware. That's no target. IBM's offices and people and plants are scattered. you can't hit any part of IBM without hurting somebody else as much or more But can IBM defeat, say, Russia? It would just depend on whether or not IBM could see a profit in it. So far as I know, IBM doesn't own any guerrillas. [You can] take [your] own sweet time getting set because Russia isn't going anywhere. It will still be there, a big fat target, a week from now or a year.
Heinlein's commentary, a mere aside buried in the fast-paced plot, makes a point that many people tend to forget: A company like IBM doesn't have borders, it isn't tied to a piece of geography. The corporation may have started in the United States but that doesn't mean the IBM Corporation is bound to US ideology or politics unless its own organizational mission benefits from that association. Thus, it becomes difficult to regulate; legislation for such a company must go beyond the US borders to truly affect the corporation. And with the rise of private security companies, Heinlein's work becomes even more eerily prescient.
My perspective on the American condition can be laid out like this:
A very small percentage of Americans control a very large percentage of the assets, wealth, and resources in this country. Through their investment managers (who in turn are grotesquely overcompensated) they shape the direction of capitalism, which is carried out by corporations with the purpose of maximizing the bottom line. If something doesn't increase profits, there's no reason to try it - which is why so many corporations aren't more socially or environmentally responsible - if the potential fines and PR spinning are less costly than fixing the problem in the first place, then it's business as usual, full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes. Consider General Electric, which pays hundreds of millions of dollars in fines every year. What do they call this? The cost of doing business—and they budget for it! Anyway, corporations are largely owned by private investors or investment plans, whose participation are largely dominated by other corporations and investment plans. At the end, who benefits the most? A very small number of private investors - the richest people in America. If this appears circular, good, it is. The introduction of new money in the 80s and 90s with financial machinations and the tech bubble shifted some of the money to new investors, but when the markets "corrected" a few years ago, what a surprise, the same faces show up that have been there all along. Read Kevin Phillips' "Weath and Democracy" for more stats. It's not that the rich control America actively, it's that the consequences are inevitable and too big for any of us to stop or even slow down. We aren't even a mosquito biting in a tender spot; we don't matter because we can't stop the corporations that control the media, the majority of access to our political reps, the culture in which we're all so immersed, even the education we've received and the information we can access to continue learning.
I don't know who's ultimately in charge if Dem=Rep and the top rich have the most access to power via their disproportionate resources. It analyzes like a plutocracy but the rich don't seem to pull the strings actively. I've heard the word "meritocracy" thrown around but that's not accurate, either. "Aristocracy" and "oligarchy"? I dunno. It just seems we live in a nation that isn't what it claims to be and has elements of structures we're taught don't exist here. And for most of us, every day goes along without any clear sign that things are different than we were taught and believe. Why question the American Dream when most of us have food, shelter, and some of the considerations that allow us to move a little farther up Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs? Just don't get me researching Bohemian Grove again - that stuff really rattles my sociopolitical-economic cage...
It's really hard to get anything concrete on these ideas. It's taken me several years to piece some of this together; such a vast societal inertia is really hard to push against. I'm still not done tying threads together, which is why I can't give you a nice neat executive summary of my theory with E.B. White-sized bullet points. And I'm not convinced I'm right, either. I feel as though I'm onto something Big and Paradigm-Rattling, but the closer I get to illumination the more I wonder "why bother?" I can't change anything, I don't really want to try, I just want to live on my country property and make a good life for us without more challenges than life will throw at us regardless of any non-conformist ideas we may have. Fortunately, I have a great deal of work ahead of me this spring, so there won't be much consideration for these ideas until the summer. For anyone who wants to get a better foundation to understand my perspective, here are some suggestions:
Bakan, Joel. The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. New York: Free Press, 2004.
De Graaf, John, et.al. Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic . San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2001.
Hartmann, Thom. Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft. New York: Rodale Books, 2002.
Hawken, Paul. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999.
Hooks, Bell. Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Kelly, Marjorie. The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003.
Miller, Ron. What Are Schools For: Holistic Education in American Culture. Brandon, Vt.: Holistic Education Press, 1990.
—Guest blogger Yak