Hinckley Institute of Politics, 3-26-12
An End To Authoritarianism and Plutocracy in the United States: It’s Up to Us
by Rocky Anderson
Let us consider the fundamental guiding principles for the United States of America — freedom, equal opportunity, compassion, and security.
Then let us consider how those principles have been severely undermined, and how we, the American people, can restore them so that once again our government is of, by, and for the people, rather than a tool of oppression cynically utilized for the benefit of a small, powerful, abusive, elite political and financial class, to the detriment of the vast majority of U.S. citizens, as well as billions of people around the world.
We often hear it said that the United States is the greatest nation in the world. What exactly is meant by that? And is it true? The more important question is: Can we, the American people, make this, once again, a great and proud nation — a nation that lives up to its original promise? We can achieve that — if only we will.
Who are we as a people, what do we really believe in, and just what does our nation stand for? How far have we drifted away — or, rather, bolted away — from what we once were? And how do we, once again, attain greater freedom, more equal opportunity, compassion, and security for all?
These questions have never been more vital to consider and confront. Our nation has been transformed in just a few short years — virtually unrecognizable in fundamental respects when compared to the republic that once proudly proclaimed a constitutional system of checks and balances, the rule of law, and constitutional protections of due process, restraints on war-making, and a truly balanced system of separation of powers among three co-equal branches of government.
We are at a nation-changing — even world-changing — fork in the road. We can continue on the path of becoming more totalitarian, even fascist, with an imperial presidency that continues to accrue to itself unprecedented tyrannical powers; more greedy as a nation and as a people; less capable to compete on a global stage; more empire-building and war-mongering; less equal under the law; more divided, in terms of income and wealth, between a tiny elite financial aristocracy and the rest of our citizenry; more cruel toward men, women, and children, here and abroad, who are not part of the elite political and financial classes; and less secure, as a nation and as individuals, now and in the future.
Or we can turn things around radically, becoming more free and respectful of the fundamental rights and interests of people in the U.S. and elsewhere, with restraints on executive power — and accountability for abuses of that power — as contemplated by the founders and by our Constitution; more generous and helpful as a nation and as a people; more capable of competing with other nations, their students, and their workers; more cooperative and friendly toward other nations; more committed to liberty and justice for all; more prosperous, with a strong, healthy middle class, capable of living rewarding lives through equal opportunity; kinder and more compassionate toward our own citizens, immigrants, and men, women, and children in other nations; and more secure in our homes, our communities, and our nation, presently and in the future.
The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence sets forth the general guiding principles of the founding of our great nation:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
There could be no stronger affirmation of our nation’s guiding principles of freedom, equal opportunity, compassion, and personal, familial, community, and national security.
These guiding principles ring loudly in the first sentence of our Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.
The guiding principles, then, set forth in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution are that people — all people, not just citizens of the United States — are created as equals, they all have unalienable rights, including the right to life, the right to liberty and the right to pursue happiness, that we seek to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility (that is, peace), provide for the defense of our nation (that is, security), promote the welfare of everyone, and secure liberty not only for us, but for later generations — “our posterity”.
It is for each generation to exercise conscientious diligence in sustaining those guiding principles. Sadly — tragically –, those who were to have represented our interests in Washington, particularly during these past ten years, have severely undermined those principles. And we, the people, have not sufficiently spoken out and acted to return our nation to the principled course set by the Founders. But we can — if only we will.
* * * *
After World War II, the U.S. and its allies prosecuted and convicted Germans for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Tribunal. The chief prosecutor was United States Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. He made it clear that aggressive war — that is, a military attack by an aggressor nation against a nation that has not attacked, and is not preparing to attack the aggressor nation — is a crime, as reflected in a treaty to which the United States is a signatory, the Kellogg-Briand Pact. He emphasized that if the criminal prohibition against war is to have any meaning, it must be applied to all nations, including, as he said, those sitting in judgment at Nuremberg.
The illegality of aggressive war has been reinforced by the U.N. Charter, which expressly prohibits a military attack by one nation against another unless the target nation has itself illegally attacked, or was about to illegally attack, the other nation.
Instead of continuing the proud tradition of the Nuremberg principles, and complying with the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the United Nations Charter, the United States, during the Bush administration, engaged in the blatantly criminal act of invading and forcibly occupying Iraq, a nation that posed no risk of harm whatsoever to the United States. It was the sort of crime for which people were tried and convicted at Nuremberg. Two Secretaries-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, agreed it was a clear violation of international law — yet no one has been held to account.
