In the Twilight of Empire

America’s past performance is no guarantee of a future.

Jeff Faux

His­to­ri­ans who look back to our time will sure­ly con­clude that our prob­lem was not that we didn’t know where we were head­ed, it was that we didn’t act on what we knew.

It’s a hopeless illusion that Americans can deal with the long economic twilight of empire that lies in front of them without radically reducing the dominance of money over our democracy.

Before the finan­cial crash of 2008 – 2009 and the Great Reces­sion that fol­lowed, there was ample warn­ing. Whether you were a jour­nal­ist who report­ed the news, a politi­cian who made the news, or a cit­i­zen who read or watched the news, it was hard not to be aware that for the past 30 years, the fol­low­ing had been happening:

Most Amer­i­cans expe­ri­enced stag­nant real incomes, shrink­ing finan­cial secu­ri­ty and fray­ing social safe­ty nets.

The nation bought more from the rest of the world than it had been sell­ing and was bor­row­ing to finance the difference.

Despite the ero­sion of U.S. eco­nom­ic pow­er, the gov­ern­ing class — Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans alike — insist­ed on main­tain­ing its glob­al hege­mo­ny, what­ev­er the cost.

Sweep­ing his­tor­i­cal analo­gies between the present-day Unit­ed States and the decline and fall of ear­li­er empires had been seep­ing into pub­lic con­scious­ness for three decades. Yale his­to­ri­an Paul Kennedy’s best-sell­ing book, The Rise and Fall of Great Pow­ers, revived grand the­o­ries of the nat­ur­al life cycles of empires that had been pro­posed ear­li­er in the 20th cen­tu­ry. Kennedy sug­gest­ed that the Unit­ed States might be head­ed for the same fate as past super­pow­ers that had col­lapsed because their polit­i­cal ambi­tions had expand­ed beyond their eco­nom­ic bases. His book spawned an aca­d­e­m­ic cot­tage indus­try that fon­dled the his­tor­i­cal analo­gies: Were we Rome in the fourth cen­tu­ry? Eng­land at the begin­ning of the 20th century?

Kennedy’s book also spawned an even larg­er indus­try of politi­cians, pun­dits and aca­d­e­mics who flat­ly reject­ed the notion that any­one could hear the bells of his­to­ry tolling the end of America’s time in the sun.

After all, the end-of-empire sto­ry has lim­it­ed appeal for the U.S. gov­ern­ing class: the politi­cians, the media pun­dits, and the pol­i­cy man­agers who move through revolv­ing doors to and from invest­ment banks, glob­al cor­po­ra­tions, uni­ver­si­ties, think tanks and high-lev­el gov­ern­ment jobs. Of course they admit­ted that the coun­try had prob­lems; indeed, it was their job to solve them. But the sug­ges­tion that the Unit­ed States might no longer be able to have it all is not very use­ful for ambi­tious lead­ers whose careers depend­ed on their abil­i­ty to project self-con­fi­dence. Nor was it use­ful for their wealthy patrons who val­ued the prices of the futures in their glob­al port­fo­lios more than the future of their country.

Acknowl­edg­ing these lim­its is dan­ger­ous ter­ri­to­ry. If the free mar­ket is no longer deliv­er­ing the pros­per­i­ty promised to the cit­i­zen in the Amer­i­can dream, then the polit­i­cal sys­tem bears more respon­si­bil­i­ty than our lead­ers want to admit for the relent­less redis­tri­b­u­tion of income and wealth from the bot­tom and the mid­dle of the pyra­mid to the top. Most dan­ger­ous of all, such an acknowl­edg­ment encour­ages dis­cus­sion about who our polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives actu­al­ly rep­re­sent. The Democ­rats are no more eager to have this con­ver­sa­tion than the Repub­li­cans are.

Hard­wired denial

The future is, of course, unknow­able, and pre­dic­tion is always a mat­ter of prob­a­bil­i­ties. His­to­ry, like life, is marked by unex­pect­ed turns. Black swans, to use author Nas­sim Nicholas Taleb’s metaphor for the unfore­seen, fly in unde­tect­ed by our best radar. But major dis­lo­cat­ing events that could not have been fore­told are rar­er than we com­mon­ly acknowl­edge. Pad­dling into a strong cur­rent and accel­er­at­ing toward the sound of a water­fall does not guar­an­tee that you and your canoe will crack up, but if you ignore the evi­dence, that is cer­tain­ly the most like­ly outcome.

