Ralph Nader: How Plutocratic Forces Have Crippled Democracy, And Why It's Up to Us to Fight Back

The following is an excerpt from the new book Breaking Through Power by Ralph Nader (City Lights, 2016): 

In the 1920s, near the end of his spectacular career as our country’s most prominent fighter for working people, labor leader, presidential candidate, orator, and all-around progressive Eugene Debs was asked by a reporter: “Mr. Debs, what do you regret the most in your lifelong struggle for justice?”

Debs looked at him and replied: “What do I regret the most? I regret that the American people can have almost anything they want under our Constitution, but they seem not to want much of anything at all.”

An indefatigable exhorter, Debs may be excused for feeling exhausted after so many decades of trying to raise the expectations of working families. Woodrow Wilson made sure he was jailed for simply speaking out against the nation’s entry into World War I. Debs knew what war does to societies. The very avoidable “Great War” broke the momentum of our nation’s rising progressive reform movement, ushered in the era of red-baiting, and directly set the stage for World War II. Most crucially, the aggressive expansion of the American Empire and military state distracted and lowered the expectation levels for American democracy and civic society. Debs knew full well how power structures thwarted the general population’s expectations for the good life and paved the way for entrenched austerity and misery, despite a growing gross domestic product.

Hope and positive expectations provide some of the most basic motivation for attempting to improve the human condition. Once people are inspired, and hope and expectations for change are aroused, the power of democracy voices a “rumble from the people.” Plutocrats were aghast when President Richard Nixon, responding to the rumble of the 1960s, signed into law the basic environmental, consumer and worker safety regulatory frameworks that are still in force to this day, along with the legislation establishing the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. To be sure, the rumble from the people also drove some pretty good legislators to Congress and jolted incumbents—mostly Democrats—into heeding some of the popular will.

Even though Nixon was a red-baiting Republican, he was also paranoid about “liberals.” He responded to public pressure, and even went beyond the Congress that rejected his proposals for a minimum-income policy, a drug bill that emphasized rehabilitation over incarceration, a better health insurance plan than President Clinton later introduced, and Congressional voting rights for the residents of the District of Columbia.

Actively engaged in Washington at that time, I watched Nixon’s political antennae quiver and turn again and again, ending with his ultimate betrayal of right-wingers in 1973 when he instituted wage and price controls to fight inflation. Nixon went against the grain of the plutocracy of his time because he feared social unrest and felt that the national change in political climate warranted, for him at least, “extreme expediency.” He sometimes responded to the rumble. The U.S. plutocracy and general population reacted very differently toward Nixon’s performance. While many in America collectively seemed not to see how a little rumble could result in material and political advancement of their well-being and as a result did not fight for further progress, the stung corporatist class saw all too clearly what was possible. They knew democracy could regulate their profiteering, so they greatly remobilized their forces to subordinate and minimize institutions, organizations, networks, and individuals dedicated to expanding democracy.

In August 1971, Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer in Richmond, Virginia, and soon-to-be Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, issued what would later be referred to as the “Powell memorandum.” The memorandum offered his analysis of the power balance in Washington and pronounced it a crisis for big business. The forces of reform had brought many industries under a variety of regulations, and business was on the defensive. Powell urged a fundamental expansion and strengthening of the corporate lobbying apparatus, using some of the very techniques that the consumer, environmental, and other interests were deploying. These included corporate think tanks, aggressive use of the media, advancing business views on campus and in the curriculum, greater involvement in elections, and a mobilization of chief executives. It was time, Powell said, to mount an energetic far-reaching counterattack against those who, he believed, would subvert the free enterprise system.

The collision of the operational interests of private commerce and public governance has elicited warnings going back to Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. The following quotes illustrate the historic concerns of our country’s leaders about unbridled corporate power:

“Big business is not dangerous because it is big, but because its bigness is an unwholesome inflation created by privileges and exemptions which it ought not to enjoy.” —Woodrow Wilson

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” —Dwight Eisenhower

“The government has ceased to function, the corporations are the government.” —Theodore Dreiser

“The citizens of the United States must control the mighty commercial forces which they themselves called into being.” —Theodore Roosevelt

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent legislation to Congress in 1938 to create a commission to investigate concentrated corporate power with a message that contained the prophetic warning that “ownership of government by a group, or by another controlling private power, is fascism.” Although fascism, on paper, is an antonym to democracy, during World War II, the atrocities of Hitler and Mussolini (whose PhD thesis was on the subject of the corporate state) revealed just how nightmarish fascism can be in practice. America’s Founding Fathers wrote a Constitution that never once uses the words “corporation,” “company,” or “political parties.” Their use of language reflected their antipathy toward the domineering influence of empire and big businesses in their communities and lives. To American Revolutionaries, companies with territorial monopolies such as the East India Company and Hudson’s Bay Company were simply different faces of the tyrannical British Crown. Framers such as Jefferson and Madison viewed political parties contemptuously as “factions” of bickering self-interest. Jefferson puts it eloquently: “I hope that we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

If “We the People” are the sole subjects of the U.S. Constitution, why is it that we are ruled by large corporations and their largely indentured servants—the Republican and Democratic Parties—who continually seek to narrow and control the political spectrum for voters? The easy answer is that “We the People” have allowed these plutocratic forces to slowly siphon away our power.

This dynamic is inadequately recognized when evaluating the need to expand civic responses, security, and defense of public sovereignty. Those with enormous wealth and private power are able to over-reach into and dominate in the public sphere because they are inherently sensitive to their surroundings and emerging challenges to their demand for constant concentrated growth. Before and after the American Revolution, there has been a continuing daily tension between contending private commercial pursuits and common civic values. The historical struggles to stop white people from enslaving blacks, to provide protections to workers and farmers, and to end child labor are illustrations of such tension.