Making illegal war is the most serious crime because it purports to legalize mass murder, severe injuries, mass property destruction, and societal mayhem. Compounding this most serious crime in our invasion and occupation of Iraq, it was committed in blatant violation of the War Power Clause of the United States Constitution, which provides that Congress has the sole prerogative to decide whether to take our nation to war.
Congress cannot avoid its highest responsibility by unconstitutionally delegating to the President the authority to make the decision. However, that is exactly what Congress, in cowardly derogation of its constitutional duties, has sought to do repeatedly.
President Johnson lied to our nation about Vietnam in order to get Congress to allow him to make the decision as to whether we should make war against the North Vietnamese. Likewise, President Bush lied to our nation about Iraq in order to get Congress to pass the resolution allowing him to decide whether to make war against that nation, which had no involvement whatsoever in the attacks on 9/11. Our nation was deceived — and we were betrayed — all at an astounding cost in lives, tragedy, and national treasure.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Congress’s abdication of perhaps its most important constitutional role was so pathetic that all but a handful of U.S. Senators (including our present Secretary of State) didn’t even bother to walk to a secure room in the Capitol Building to read a National Intelligence Estimate, which made clear, contrary to what President Bush and his administration were telling us, that much of the U.S. intelligence community disagreed with claims about Iraq developing a nuclear capability and about its possession of weapons of mass destruction. In fact, just a few months before 9/11, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell independently stated that, following the first Gulf war, Iraq’s weapons had been destroyed, it had not re-armed, and it didn’t even pose a danger to its neighbors. Senator Bob Graham, who urged his colleagues to read the National Intelligence Estimate, went so far as to warn, correctly, that the security of the people of the United States would be put at great risk if we attacked Iraq, saying to his colleagues that, if they voted to allow the president to make the decision to go to war, blood would be on their hands.
More than a million innocent Iraqis killed, more seriously injured, and vast hatred and hostility generated throughout the Muslim world toward the United States, making us much less safe for generations to come — all on the basis of lies. Had Congress done its fact-finding job and met its constitutional responsibility to determine for itself if war against Iraq was justified, none of it would ever have happened.
Several presidents since Truman have unconstitutionally made war against other nations, and several Congresses have unconstitutionally sought to delegate their war decision-making power to the president. So where have the courts been to make certain that the War Power Clause of the Constitution is followed? That is, after all, how our constitutional system of checks and balances is supposed to work.
The sad answer that strikes at the heart of our Constitution is that the courts have checked out, making excuses for dodging the question, most often in the form of the court-made “political question” doctrine. The Congress and President both violate the Constitution — and the courts say, “Sorry, it’s a political question and we can’t — or, rather, won’t — do anything about it.” In other words, the War Power Clause essentially has been ripped out of our Constitution — leading to the incredibly dangerous point where one person — the President — can make the decision as to whether our nation goes to war. That takes us one giant step closer to the tyranny our Founders sought to prevent.
* * * *
Our nation’s proud tradition has been that we do not torture — and we do not permit torture. George Washington ordered his troops to refrain from torturing British soldiers, even when the British were committing such atrocities against colonial soldiers. The Lieber Code forbade torture during the Civil War. The U.S. has court-martialed our own servicemen for torturing, including water boarding — during the 1900 conflict in the Philippines and during the Vietnam War. Numerous high-ranking members of the military, including Utah’s own Brig. Gen. (ret’d) David Irvine, have uniformly called for enforcement of the absolute prohibition against torture, arguing persuasively that torture is productive of misinformation because torture victims will say anything in order to avoid further torture; it creates far more hatred and more enemies; and it creates a more dangerous situation for our own servicemen and servicewomen. Also, of course, it is fundamentally immoral, blatantly illegal, under both international and domestic law, and dehumanizing and demoralizing to those who engage in the torture.
We know now that President Bush and others in his administration authorized the use of torture. Unbeknownst to us at the time, on the day before President Bush was at the Opening Ceremony for the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games, he signed a memorandum stating, directly contrary to what the Supreme Court later ruled, that the Geneva Convention protections against torture would not apply to people detained in the so-called war on terror. His authorization of torture, and the authorization by others in his administration of torture, constitute war crimes, under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, as well as under laws passed by Congress, including the War Crimes Act of 1996 and the federal anti-torture statute.