Deny­ing the evi­dence in front of your nose seems to be hard­wired in indi­vid­u­als. Through­out his­to­ry, kings, popes, pres­i­dents and cor­po­rate CEOs have been sur­round­ed by cir­cles of advis­ers who have made per­sua­sive argu­ments in favor of ignor­ing the evi­dence. The short-term cost of chang­ing course was just too great. Typ­i­cal­ly the costs would have to be paid by those at the top, and advo­cat­ing a lev­el of change to match the lev­el of the dan­ger ahead was too risky for one’s career. It was bet­ter then, these advis­ers thought, to trust that the future cost of not chang­ing course would be mit­i­gat­ed by the excep­tion­al virtue, strength and des­tiny of those in charge. His­to­ry and com­mon sense did not apply to them; they were excep­tion­al.”

The wide­spread belief among Amer­i­cans that our coun­try is excep­tion­al” is not unique. All coun­tries, like all human beings, are excep­tion­al in the sense of being dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er. But the assump­tion of 200-plus years of suc­cess intox­i­cates, and it will take a while to sober up.

In 2011, the third year of the glob­al reces­sion, the Pew Research Cen­ter polled pub­lic atti­tudes in the Unit­ed States, Ger­many, Britain, France and Spain. Only in the Unit­ed States did a major­i­ty agree with the state­ment, Our peo­ple are not per­fect, but our cul­ture is supe­ri­or to oth­ers.” Even the noto­ri­ous­ly proud French were only half as con­vinced of their excep­tion­al cul­ture as Amer­i­cans were of theirs.

It is there­fore not sur­pris­ing that mem­bers of the U.S. gov­ern­ing class assume that their rise to the top of the glob­al hier­ar­chy is the result of their nation’s — and there­fore its lead­ers’ — inher­ent supe­ri­or­i­ty. The assump­tion of excep­tion­al­ism relieves our gov­ern­ing class from hav­ing to learn the lessons of his­to­ry. Every episode of our country’s expan­sion — from the eth­nic cleans­ing of Native Amer­i­cans to the inva­sion of Iraq — has been accom­pa­nied by the con­fi­dence that suc­cess was cer­tain because of our moral virtue.

On Feb. 19, 1998, on the Today show, speak­ing of the alleged threat posed by Iraq, Sec­re­tary of State Madeleine Albright put it this way: If we have to use force, it is because we are Amer­i­ca. We are the indis­pens­able nation. We stand tall, and we see fur­ther than oth­er coun­tries into the future.”

A dis­con­nect­ed elite

His­to­ry, as the adage says, is writ­ten by the vic­tors. George Orwell famous­ly stat­ed, He who con­trols the present con­trols the past. He who con­trols the past con­trols the future.” This is a point we nor­mal­ly think of as refer­ring to the abil­i­ty of con­querors to jus­ti­fy and immor­tal­ize their vic­to­ries. But it also applies to the way the win­ning” gen­er­a­tions think about past losers. From the per­spec­tive of the for­mer, the price, how­ev­er steep, paid by the lat­ter was clear­ly worth it. We in the suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions take for grant­ed that the pain and suf­fer­ing of those who went before us jus­ti­fies our happiness.

Scold­ing those who wor­ry about the country’s prospects, John Pod­horetz, edi­tor of Com­men­tary Mag­a­zine, told a con­ser­v­a­tive busi­ness audi­ence in the fall of 2011 that the country’s past is ample proof of its future suc­cess: The amaz­ing dura­bil­i­ty of the Amer­i­can sys­tem over 235 years is the pri­ma­ry rea­son for opti­mism about the Amer­i­can future.”

The Unit­ed States as a coun­try will obvi­ous­ly sur­vive almost any con­ceiv­able eco­nom­ic hard times. Giv­en its lev­el of devel­op­ment and size, even as its rel­a­tive rank­ings decline, the Unit­ed States will con­tin­ue to have one of the world’s largest economies. The dis­con­nect between the inter­ests of the nation’s cit­i­zens and its eco­nom­ic elite will accel­er­ate the decline, but the decline will occur over decades. It took more than three cen­turies for Rome to fall, and a cen­tu­ry for the British to drop to the sec­ond tier of world pow­ers. In any prac­ti­cal sense, the Unit­ed States is immortal.

