Can America's Downward Spiral Be Reversed?

| No TrackBacks
      A number of recent events have cast in stark relief the continued unraveling of the political system of the United States. These events raise concerns as to whether the majority of American citizens suffer from a kind of pervasive Attention Deficit Disorder that has rendered many of us unable to understand the implications of what we are seeing before our very eyes.

      The Center for American Progress has reported that the federal government has spent $136 billion total from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2013 on disaster relief. That amount is the equivalent of an average of nearly $400 per household per year paid for by tax-payers. Yet, at a time when  large parts of the country are increasingly devastated by incidents of severe weather, including torrential  downpours, floods, hail, wild fires, drought and excessive heat, timid politicians on both sides of the aisle, fearful of offending corporate  interests and incurring the wrath of their Super PACS, continue to blithely ignore the unmistakable signs of severe climate.

       In response to mounting evidence of severe environmental damage caused fossil fuel emissions and human activity, almost all members of  GOP's Congressional Caucus and Democratic nay-sayers such as Senators Manchin and Mary Landrieu - who are  both wholly-owned captives of the coal and oil lobbies - have continued  to question the science behind climate change.

       Equally unsettling, within the past month, the country has witnessed horrific additional acts of gun violence acts. The other day, a fifteen year adolescent armed with an assault rifle entered an Oregon high school and opened fire in a gym locker room, fatally shooting a 14 year-old and wounding a teacher before he killed himself. This was the 74th shooting at an American school since the December 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School - and the 37th  this year - according to a statement issued by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The Violence Policy Center has reported that, as of 2010, more than one million Americans had died in firearms-related suicides, homicides and unintentional injuries since 1960.

       After the obligatory expressions of condolences from elected officials, and moments of silence observed by the Congress in the wake of these preventable tragedies, an overwhelming majority of GOP legislators and sizeable minority of timid Democratic legislators will still not dare to suggest publicly - for fear of antagonizing the NRA and the gun-manufacturers' lobby - that there is something fundamentally deranged about a political system in which any virtually lunatic, white supremacist, convicted convict, or potential terrorist can purchase unlimited numbers of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition anonymously at unregulated gun shows, over the internet, or in red states that have lax or virtually non-existent restrictions on the purchase of high-velocity assault weapons and armor-piercing ammunition.

       Sadly, this collective insanity has received by the imprimatur of the country's highest court. In District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008), five linguistically-challenged, right-wing jurists, who enjoy life-tenure for good behavior, cavalierly disregarded the principle of stare decisis and set aside what had heretofore been the settled Second Amendment jurisprudence. In overturning United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), Justice Scalia claimed to divine some kind of constitutional right on the part of individuals - as opposed to the collective requirement of a "well-regulated militia (i.e. today's National Guard) - to bear arms and he piously intoned, "We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country, but the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."( As an aside, it should be noted that the Supreme Court would never allow guns to be carried into the court lest they imperil the safety of the nine judges). 

       A third ominous example involves the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in elections, by which SuperPACs are determined, through the use of electronic media and negative ads, to control the election results and thus gain complete control of the machinery of government. Their efforts have again been sanctioned by the same five result-oriented jurists on the Supreme Courts who comprised the one-vote majority in the Heller case. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U. S. 310(2010), and now in McCutcheon, et al. v.  Federal Election Commission, 572 U.S. ___ (2014), these same five ideologues have held that corporations are people within the meaning of the 14th Amendment and that, as such, expenditures of money by them to influence the outcomes of  political  elections were protected speech under the First Amendment and public restrictions upon such expenditures violate the free speech provisions of that amendment.

       As a result of the increasing concentration of power in our wealthy elite, their SuperPACs and their lobbies, the United States Senate yesterday rejected a bill proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) by a 56-38 vote - which was l vote short of the 60 needed. Her bill was designed to allow Americans who are increasingly burdened by student debts to refinance their student loans at lower rates. The cost of the bill would have been easily paid for out of the so-called Buffett Rule, which would have set minimum tax rates for people making over $1 million whose income is primarily derived from passive investments rather than from wages earned from work.