When President Obama said concerning those war crimes — and about the federal felonies committed by those who engaged in warrantless surveillance of Americans’ communications — that there should be no accountability for the crimes because, in his words, we should look forward and not back, he dangerously contributed to the further deterioration of the rule of law in our nation. His virtual granting of immunity, notwithstanding the requirement in the Convention Against Torture that all signatories must prosecute torture as they do other serious offenses, is completely contrary to all applicable laws — and characteristic of a dictator who believes that he is the law. It is another major ratcheting up of the imperial presidency — and another momentous degradation of the rule of law and our constitutional system, in which the president and other members of the Executive Branch are to be constrained by the law and by the other two branches of our government. That evisceration of the rule of law by President Obama and a Congress that has timidly fallen in line with the assertion by the Bush and Abama administrations of unprecedented executive powers take us one more giant step closer to the tyranny our Founders sought to prevent.
* * * *
President Bush was not only a “decider,” he was an innovator. For the first time in our nation’s history, we fought a war, then two wars — and, at the same time, instead of raising revenues for the wars, he and the complicit Congress gave enormous tax breaks to the very wealthy. It was as if we took out credit cards in the names of our children and charged the costs of the wars on them, while enriching the very rich even more. It was a continuation of a reckless pattern of pandering by so-called conservatives — aided and abetted by Democrats. Between 1979 and 2006, the top incremental tax rate on earned income was cut in half; capital gains taxes were cut by almost as much; and corporate taxes were reduced by more than 25%. Of course, not many corporations pay according to even that rate because of all the loopholes and deductions their lobbyists have pushed through Congress over the years.
If the Bush tax cuts had been allowed to expire in 2010, as promised, for people with incomes over $200,000, federal revenues would increase approximately $140 billion during this year. That would be sufficient to cover basic health care needs for those without coverage in the United States. What would the impact be on those making more than $200,000 a year? It would reduce their aftertax incomes, on average, by about 4.5%.
When offered the choice between health care for all or an elimination of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, Congress and the President have chosen less taxes for the wealthy.
The corrupting influence of money in our political system — the massive campaign contributions that essentially put Congress and the White House on retainer to the wealthy — has contributed significantly to what I call the Great Chasm. One of many examples is what Washington politicians — those who are supposed to be representing all of us — did for hedge fund managers. Our tax laws now allow hedge fund managers, some of whom make more than a billion dollars a year, to have most of their earnings taxed at the capital gains rate, 15%, while middle class working men and women pay a significantly higher rate. That loophole alone costs the federal government more than $6 billion in lost revenue, which would be enough to provide health care to three million children. Almost $2 billion of that tax boondoggle goes to 25 people.
Over the past decade, the incomes of the middle class have fallen, while those in the top 1 percent have enjoyed, on average, an increase of 18% in their incomes. And what incredible incomes they are! The top 1 percent in the United States are paid about 25% of the total income — and they control a whopping 40% of the total wealth. The disparity in income and wealth between the small privileged class of the economic aristocracy and the rest of us in this nation has never been as great as it is now since the 1920’s, on the eve of the Great Depression.
This is not something that just naturally happens because of market forces. It happens because of politicians serving the elite financial aristocracy to the immense detriment of the public interest.
How did we build a strong, healthy middle class and a prosperous economy following the Great Depression — and what is taking us back now to the gross inequality and tremendous insecurity for most people reminiscent of the Gilded Age?
As Paul Krugman describes, in the 1920s, there was a vast political polarization and an enormous income and wealth disparity — very much like today. However, political reform — public policy geared toward making life better for the vast majority of Americans — made all the difference. There was a vast narrowing of the gap between the wealthy and the rest of the nation — what Krugman calls “The Great Compression.” It was entirely the opposite from today’s Great Chasm.
Incomes for the very wealthy actually decreased from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, while the incomes for middle class families about doubled. The middle class also had greater security, with employers offering new benefits like health insurance and retirement plans. The federal government also provided unemployment insurance and Social Security for retirees.
It all equated to a major economic democratization of American society, with much narrower differences between the pay for executives and line workers, and much narrower differences between employees with formal education and manual laborers. Just the opposite of what we’re experiencing today.
