Andy Schmookler: On the wrong track

By Andy Schmookler

For years, Americans have been unhappy about where our nation is headed. But we don’t all see the same dangers or agree on what to do about them. For example, the fear of millions that Obamacare is another step toward a socialist tyranny has little to do with reality. This distraction is just one symptom of what’s gone wrong.
Here are my two most important areas of concern:

• The accelerating replacement of government by and for the people by government by and for big money.

• The disruption of the Earth’s climate system, on which our lives depend, is gaining momentum, while our nation remains incapable of responding appropriately.

Both crises reveal a pathological political dynamic darkening the prospects for our nation.
The plutocratic threat to our democracy has long been visible, but not in living memory has our descent into the rule of the money system gone so deep.

When the aspirants to the presidency from one of our two major political parties travel to Las Vegas to pay court to an unappealing multi-billionaire — to “kiss his ring,” as some in the media say — it is all too clear that vast and increasing inequalities of wealth are translating into unjust inequalities of power. When a senator like Dick Durbin of Illinois tells us that every senator must spend hours every day of a six-year term reaching out to rich people for campaign dollars in order to stay in office, one must conclude that our “representatives” will give greater weight to the desires of the wealthy than to those of the average citizen.

This has been confirmed in an article in Perspectives on Politics by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University. Their study reveals that “ordinary citizens…have little or no independent influence on policy at all.” On the other hand, wealthy citizens have “a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy, more so than any other set of actors.”

Both major political parties are contaminated with this undemocratic impulse to follow the money. Yet they differ.

Starting in the 1970s and again in the 2000s, Congress tried to put at least minor obstacles in the way of “one dollar, one vote” displacing “one person, one vote.” But in two decisions — Citizens United vs FEC and McCutcheon vs FEC — the Supreme Court leveled even these speed bumps, hastening our descent into plutocracy. Especially in the second of these decisions, party differences were clear: The five justices in the majority – who pretended that, in the absence of outright bribery, infusion of unlimited money into campaigns would have no corrupting effects — were all Republican appointees. All four who signed the dissent were Democratic appointees.

But the Democratic Party does not escape criticism. If the danger to democracy is as grave as it seems, an admirable political party would respond loudly, with an all-out determination to rescue America’s democratic ideals while we still have the means. In this year’s congressional elections, for example, it would be heartening to see the Democrats unite and call for a constitutional amendment to clear the way for the regulation of money spent directly to influence elections.

To move in the right direction, Republicans will have to completely change directions, or the Democrats will have to become bolder in pressing the battle. Neither is happening.
We see much the same pattern with respect to climate disruption.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science warns of “abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes in the Earth’s climate system with massively disruptive impacts…”

The effects on civilization could be dire: rising sea levels swamping coastal cities, shifting patterns of precipitation interfering with food production, etc. The Pentagon has identified climate change as a “threat multiplier,” increasing the challenge of maintaining national security.

Nonetheless, Republican Party dogma is to deny there is any problem that warrants taking action. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, is pushing in the responsible direction but weakly. President Barack Obama has made important moves to implement prudent policies, but in view of the stakes the rhetoric remains tame and muted.

In the face of what is likely the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced, a truly admirable political party would not just take a correct position, but press the battle. A debate against those who deny the science in service of some of the world’s richest corporations should be winnable.

On both these urgent matters – potentially catastrophic climate change and the threat to democracy — one party’s consistent (and thus far effective) efforts make things worse. The other party leans in the right direction, but without evident deep conviction about the sacred values at stake.

Andy Schmookler, recently the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District, is an award-winning author whose books include The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.