Although not quite as secure, the con­cen­tra­tions of wealth held by Amer­i­cans also have a sort of immor­tal­i­ty that is the spe­cial priv­i­lege bestowed on the cor­po­ra­tion by the state. Indi­vid­ual cor­po­ra­tions can die from bad luck and incom­pe­tence or a reor­ga­ni­za­tion of investors’ port­fo­lios. But ade­quate­ly man­aged, the wealth moves from one pro­tect­ed cor­po­rate nest to anoth­er — death­less as long as its spe­cial sta­tus is indulged by society.

In the long run,” John May­nard Keynes famous­ly said, we are all dead.” But liv­ing off large priv­i­leged stores of cap­i­tal, most mem­bers of the gov­ern­ing class­es are pro­tect­ed on the down­side from the nat­ur­al cap­i­tal­ist cycles of boom and bust. Reces­sions, even depres­sions and oth­er eco­nom­ic calami­ties, are not typ­i­cal­ly life-threat­en­ing. As the crash of 2008 taught us once more, mon­ey may be lost, CEOs may be forced to retire ear­ly, and some assets might have to be sold, but those who drove the econ­o­my off the cliff did not end up sleep­ing on park bench­es. Three years lat­er, Wall Street prof­its and bonus­es were at or exceed­ing pre-crash levels.

The inter­pre­ta­tion of the past, upon which much of the opti­mism for the future is based, also blurs the dif­fer­ence between the life of Amer­i­ca and the lives of Amer­i­cans. Ordi­nary cit­i­zens live in short­er, more frag­ile time frames. The dam­age from being out of work for six months, los­ing your house and/​or your mar­riage, not being able to afford an oper­a­tion, or hav­ing to drop out of col­lege is nev­er made up over a life­time. The call for patience and shared sac­ri­fice for the future has costs for the gov­erned that those who gov­ern typ­i­cal­ly nev­er face.

Thus, in 2007, Forbes writer Quentin Hardy took naysay­ing Amer­i­cans to task for their creep­ing pes­simism: We are longer-lived and with access to more knowl­edge and expe­ri­ences than any king or pope who has come before, nev­er mind the lives of count­less bil­lions whose ordi­nary tragedies are col­lec­tive­ly called his­to­ry.’ This much luck should make us hug our­selves with delight.” Fur­ther­more, he argued, Hav­ing slipped cat­a­stro­phes like the 1914 – 1945 world­wide con­flicts (with 100 mil­lion dead), or the nuclear threat of the 44 cold war years that fol­lowed, there are also rea­son­able grounds to believe we can work out our prob­lems. The dai­ly advances in sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy lend hope that on bal­ance things can be even better.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for them, the 19-year-olds whose futures were blown to pieces at Ver­dun, Iwo Jima or Khe Sanh; the young immi­grant women incin­er­at­ed in the Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­to­ry fire; and the kid­napped slaves from Africa worked to death on cot­ton plan­ta­tions did not slip the cat­a­stro­phes” of his­to­ry. We can­not ask them if their sac­ri­fices were worth it.

Amid plen­ty, a pover­ty of will

The U.S. gov­ern­ing class does not lack access to ideas and pro­pos­als that can stop the decline in aver­age incomes. Rather, it lacks the will to pur­sue them. The cur­rent eco­nom­ic mod­el is obvi­ous­ly not work­ing per­fect­ly, but for the priv­i­leged and pow­er­ful it is work­ing well enough. If any­thing, the extra­or­di­nary dis­play of Wall Street’s polit­i­cal mus­cle in the wake of the finan­cial crash and the Supreme Court’s Cit­i­zens Unit­ed deci­sion will fur­ther weak­en our polit­i­cal lead­ers’ capac­i­ty to change our eco­nom­ic trajectory.

Yet even with­in the con­fines of this plu­toc­ra­cy, it does mat­ter who becomes pres­i­dent and who runs Con­gress. More eco­nom­ic stress is on the way. Under Democ­rats, it will come at a slow­er pace and hurt the work­ing class less than under Repub­li­cans. Under Democ­rats, there will be less shred­ding of social safe­ty nets than under Repub­li­cans. Under Democ­rats, labor unions will be tol­er­at­ed; under Repub­li­cans they will be assault­ed. Under Democ­rats, Supreme Court appointees will tend to be eco­nom­ic cen­trists; under Repub­li­cans they will tend to be eco­nom­ic reactionaries.