Most major religions and spiritual philosophies going back thousands of years have warned their adherents not to give too much power to wealth. Their wisdom and traditions teach that the obsessive drive for gold, money, and profit is a formidable deviation from other more important spiritual practices that strive to center community on non-market values such as love, generosity, kindness, cooperation, and non-violence. In our own country, American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau made this point throughout his writings, especially in “Life Without Principle” where he says “the world is a place of business” and that “the ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward.” Thoreau saw where the nation was and where it was going. He preferred jail to paying taxes while the United States was invading Mexico under false pretexts in order to take land at gunpoint.

Again and again the tension between commercial imperialism and an ethical life has played out dramatically in American history. With few exceptions, America’s business leaders said NO to the idea of revolting against the British monarchy. During the Revolution, however, expedient merchants and manufacturers were willing to profit from selling weapons, food, and other supplies to the Continental Army. The commercialists often sided with the Tories, and the quality of the goods they sold to the Revolutionaries was often so defective or contaminated as to outrage General George Washington.

In later decades, commercialists, now armed with ever larger treasuries and shielded by the armor of corporate law, consistently said NO to efforts to end child labor, NO to starting labor unions, NO to the regulation of railroad and banking abuses, NO to the 40-hour week and progressive taxation, NO to antitrust laws and the regulatory agencies we take for granted such as the Food and Drug Administration or the Federal Trade Commission, NO to a woman’s right to vote (they feared the women’s vote against exploiting child labor and cheating consumers), and NO to the minimum wage, Social Security, universal healthcare, and to the latter-day drives to protect the environment, empower consumers, reduce government secrecy, protect ethical whistleblowers, and even to reduce commercial fraud on the government as with Medicare and military contracts.

Since the battle for auto safety in the 1960s, public interest groups, consumer protection organizations, and a diverse variety of social networks have worked relentlessly to break through the battalions of lobbyists and lawyers paid by corporate interests to strenuously say NO to what is safe, healthy, fair, and ecologically sustainable. Democracy-centered movements have forced many corporate titans to retreat, adjust and reset their business models to take the well-being of communities, families, individuals, and the environment into account. Unfortunately, most gains that have been won remain precarious victories under constant threat by the corporate forces that have the big budgets to influence policy with money. The average wage, inflation adjusted, peaked for a majority of people in 1973, and there has been no over-arching economic and regulatory legislation benefiting the general population since the mid-1970s. A high water mark attempt to establish a consumer protection watchdog agency was derailed by corporate pressure during the presidency of Jimmy Carter in 1978. The degree to which the plutocracy has dominated and defeated efforts to advance the public interest in the United States has steadily expanded over the last 40 years.

The principles that drive large, profit-centered corporations are the antithesis of those that drive democracy-centered societies. Corporatists argue that in order to function most effectively, big business must manage workers’ performance through a top-down command structure. They never use the word authoritarian to describe themselves, although they are very vertically autocratic; instead they cite the “free market” as their disciplinarian.

Exxon/Mobil, Pfizer, Citigroup, General Motors, Lockheed/Martin, Proctor & Gamble, United Health Care, Comcast/NBC Universal, Apple, and many other giants garner revenues as large as numerous nation states around the world. Most are global in operation, but there is no public global government holding them accountable to communities of people. Just the opposite; there are dictatorial trade agreements that corporatists conjure up in order to subordinate the general population’s labor, consumer, and environmental protections—a stunning end run around our courts and legislatures. These protections are seen as “non-tariff trade barriers” to be subordinated to the priority of international commerce.

Apart from size and range, these global authoritarian entities have a clear and obsessive unity of purpose: money—money for bosses, money for shareholders, money to buy lawyers and politicians to take down laws and whatever else slows the pace of hoarding wealth. Over the decades there has been no debate raging inside Exxon or Peabody Coal about whether it is best to move to solar energy in place of the fossil fuels that are connected to toxic contamination and catastrophic climate change. To the contrary, Exxon has spent millions to mislead the public and delay, for as long as possible, the world from finding out that catastrophic climate change is directly linked to what makes them money: extracting and selling fossil fuels to be used in a way that contaminates and destabilizes Earth’s biosphere. Part of the misinformation campaign includes experts like Wei-Hock Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and others who have influenced policy by countering the claims that the fossil fuel business is destroying the planet, while they quietly receive large sums of money from precisely those businesses.

Merck and Eli Lilly aren’t having internal battles over what is best for families in the United States; they are not investing in the study of whether or not the nation will be more secure if everyone has Medicare; they are not lobbying politicians in Washington, D.C. to save thousands of lives of men, women and children through more affordable healthcare and access to doctors and hospitals. Raytheon and General Dynamics do not worry about how many of their weapons are being purchased and used for crimes, massacres, and other atrocities. For decades McDonald’s showed little anxiety or internal dissension about leading the spiral of disease-producing child obesity with its cardiac diet, while undermining parental authority. People at Coca-Cola have not worried about the long-term health consequences for children who consume the caffeine and sugar cocktail Coke markets all over Earth; instead Coca-Cola has spent lavishly on complex public relations efforts in attempt to divert attention away from the links between their products and childhood obesity and other diseases. Nor did those calling the shots at Phillip Morris and R.J. Reynolds have any serious qualms about continuing to deceptively market and sell an addictive and lethal product after it was known to be the cause of a national cancer epidemic that, the U.S. Surgeon General estimated, destroys over 400,000 American lives annually. None of these or other global companies has much loyalty to country, community, or the fragile ecological stability upon which all life is dependent. “Corporate patriotism” are not two words that come together in people’s minds.

Reprinted from Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think by Ralph Nader, published by City Lights, September 2016.


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