Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Presidential Election: Where Is Our Country Heading?

The purpose of democratic government, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, is to secure the rights of the people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We may have never pursued this perfectly, certainly not for all the people.  But we have now, unfortunately, reached a point in our history where the best interests of the people, securing their inalienable rights, is no longer the driving force behind government.  

Our government has stopped being “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  Instead, it has become a government which, while elected by the people, primarily serves the interests of corporations and the rich.  

This is true of Congress.  Legislators, both Republican and Democrat, have become so dependent on the financial donations of corporations and the rich to run their election campaigns that they provide a ready and willing ear to corporate lobbyists.  (It should, however, be noted that while Democrats have fallen into the same trap, they do still promote the public interest, just not as unequivocally as they should.)  

It is also true of Federal regulators.  These government employees are supposed to protect the interests of the public but instead, as we’ve learned, often become so close to the corporations they are supposed to regulate that they are more interested in protecting them than the public.

A result of this perversion of government’s purpose can be seen in the increased income inequality that we face today.  There has always been and there will always be income inequality.  It’s in the very nature of things … some people will be rich and others poor.  But from the end of WWII to the early 1970s, incomes grew rapidly across all income groups. 

Beginning in the 1970s, however, income growth for the middle and lower income groups either stagnated or slowed sharply while incomes at the top continued to grow strongly.  For example, average real wages for the bottom 90% of working Americans only rose from $28,500 in 1979 to $33,200 in 2014 (a 16% increase).  By contrast, average real wages of the top 1% of Americans rose from $269,000 in 1979 to $671,000 in 2014 (a 249% increase).  Since the top 1% have substantial income over and above wages, the true inequality is even worse, with average total income for the bottom 90% still being around $33,000 in 2014 while the average total income of the top 1% was $1,200,000.
What role did government have in this increase in inequality?  Globalization of the economy, which is a primary cause of the increased inequality, was fostered by government policies together with changes in technology.  

Second, and less discussed, was the loss of power of labor unions.  This resulted partly from the loss of manufacturing jobs due to companies’ moving jobs off-shore (a major detrimental impact of globalizations) and partly from the increase in anti-union “Right to Work” laws in much of the country (an additional 7 states including for the first time, “rust-belt” states).  

In both cases, government policy supported the interests of corporations in obtaining cheaper labor and thus increasing profits.  Other government policies, such as deregulation (pursued by both Republican and Democratic administrations post-Reagan) and significant tax cuts for the rich under Reagan and Bush II, furthered the accumulation of wealth at the top of the wage spectrum.

The impact of this increased income inequality has been anger towards government for what the formerly middle class views as a lack of concern by government regarding their plight.  They blame government, and to a large extent rightly so, for their financial distress.  Government in this case really is the problem, in that it has acted at the behest of big business.  But it is also the potential solution.  However, government has not done anything to date to really improve their lot.  Lots of talk but no action.

And so in this presidential election season, we have seen two phenomenon.  On the Republican side, Donald Trump, campaigning as an anti-establishment avatar, has stoked the fears and angers of this large group of mostly white voters and has reaped the benefit of their vote, and thus the Republican nomination, against a crowded field of far-right but tainted-by-government candidates.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders also campaigned as an anti-establishment avatar,  seeking to upend the influence of corporations and put “the people” back in the forefront of government policy.  His campaign was much more successful than anyone every dreamed, but he had the misfortune of having just one opponent who, although few felt strongly about, was strongly supported by the party establishment and was considered safe by most.  And so he lost.

Of all the candidates, only Bernie Sanders offered the possibility of a truly transformative Presidency.  Because only he had at least the potential of getting the large mass of people who usually don’t vote … because they feel the government has no concern for their problems … to vote and thus win back the House as well as the Senate.  

So regardless whether Trump or Clinton wins, the future does not look good for the American people.  If Trump wins we will have a bully blowhard as President who depends on his instincts, not his thought (or the thought of those around him).  He will try to dismantle most of what President Obama accomplished for the American people.  I could go on and on, but I won’t.  If Clinton wins, government will be mostly business as usual both because of her ties to the business establishment and the fact that at least the House will likely be in the hands of Republicans, which means she will not be able to move her policy agenda with much success.

In either case, the primary direction of government will not have changed.  Although clearly a Trump presidency would be far worse for the American people and the country than a Clinton presidency.

Bernie Sanders was calling for a soft revolution, and that is what this country needs at this point in time.  We need a major shakeup in the direction of government.

Thomas Jefferson famously said that a democracy needs a revolution periodically to keep it alive.  Certainly we have come to the point where that is what our country needs because our democracy has become one in form only, not in substance.  

We must return to a government which is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,”  Corporations should certainly have a place at the table, in recognition of their importance to the economy and the welfare of all, but they should not be in the driver’s seat.   We have long since learned the emptiness of the phrase, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”

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