These dis­tinc­tions are not unim­por­tant. For peo­ple who strug­gle every day to pay the rent or mort­gage, to buy food and clothes for their kids, to squeeze out a health insur­ance pre­mi­um, there is a world of dif­fer­ence between hav­ing a small­er Social Secu­ri­ty or unem­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion check and not hav­ing one, between hav­ing access to a thread­bare Medicare pro­gram and hav­ing no pro­gram at all, between hav­ing to piece togeth­er a liv­ing with sev­er­al low-pay­ing part-time jobs and being com­plete­ly with­out work.

The dif­fer­ence between the par­ties is sig­nif­i­cant, but just elect­ing Democ­rats will not stop the fall in the stan­dard of living.

Scar­lett O’Haras of the rul­ing class

Aside from pro­mot­ing the polit­i­cal soap opera that is deliv­ered around the clock by the news media, the busi­ness and polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment has lit­tle to say to Amer­i­cans about their eco­nom­ic prospects oth­er than that they should not give up hope. This is the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, after all.

Some­how” some­thing will come up. Some unpre­dictable black swan will appear to lead us back to the old-time pros­per­i­ty. Some deus ex machi­na will descend from above the stage to res­cue the mid­dle class with­out dis­com­fort­ing the rich and pow­er­ful. Per­haps we will invent anoth­er Inter­net, the Chi­nese will self-destruct, or the mag­i­cal tax cut will bring back full employment.

I’ll go home,” says Scar­lett O’Hara at the end of Gone with the Wind. And I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomor­row is anoth­er day.”

But we know that Scar­lett will nev­er get Rhett back. We also know that we Amer­i­cans will nev­er get back to the good times of ris­ing wages from 1947 to 1973 or to the string of cred­it bub­bles that com­pen­sat­ed for wage stag­na­tion from 1979 to 2008. The world in which both of those eras played out has disappeared.

More­over, the eco­log­i­cal lim­its to growth are start­ing to impinge upon us. No seri­ous observ­er believes that the world’s nat­ur­al resources can sus­tain the growth of con­sump­tion nec­es­sary to bring the stan­dard of liv­ing of the rest of the world up to the lev­el of the major advanced nations. By 2050, we can expect the glob­al pop­u­la­tion to have grown by anoth­er 2.5 bil­lion, to more than 9 bil­lion peo­ple, most of them in the poor and devel­op­ing regions. That U.S. con­sumers, rep­re­sent­ing less than 5 per­cent of the world’s cur­rent pop­u­la­tion, can con­tin­ue to use 25 per­cent of the world’s fos­sil-fuel resources is not cred­i­ble. More­over, although we don’t know how long it will take for the full force of cli­mate change to arrive, we can see it coming.

In the wake of our recent finan­cial dis­as­ters, to imag­ine that these resource and envi­ron­men­tal pres­sures can in any way be resolved by the price mech­a­nisms of unreg­u­lat­ed mar­kets is pre­pos­ter­ous. Yet, no seri­ous observ­er believes that our cur­rent polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions are capa­ble of deal­ing with that real­i­ty. A gov­ern­ing class that will not bring itself to res­cue the sink­ing incomes of the major­i­ty of its vot­ers in the next elec­tion is hard­ly going to lead the world to stop a pro­ject­ed rise in the sea lev­el decades in the future. And nei­ther is it like­ly that a pub­lic, sud­den­ly find­ing itself under more finan­cial stress, will force its gov­ern­ing class to pay more atten­tion to the fate of the plan­et. Some­how, we’ll think of some­thing — tomor­row. We hope.

It is already too late to stop the decline in the mid­dle-class stan­dard of liv­ing for the next few years. It may even be too late to stop it from declin­ing for the next 20 years. But if it is not, revers­ing the slide will require more than mod­est changes in eco­nom­ic policy.

To bring a dif­fer­ent future with­in our grasp, we must first also aban­don hope that our cur­rent polit­i­cal sys­tem will deliv­er it. We must face the real­i­ty — not just the easy plague on both their hous­es” atti­tude that is so often an excuse for refus­ing the oblig­a­tions of cit­i­zen­ship — that no estab­lished par­ty (not the Democ­rats, not the Repub­li­cans) so depen­dent on mon­ey from the reac­tionary rich and the glob­al­iz­ing cor­po­ra­tions will act to alter our eco­nom­ic tra­jec­to­ry. From the point of view of the gov­ern­ing class, if the Amer­i­can peo­ple are will­ing to suf­fer an offi­cial unem­ploy­ment rate above 9 per­cent for three years, they will prob­a­bly — if main­tain­ing elite priv­i­leges so requires — accept it for three more years, or six, or more.