Much of the Gilded Age class consciousness was gone by the 1950s. And now it has returned. Many of the wealthy turn their backs on the quality of public education as they enroll their children in private schools. Many of the wealthy live only among themselves, providing for their own security, as they isolate themselves in gated communities. Only the best in medical care for the wealthy, while 50 million people go without basic health care coverage — and, even if the Obama plan is fully implemented 23 million men, women, and children will be without essential medical coverage, unlike any other nation in the developed world. And 700,000 bankruptcies each year are attributable to enormous medical bills — again, a tragedy unknown throughout the rest of the industrialized world.
Much of the change came about because of taxes. In the 1920s, the top income tax rate was only 24%. The top income tax rate rose to 63 % during the first Roosevelt administration, and 79 % in the second. By the mid-fifties, the top tax rate had risen to 91% — and that was under the Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower. Today’s top tax bracket — applicable only to income in excess of $388,000 — is only 35%, yet listen to the wealthy and their lapdogs in Congress howl when anyone has the temerity to suggest that perhaps they should pay their fair share to help reduce the accumulated debt and tremendous interest burden we will hand off to our children and later generations — and to lend a hand up to those living in poverty, including 22% of our nation’s children.
The average corporate tax rate increased from less than 14% in 1929 to more than 45 percent in 1955 and 48% in 1979. Today’s corporate tax rate is 35%, but the average corporation pays no more than 15%, and many corporations, like General Electric, taking advantage of massive loopholes and deductions corporate lobbyists have pushed through Congress, pay nothing at all.
The same thing happened with estate taxes — what the Republicans, with the aid of the spin-meister Frank Luntz, would have us call “death taxes.” Estate taxes went from 20% in the 1920’s to 45%, then 60%, then 70%, and up to 77%. Today, the estate tax, applicable only to estates in excess of $5.12 million, is 35%. Yet listen to some of the wealthy whine — as if their descendants are somehow entitled to more than $5 million without any taxation, while 22% of the children in the United States live in poverty.
If, following the 1920s, taxes accounted for the decrease in wealth for the very rich, what accounts mostly for the increase in wealth and income for most of the rest? In large part, it was the union movement. By the end of World War II, more than a third of nonfarm workers were union members. Strong union advocacy means higher wages, better benefits, and a rippling effect that raises wages for others. It also brings into focus the disparity between the pay of top executives and average workers.
Also, during the war, the Roosevelt administration set wages and, given the values of that administration, it tended to set the wages in such a way that the lower paid workers received more increases than others.
The increase in taxes for the wealthy, a strong union movement, and wage controls that shrunk the gap between the wealthy and the middle class led to a much more equal distribution of the total income for thirty years — as well as unprecedented prosperity. Just the opposite of what we’re experiencing today.
The gross inequalities today are alarming — and tragic. As of 2007, the top 10% owned 84% of the financial wealth in the United States. The bottom 80% owned just 7% of all financial wealth.
Between 1983 and 2004, in large part because of tax cuts for the wealthy and the defeat of labor unions, of all the new financial wealth created in the U.S., 43% of it went to the top 1%. Ninety-four percent of it went to the top 20% — meaning that the bottom 80% received only 6% of all new financial wealth generated in the United States during the strong economic years of the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s. In short, as working people produced more because of greater efficiencies, they shared in almost none of the gains — while investors and top executives took almost all of it.
One factor contributing to this gaping disparity is yet another outrage: the average executive pay as compared with the average factory worker pay. CEO pay by 102 major companies was about 40 times that of average full-time workers in the U.S. By the early 2000s, CEO pay averaged 367 times the pay of the average worker. In 2007, the ratio between CEOs and factory workers was 344:1, while in Europe it was about 25:1.
* * * *
What can we, the American people, do? First, recognize that the Democratic and Republican Parties are a democracy-destroying political duopoly, which has joined forces in shafting the vast majority of Americans, who are struggling every day to just get by, while serving politicians’ campaign contributors, including Wall Street bankers, for-profit insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, hedge fund managers, for-profit colleges (many of which are owned by investment banks), and anti-union forces. These Democrats and Republicans deregulated the financial industry and looked the other way while financial institutions and their officers engaged in wholesale fraud — all of which led to the economic melt-down from which we are still reeling, while the perpetrators are still lining their pockets with multi-million dollar bonuses, derived from government bail-outs.