       Current data shoes that student loan debt has now exceeds $1 trillion and has emerged as a major brake on economic growth and the ability middle-class families across the country to purchase homes and plan for their futures.

       "With this vote we show the American people who we work for in the United States Senate: billionaires or students," Warren stated. "A vote on this legislation is a vote to give millions of young people a fair shot at building their future." 

       By contrast, Republicans claimed the bill wouldn't have done anything to lower education costs or reduce borrowing, and they accused Democrats of playing politics by highlighting an issue that was bound to fail. "The Senate Democrats' bill isn't really about students at all. It's really all about Senate Democrats," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "They want an issue to campaign on to save their own hides this November."

       The journalist Eric Schlosser has predicted that "The history of the twentieth century was dominated by the struggle against totalitarian systems of state power. The twenty-first will no doubt be marked by a struggle to curtail excessive corporate power." In a similar vein, Harvard political philosopher John Rawls warned that, "In constant pursuit of money to finance campaigns, the political system is simply unable to function. Its deliberative powers are paralyzed."

        Schlosser's concerns and those of Rawls have been repeatedly echoed by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I -VT). In public comments in 2011, he ruefully observed that, "So far this year, 26 billionaires have donated more than $61 million to SuperPACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And, that's only what has been publicly disclosed. This $61 million does not include about $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has said that he is willing to spend to defeat President Obama; or the $400 million that the Koch brothers have pledged to spend during the 2012 election season. These 26 billionaires have a combined net worth of $146 billion, which is more than the bottom 42.5 percent of American households (equal to nearly 50 million families in the United States.)" 

       Sanders added, "What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires and the corporations they control: 'You own and control the economy, you own Wall Street, you own the coal companies, you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we're going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government.'"   

       This Fourth of July, as in so many years past, politicians, public figures, and the citizens at large will celebrate the independence of the United States from Great Britain, invoke the inspirational words of the Declaration of Independence, and laud the American experiment as the noblest yet conceived of by man. Yet underneath the platitudes, there is a growing sense of unease. Shrill partisanship and institutional gridlock, as well as intractable economic and social problems, suggest that the 18th century governmental machinery that has guided this country since the ratification of the constitution in 1787 is becoming increasingly sclerotic and unresponsive.

       We now exist in a twenty-first century world, but we are collectively boxed within an unresponsive eighteenth century construct from which there is virtually no escape, given the nearly insuperable obstacles that the Founders imposed in order to amend this no longer viable instrument.

       The Founders of the American Republic, inspired as they were by the politics of John Locke, shared his fear of concentrated power. Hence, they devised a constitutional system for the United States in which political power was distributed between the federal government and the individual states. The object, as James Madison commented, was to disperse political power: "The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures."

       Divided government, with its diffusion of power vertically and horizontally, has contributed to an appalling lack of transparency and accountability that enable the office-holders in each of the fifty states and in the three branches of the federal government to point accusing fingers at one another while refusing to accept responsibility for their own decision-making.

       The diffusion and distribution of political power within the political system of the United States has today resulted in something profoundly different than what they anticipated: The liberal consensus that gave birth to the American republic, emerged historically in England as a democratic force to challenge to feudal privilege and the tyranny of kings.

       But in the United States, where all who have been born are held to be equal before the law and where the Constitution expressly prohibits the granting of any titles of nobility, John Locke's politics has created its own antithesis: rule by oligarchs and corporate plutocrats in which the rights of the wealthy individuals and their corporations are accorded greater protections than the rights of ordinary individuals.

        Other vibrant democracies in the Western World have revisited and updated their constitutional schemes of government when the evidence showed that the governmental machinery no longer served the public interest. Why should we be any different?         

       The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain observed that "[T]he primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice....As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."

       History reminds us that social justice can never be realized in a political system that permits a culture of indifference and injustice to fester and metastasize. History also reveals, however, that, when the suffering of too many citizens remains pervasive and ignored, the bonds of civility begin to unravel, ineluctably, over time. At the precise moment when the body politic finally shreds, even those who are most privileged will be unable to find shelter from the resulting chaos.  


No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL: