As America heads toward midterm elections, one of the few certainties is that progressive change is not on the horizon. Republican gains in Congress are a virtual certainty, and the main question is just how bad the damage will be.
A pendulum swing to the right would be less troublesome if it were preceded by a swing to the left, but only the most delusional Americans believe that the country has actually experienced a liberal tide in recent years. Despite campaigning on slogans of hope and change six years ago, Barack Obama quickly surrounded himself with advisors from Goldman Sachs and, even if his rhetoric was sincere, has done nothing to challenge the fundamental nature of power in America. Everyone knows that Wall Street owns and controls the system, and not even Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters believe that his administration has changed that.
As we approach the last phase of the Obama presidency, perhaps the most disappointing reality is that even the parameters of debate have not changed: one party offers an extreme conservatism that is often accompanied by wing-nut anti-intellectualism, while the other party offers a center-right agenda that itself accepts corporatist assumptions and paradigms. The fact that the entire spectrum caters to corporate interests, even when it sometimes appears that vigorous debate is occurring, speaks to how the plutocracy has mastered the art of control.
Whatever happens in this election, nobody seriously believes that multinational corporate interests will be reined in, that labor unions are likely to begin flourishing again, that serious campaign finance reform will occur, or that any significant public initiative will address the root causes of widening wealth disparity. Indeed, even if Democrats fare better than expected, we can be sure that there will be no major reduction in American military spending, and only starry-eye optimists will imagine that these elections are somehow a step toward resolving the crisis of a failing educational system or society’s epidemic levels of incarceration.
To be sure, America occasionally sees genuine social progress in some areas (gay rights being the obvious recent example), but any fair assessment of modern American progressivism would find that failures are much more numerous than successes. Working people increasingly live at the edge or poverty or worse – with degradingly low-paying jobs that offer no security, often through temporary employment agencies. In many communities of color, a school-to-prison pipeline has become a stark and defining social reality. In a sure sign of corporate dominance, deregulation and privatization have become the norm throughout the system. And thanks to activist social conservatives, reproductive rights have been under siege in much of the country – and not just abortion, but even access to birth control has become fair game for controversy. And unfortunately, few expect the midterm elections of 2014 to change any of this.
If there is any reason for hope amid the ruins of American politics and public policy, it rests on the fact that the root of the problem has become more apparent, with all evidence pointing to one key culprit: excessive corporate power. Thanks to the financial crisis of 2008, the Citizen’s United ruling of 2010, and the obvious ongoing dysfunction of the American political system, the diagnosis is easy. If ordinary Americans are powerless, it is only because that power sits somewhere else – and that somewhere else is the corporate sector.
Americans like the rhetoric of democracy, but the sad truth is that ordinary humans are no match for corporate “persons” in the struggle for power. Corporations not only have far more wealth, but also numerous other advantages: they have a singular focus on their goal of profit, and unlike real humans they are unhindered by moral concerns, family issues, outside interests, or even worries about health or mortality. If corporations are indeed persons – and the Supreme Court says they are – they are in many ways superhuman, exceeding real humans in both resources and vigilance.
So real humans can aim for progressive goals – fighting for environmental sustainability, social and economic justice, workers’ rights, consumers’ rights, small businesses, and less militaristic foreign policy – but we should realize that almost all such efforts are destined to fail if they seriously threaten corporate power. Sure, some progress can be achieved when it happens to be consistent (or at least not conflict) with corporate interests, but we need to realize that much (if not most) of the progressive agenda is simply unacceptable to the corporations and industries that run the plutocracy.
Indeed, even some issues that shouldn’t really matter to corporate America – such as a woman’s right to choose – have become controversial because corporate interests have built alliances with social conservatives for political gain. Those who run the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Chamber of Commerce – two enormously influential corporate political power centers – couldn’t care less about the rights of a ten-week-old fetus, but they learned decades ago that social conservatives will eagerly endorse their agenda if pro-corporate politicians tout anti-choice positions. Thus the strange marriage of Wall Street and the Religious Right in the modern GOP.
Obama talked about hope and change as he rode to victory six years ago, but it is becoming apparent that nothing can really change in America until corporate power is brought under control. Just in the last generation we’ve seen Wall Street – often with the backing of Democrats – successfully lobby to deregulate communications (resulting in industry-wide consolidation); deregulate banking (leading to reckless activities and the 2008 economic collapse); make persistent efforts to privatize public functions, from prisons to Social Security; and ramp up electioneering (thus giving corporate interests direct influence in electoral politics and disempowering real humans). Even the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 can be linked to a corporate-dominated military establishment that thrives on a vulnerable and uninformed public.
In the wake of all this, it has become clear that those who want public policy based on reason and the interests of real humans must unite in an effort to redefine and limit the rights of corporations. In fact, no matter where one primarily operates under the progressive umbrella – civil rights, peace, economic justice, environmentalism, etc. – the need to include the issue of corporate power in the agenda is not just desirable but necessary, for corporate power is the single issue that is relevant, in one way or another, to all sectors of progressivism.
Ultimately, for long-term progressive success, the corporate personhood issue must be addressed at the constitutional level either by a more liberal future Supreme Court or by a constitutional amendment fueled by a widespread demand from a better-informed public. In the meantime, legislative efforts to rein in corporate power can be seen as temporary fixes at best. Most serious statutory efforts to control corporate power will ultimately prove inadequate, because corporations can use their endless resources to litigate or lobby any undesirable regulation into non-existence or irrelevance, and on key issues such as campaign finance the Supreme Court has already sided with the corporate sector.
The good news is that the problem has become so clear that it is now easy to identify. The bad news is that to fix it sensible Americans need more than just an ordinary effort to pass a few pieces of progressive, reform-oriented legislation. Change at a high, constitutional level is ultimately needed, and the corporate opposition is immensely wealthy and extremely vigilant in its commitment to maintaining control.
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