Chris Hedges, a for­mer New York Times reporter who shared a Pulitzer Prize, believes that a fas­cist future is in the cards, and when it arrives, he pre­dicts: The goal will no longer be the pos­si­bil­i­ty of reform­ing the sys­tem but of pro­tect­ing truth, civil­i­ty and cul­ture from mass con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. … The goal will become the abil­i­ty to endure.”

The evi­dence does not yet clear­ly sug­gest Hedges’s night­mare sce­nario. Still, his­to­ry has repeat­ed­ly shown that democ­ra­cy becomes more vul­ner­a­ble dur­ing hard times. One recent study of how peo­ple in var­i­ous coun­tries respond to the state­ment that it is good to have a strong leader who does not have to both­er with Par­lia­ment or elec­tions,” showed that in the Unit­ed States being unem­ployed increas­es the favor­able response from 27 to 38 percent.

Is the Right smarter than the Left?

The last few years have demon­strat­ed that the Amer­i­can Right has proved itself tougher, more strate­gic, and bold­er than the Left. If that con­tin­ues, no one can be sure where it will lead.

The Left has not come up with a uni­fy­ing and appeal­ing chal­lenge to the Right’s sim­ple answer for the eco­nom­ic cri­sis: low­er tax­es and small gov­ern­ment.” The major insti­tu­tions of the Left are stuck seek­ing pro­tec­tion from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, despite the fact that the par­ty has been so com­pro­mised by its enemies.

Again, it is not that the Left doesn’t see it. Labor union lead­ers, for exam­ple, ful­ly under­stand that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty takes them for grant­ed. Richard Trum­ka, the most dynam­ic leader the AFL-CIO has had since its incep­tion in 1955, has com­plained bit­ter­ly about the Oba­ma administration’s bro­ken promis­es to labor. Con­tempt for labor was rou­tine­ly expressed by the Wall Street wannabes who worked for Pres­i­dents Clin­ton and Oba­ma. When Rahm Emanuel, who was an advi­sor to both, said to nego­tia­tors on the auto bailout, Fuck the UAW,” it was noth­ing the peo­ple in the White House had not heard before. Nor was he pub­licly (or appar­ent­ly pri­vate­ly) rebuked by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, who could not have been elect­ed, nor could he be reelect­ed, with­out union support.

But hav­ing been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly weak­ened by Rea­gan era poli­cies, union lead­ers are more depen­dent than ever on Democ­rats to shield them from the Repub­li­can Right that is out to destroy them. So, on the one hand, the blogs and newslet­ters of unions and oth­er lib­er­al groups crit­i­cize the Democ­rats, but at elec­tion time sup­port them with mon­ey and votes in the quixot­ic belief that this will some­how put pres­sure” on them. Elec­tion Day for Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­stituen­cies are now most­ly efforts to shore up their crum­bling defens­es. Hope implic­it­ly rests on the dan­ger­ous premise that some out­side cat­a­lyst — per­haps the next, even greater eco­nom­ic cat­a­stro­phe — might force the need­ed polit­i­cal change.

This rep­re­sents a fun­da­men­tal fail­ure of our democ­ra­cy. With­in the two-par­ty sys­tem the way out of this trap would be for the pro­gres­sive par­ty — the Democ­rats — to explain the eco­nom­ic real­i­ty to the elec­torate: for the mid­dle class to pros­per, the gov­ern­ment must inter­vene to reignite growth, to guide that growth into a sus­tain­able future, and to sub­or­di­nate the dreams of Wall Street and the mil­i­tary indus­tri­al com­plex to the well-being of the mid­dle class.

