Summary: Americans think the nation is heading in the wrong direction. My biggest worries are 1) that our democracy is increasingly being transformed by the influence of big money into a plutocracy, and 2) we are failing to act vigorously to address the pressing emergency of global climate change. On both issues, the Republicans are playing a darkly destructive role, while the Democrats are failing to press the battle with the necessary vigor. That pattern reveals the essential core of America’s national crisis.
(This piece ran as an op/ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch in the spring of 2014.)
Are you, like me, unhappy about where you sense our nation is heading? Do you, like me, fear that the prospects for our children and grandchildren will be darker than what we have known?
For years, the polls show, a substantial majority of 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 indeed just one more 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 and its people.
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 a recent article in Perspectives on Politics by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University. Their extensive empirical 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 our major political parties are contaminated with this undemocratic impulse to follow the money. Yet the two parties 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 v FEC and McCutcheon v 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 onto the powerful, stinging dissent were Democratic appointees.
But the Democratic Party does not escape criticism here. If the danger to our democracy is as grave as it seems, an admirable political party would respond vigorously, 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 under a banner calling for a constitutional amendment to clear the way, once and for all, for the regulation of money spent directly to influence elections.
To move in the right direction, either the 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 (AAAS) warns of “abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes in the Earth’s climate system with massively disruptive impacts…” These effects could include “large scale collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, collapse of part of the Gulf Stream, loss of the Amazon rain forest, die-off of coral reefs, and mass extinctions.”
The effects on civilization as we know it could be dire: rising sea levels swamping coastal cities, shifting patterns of precipitation interfering with food production, etc. The U.S. 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 once again pushing in the responsible direction but weakly.
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.
When the house is on fire, it is necessary to shout the alarm, not just whisper.
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 conviction about the sacred values at stake.
In this pattern, we see a deeper reality. We see a situation that dangerously resembles what the poet, William Butler Yeats, described: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with a passionate intensity.”
America is on the “wrong track” because of a crisis that is manifested in our political arena, but that goes still deeper into the realm of our nation’s moral and spiritual condition.and spiritual condition.