They are the same duopoly that has caved to the fossil fuel industry in failing to provide essential international leadership to prevent the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. They have become so craven that President Obama even vetoed the EPA’s effort to reduce the emission of ground level ozone and has now paved the way for the southern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline and vastly expanded offshore oil drilling.
They are the same duopoly that thinks so little of our democracy that they have made it almost impossible for any new party or independent candidate to get on several states’ ballots — and, through their total control of the Presidential Debate Commission, which hijacked the presidential debates from the League of Women Voters, have prevented any non-plutocratic voices from being heard by the electorate during presidential debates.
In short, each of us can say: “We’re not going to take it any more. We have drawn our line — and won’t budge from it.
- We won’t support anyone who disregards our Constitution and the rule of law.
- We won’t support anyone who tortures, authorizes torture, or opposes accountability for those who torture.
- We won’t support anyone who targets U.S. citizens for assassination.
- We won’t support anyone who will not work to stop the insane and inhumane incarceration of 2.3 million people, many of them for non-violent offenses — an incarceration rate far greater than any other nation on earth and which is applied with a vengeance toward African-Americans and Latinos.
- We won’t support anyone who fails and refuses to face up to the need for rational, compassionate immigration reform.
- We won’t support anyone who will not commit to provide our students with an equal opportunity to obtain a higher education and equip themselves to be competitive globally with students and employees in other nations.
- We won’t support anyone who asserts the power to kidnap and indefinitely detain people, including U.S. citizens, without charges, trial, assistance of legal counsel, or right of habeas corpus — perhaps the most subversive, anti-American stance ever taken by a Congress or a President in our nation’s history.
- We won’t support anyone who takes, or purports to authorize a president to take, our nation to war without a finding by Congress that war is justified — and without compliance with the U.N. Charter, to which the U.S. is a signatory.
- We won’t support anyone who allows the continuation of Bush’s budget-busting tax breaks for the wealthy.
- We won’t support anyone who makes it more difficult for working men and women to organize.
- We won’t support anyone who continues to allow multi-national corporations to profit by depriving U.S. workers of their jobs while exporting millions of jobs with nearly slave conditions in other nations.
- We won’t support anyone who refuses to implement programs like the Works Progress Administration to hire millions of people to build up our nation’s rapidly deteriorating infrastructure.
- We won’t support anyone who refuses to strengthen, rather than undermine, the safety nets provided by Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.
- We won’t support anyone who fails to provide crucial leadership on climate change and a thriving clean energy economy.
- We won’t support anyone who refuses to commit to do everything possible to rid our government and electoral system of the corrupting influence of money.
- And we won’t support anyone who refuses to join the rest of the industrialized world in providing a health care system that costs much less, produces far better medical outcomes, and is available to everyone.
For those who are cynical, for those who are resigned to not being able to overcome the corruption and perversity of the influence of money in our plutocracy — that is, government of, by, and for the wealthy –, I urge you to find inspiration in our own nation’s long history of progressive social movements, as well as from recent examples in the Arab world.
Major movements, such as the anti-slavery movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement, all succeeded because of the tenacious, passionate commitment and activism by people, organized at the grass roots level. And there was a lot of money aligned against many of them — yet they prevailed.
Consider also that people in the Arab world — for instance, in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya — recently organized, utilizing the democratized means of communication offered by social media, and succeeded in overthrowing long-time oppressive dictators. So, too, can the people of the United States, organize together, take a principled, courageous stand, and overthrow the corrupting influence of money in our government, including our electoral system, and achieve the restoration of the rule of law, a recommitment to fundamental constitutional principles, the reestablishment of the system of checks and balances essential to our republic, and a recommitment to the core values that will make this country great again: freedom, equal opportunity, compassion, and security.
* * * *
Ben Franklin was approached by a woman as he was leaving the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. She asked him, “Doctor, what do we have — a monarchy or a republic?” Franklin responded, “A republic, ma’am, if you can keep it.”
It’s up to us. If we don’t take action, and insist on a return to the practices and policies that reaffirm our most fundamental values, our republic and all it stands for could be lost forever. However, if we will, we can restore our republic and breathe life once again into our Constitution and recommit to all that can make this nation once again what the Founders, and those who have given their lives for our freedoms and values, intended and expected.