But the depen­dence of the major­i­ty of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­ers on cor­po­rate largesse for their careers and for their per­son­al wealth blocks that escape. Like Clin­ton, Oba­ma turns pop­ulist at elec­tion time. And, as with Clin­ton, once elect­ed Barack Oba­ma refused to exploit the edu­ca­ble moment. It was no acci­dent. As jour­nal­ist Thomas Edsall observes, the poll­sters and con­sul­tants who guide the par­ty and who them­selves are con­nect­ed to the mon­ey that sup­ports the gov­ern­ing class, con­tin­ue to pro­mote the Democ­rats’ long-term trend away from eco­nom­ic class issues that have the poten­tial to unite their con­stituen­cies and toward the frac­tur­ing pol­i­tics of social iden­ti­ty. This obses­sion with social niche mar­ket­ing feeds into the Right’s por­trait of the Democ­rats as afflu­ent lib­er­als, sin­gle career women, and racial minorities.

This vision is an aggre­ga­tion of spe­cial inter­ests. The sub­ur­ban lib­er­al elite want envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, good schools, free­dom for indi­vid­ual lifestyles and a lid on tax­es. Their fel­low Democ­rats on the oth­er end of the wealth con­tin­u­um want food stamps, health and child­care sub­si­dies, and a gen­er­al­ly stronger and more expen­sive safe­ty net.

In times of ris­ing pros­per­i­ty, rec­on­cil­ing these dif­fer­ent agen­das is hard enough. But in a pro­longed peri­od of pres­sure on liv­ing stan­dards at the mid­dle and the bot­tom of the income and wealth pyra­mid, it is a for­mu­la for divi­sion. It is, after all, the minor­i­ty poor and sin­gle moth­ers who bear the brunt of a pol­i­tics of austerity.

One out­come of the empha­sis on social lib­er­al­ism, notes Edsall, could be exac­er­bat­ed intra-par­ty con­flict between whites, blacks and His­pan­ics — pop­u­la­tions fre­quent­ly marked by diverg­ing mate­r­i­al inter­ests. Black ver­sus brown strug­gles are already emerg­ing in con­tests over the dis­tri­b­u­tion of polit­i­cal pow­er, espe­cial­ly dur­ing a cur­rent redis­trict­ing of city coun­cil, state leg­isla­tive and con­gres­sion­al seats in cities like Los Ange­les and Chicago.”

Look­ing ahead to 2016, there is lit­tle rea­son to think that the poten­tial can­di­dates in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pipeline rep­re­sent any­thing close to the trans­for­ma­tion­al lead­er­ship the coun­try needs. Hillary Clin­ton and Rahm Emanuel are loy­al prod­ucts of the cur­rent sys­tem. As is Andrew Cuo­mo, who in his first year as gov­er­nor of New York slashed pub­lic spend­ing for the poor and low­ered tax­es for the rich. None of the oth­ers in the ear­ly bet­ting, such as ex-Vir­ginia Gov. Mark Warn­er, Illi­nois Sen. Richard Durbin and sev­er­al small state gov­er­nors, have shown a will­ing­ness to bite Wall Street or the mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex from whose finan­cial hands they will have to feed.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal con­sul­tants argue that giv­en a polar­ized elec­torate, the pol­i­tics of group iden­ti­ty is the only real­is­tic way for the par­ty to keep com­pet­i­tive in close races. In some cas­es they are sure­ly right. But it is not a strat­e­gy for fash­ion­ing a large coali­tion uni­fied by com­mon eco­nom­ic inter­ests. Occu­py Wall Street’s 99 %” slo­gan may exag­ger­ate the poten­tial major­i­ty on eco­nom­ic issues, but the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s 50 per­cent plus one” strat­e­gy aban­dons it.

So, is it hopeless?

To expect the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ing class at the top to change the direc­tion of the econ­o­my that has brought its mem­bers pros­per­i­ty — yes. To expect a con­fused and divid­ed cit­i­zen­ry to agree on a com­mon eco­nom­ic agen­da and impose it on the gov­ern­ing class — yes.

What then is the cit­i­zen to do? Wait until the next eco­nom­ic cat­a­stro­phe? Per­haps if, next time, instead of just $12 tril­lion, the mar­kets lose $25 tril­lion, and instead of reach­ing 10 per­cent, the unem­ploy­ment rate goes to 20 per­cent, per­haps then our gov­ern­ing class will act for the good of the coun­try. Or per­haps then the peo­ple will rise up.

Per­haps, but we could wait a long time for such a rev­o­lu­tion in Amer­i­ca. After eight years of depres­sion, the unem­ploy­ment rate rose back to 20 per­cent in mid-1938 and still there was no polit­i­cal insur­rec­tion. And, if there had been, it could as eas­i­ly have come from the Right as the Left.

