May 23, 2013
Why Don’t Americans Care About Democracy at Home?
Posted on Oct 3, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
At the level of governance, neoliberalism has turned politics into a tawdry form of money laundering in which the spaces and registers that circulate power are controlled by those who have amassed large amounts of capital. Elections, like mainstream politicians, are now bought and sold to the highest bidder. In the Senate and House of Representatives, 47 percent are millionaires and the “estimated median net worth of a current U.S. senator stood at an average of $2.56 million while the median net worth of members of Congress is $913,000.” Elected representatives no longer do the bidding of the people who elect them. Rather, they are now largely influenced by the demands of lobbyists who have enormous clout in promoting the interests of the elite, financial services and mega corporations. Currently, there are just over 14,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, DC, which amounts to approximately 23 lobbyists for every member of Congress. Although the number of lobbyists has steadily increased by about 20 percent since 1998, the Center for Responsive Politics found that “total spending on lobbying the federal government has almost tripled since 1998, to $3.3 billion.” As Bill Moyers and Bernard Weisberger succinctly put it, “A radical minority of the superrich has gained ascendency over politics, buying the policies, laws, tax breaks, subsidies and rules that consolidate a permanent state of vast inequality by which they can further help themselves to America’s wealth and resources.” Democratic governance has been replaced by the sovereignty of the market, paving the way for modes of governance intent on transforming democratic citizens into entrepreneurial agents. The language of the market and business culture have now almost entirely supplanted any celebration of the public good or the calls to enhance civil society characteristic of past generations.
Neoliberal governance has produced an economy and a political system almost entirely controlled by the rich and powerful - what a Citigroup report called a “Plutonomy,” an economy powered by the wealthy. These plutocrats are what I have called the new zombies sucking the resources out of the planet and the rest of us in order to strengthen their grasp on political and economic power and fuel their exorbitant lifestyles. Policies are now enacted that provide massive tax cuts to the rich and generous subsidies to banks and corporations - alongside massive disinvestments in job creation programs, the building of critical infrastructures and the development of crucial social programs, which range from health care to school meal programs for disadvantaged children. In reality, the massive disinvestment in schools, social programs and an aging infrastructure is not about a lack of money. The real problem stems from government priorities that inform both how the money is collected and how it is spent. Over 60 percent of the federal budget goes to military spending, while only 6 percent is allocated toward education. The US spends more than $92 billion on corporate subsidies and only $59 billion on social welfare programs. John Cavanagh has estimated that if there were a tiny tax imposed on Wall Street “stock and derivatives transactions,” the government could raise $150 billion annually. In addition, if the tax code were adjusted in a fair manner to tax the wealthy, another $79 billion could be raised. Finally, Cavanagh points out that $100 billion in tax income is lost annually through tax haven abuse; proper regulation would make it costly for corporations to declare “their profits in overseas tax havens like the Cayman Islands.”
At the same time, the financialization of the economy and culture has resulted in the poisonous growth of monopoly power, predatory lending, abusive credit card practices and misuses of CEO pay. The false but central neoliberal tenet that markets can solve all of society’s problems has no way of limiting the power of money and has given rise to “a politics in which policies that favor the rich ... have allowed the financial sector to amass vast economic and political power.” As Joseph Stiglitz points out, there is more at work in this form of governance than a pandering to the wealthy and powerful: There is also the specter of an authoritarian society “where people live in gated communities,” large segments of the population are impoverished or locked up in prison and Americans live in a state of constant fear as they face growing “economic insecurity, health care insecurity [and] a sense of physical insecurity.” In other words, the authoritarian nature of neoliberal political governance and economic power is also visible in the rise of a national security state in which civil liberties are being drastically abridged and violated.
With the passing of the National Defense Authorization Act in 2012, the rule of legal illegalities has been extended to threaten the lives and rights of US citizens. The law authorizes military detention of individuals who are suspected of belonging not only to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda but to “associated forces.” As Glenn Greenwald points out, this “grants the president the power to indefinitely detain in military custody not only accused terrorists, but also their supporters, all without charges or trial.” The vagueness of the law allows the possibility of subjecting US citizens who are considered in violation of the law to indefinite detention. Of course, that might include journalists, writers, intellectuals and anyone else who might be accused because of their dealings with alleged terrorists. Fortunately, US District Judge Katherine Forrest of New York agreed with Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky and other writers who have challenged the legality of the law. Judge Forrest recently acknowledged the unconstitutionality of the law and ruled in favor of a preliminary barring of the enforcement of the National Defense Authorization Act.
The anti-democratic practices at work in the Obama administration also include the US government’s use of state secrecy to provide a cover or prevent being embarrassed by practices that range from the illegal use of torture to the abduction of innocent foreign nationals. Under the rubric of national security, a shadow state has emerged that eschews transparency and commits unlawful acts. Given the power of the government to engage in a range of illegalities and to make them disappear through an appeal to state secrecy, it should come as no surprise that warrantless wiretapping, justified in the name of national security, is on the rise at both the federal and state levels. For instance, the New York City Police Department “implemented surveillance programs that violate the civil liberties of that city’s Muslim-American citizens [by infiltrating] mosques and universities [and] collecting information on individuals suspected of no crimes.” And the American public barely acknowledged this shocking abuse of power. Such anti-democratic policies and practices have become the new norm in American society and reveal a frightening and dangerous move toward a 21st century version of authoritarianism.
Neoliberalism as the New Lingua Franca of Cruelty
The harsh realities of a society defined by the imperatives of punishment, cruelty, militarism, secrecy and exclusion can also be seen in the emergence of a growing rhetoric of insult, humiliation and slander. Teachers are referred to as welfare queens by right-wing pundits; conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed that Michael J. Fox was “faking” the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease when he appeared in a political ad for Democrat Claire McCaskill; and the public is routinely treated to racist comments, slurs and insults about Barack Obama by a host of shock jocks, politicians and even one federal judge. Poverty is not only seen as a personal failing, it has become the object of abuse, fear and loathing. Poor people, rather than poverty, are now the problem, because the poor, as right-wing ideologues never fail to remind us, are lazy (and after all how could they be poor since they own TVs and cell phones). Racism, cruelty, insults and the discourse of humiliation are now packaged in a mindless rhetoric that is as unapologetic as it is ruthless - and has become the new lingua franca of public exchange.
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