Acknowl­edg­ing that it is hope­less to expect the gov­ern­ing class as present­ly con­sti­tut­ed to change our eco­nom­ic tra­jec­to­ry does not sig­nal the end to pol­i­tics. Rather it could allow the cit­i­zen to con­cen­trate on attack­ing the cen­tral obsta­cle to the reshap­ing of our col­lec­tive future.

In just about 10 min­utes of seri­ous polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion with oth­er Amer­i­cans about what is wrong with our coun­try, you will most like­ly get to the bot­tom-line answer: the per­va­sive cor­rup­tion of our pol­i­tics by mon­ey. The vast major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans believe that mon­ey cor­rupts and pre­vents the gov­ern­ment from serv­ing the public’s needs. After the Supreme Court hand­ed down its Cit­i­zens Unit­ed deci­sion, a Wash­ing­ton Post-ABC poll report­ed that at least 80 per­cent of Amer­i­cans dis­agreed with it, includ­ing 76 per­cent of Repub­li­cans. No mat­ter; nei­ther party’s lead­er­ship is about to change this system.

The root prob­lem is the way the court has inter­pret­ed the Con­sti­tu­tion, and this is not just the case with the Roberts Court. Since 1886 with its San­ta Clara Coun­ty v. South­ern Pacif­ic Rail­road rul­ing, the Supreme Court has been pro­vid­ing cor­po­ra­tions with the rights of indi­vid­ual human beings that were nei­ther con­tem­plat­ed by the Found­ing Fathers nor sup­port­ed by the major­i­ty of Americans.

The solu­tion, there­fore, is a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment estab­lish­ing once and for all that cor­po­ra­tions do not have the polit­i­cal rights of, in the lan­guage of the court, per­sons” and man­dat­ing hard lim­its on cam­paign spend­ing. Unlike the efforts of the rad­i­cal Right to amend the Con­sti­tu­tion over issues that are irrel­e­vant to the process of gov­er­nance such as abor­tion, flag burn­ing, gay mar­riage, or prayer in the schools, reg­u­lat­ing the mon­ey in pol­i­tics is tru­ly an impor­tant con­sti­tu­tion­al question.

A mas­sive mobi­liza­tion of cit­i­zens for a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment has the poten­tial for loos­en­ing the death grip of the nihilist, anti­tax, antigov­ern­ment ide­ol­o­gy on U.S. pol­i­tics in the fol­low­ing ways:

It gets to the eas­i­ly under­stood heart of the mat­ter: money.

The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of the coun­try agrees with it, cross­ing par­ty and ide­o­log­i­cal lines.

It breaks out of the stale­mat­ed and con­fused gov­ern­ment ver­sus busi­ness” argu­ment and focus­es the anger on the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem of the cor­rup­tion of the gov­ern­ment by big money.

It has the poten­tial for expos­ing the gap between the inter­ests of the glob­al­ized gov­ern­ing class and the inter­ests of the Amer­i­can mid­dle class.

Yet con­ven­tion­al wis­dom holds that try­ing to amend the Con­sti­tu­tion is hope­less: the gov­ern­ing class will nev­er allow it. But giv­en the pow­er over America’s future of finan­cial net­works divorced from and unin­ter­est­ed in the well-being of peo­ple, even more hope­less is the illu­sion that Amer­i­cans can deal with the long eco­nom­ic twi­light of empire that lies in front of them with­out rad­i­cal­ly reduc­ing the dom­i­nance of mon­ey over our democracy.

If the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom is right, it is not because the gov­ern­ing class and its cor­po­rate and mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al sup­port­ers are too pow­er­ful to chal­lenge under any cir­cum­stance. It is because the oppo­si­tion — Wall Street Occu­piers, trade union­ists and pro­gres­sive mid­dle-class Amer­i­cans — can­not unite around a sim­ple mes­sage that gets to the root cause of our nation­al inabil­i­ty to talk about, much less plan, an alter­na­tive to the future toward which we are hurtling. 

This essay was adapt­ed from Jeff Faux’s most recent book, The Ser­vant Econ­o­my: Where America’s Elite is Send­ing the Mid­dle Class (Wiley).

Jeff Faux is the founder of the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute, where he is cur­rent­ly a Dis­tin­guished Fel­low. His lat­est book, excerpt­ed in this issue, is The Ser­vant Econ­o­my: Where America’s Elite is Send­ing the Mid­dle Class.
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