The Visionless Society
Imagine yourself in early 2019. The Democrats, despite never articulating a political vision other than not being Donald Trump and refusing to roll back Republican legislation such as the 2017 tax bill, have regained the House of Representatives by a slim majority. They vote articles of impeachment. The Senate Republicans, pressured by many within their own party to abandon Trump because of his ineptitude, increasingly erratic behavior and corruption, call on the president to resign. Trump refuses. He uses the megaphone of his office to incite violence by his small, fanatic base. The military, whose deployment as a domestic police force is authorized by Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, is called into the streets to quell unrest. The United States, by the time the violence is snuffed out, is a de facto military dictatorship.
That such a scenario is plausible to public figures such as Ralph Nader is a sign of the deep decay of democratic institutions. The two major political parties lack a coherent vision. They are subservient to corporate power. They have abandoned the common good. They have turned politics into burlesque. They have rendered the citizenry impotent. The press, especially the electronic press, has transformed news into a grotesque reality show filled with trivia, gossip and conjecture. The elites in both parties, along with the rich and corporations, profit from a naked kleptocracy. Everything is for sale, from public lands to public education. And the juggernaut of corporate power impoverishes the people as it willfully destroys the facade of the hollowed-out democratic state.
“There is no democracy,” Nader said when I reached him by phone in Connecticut. “The only democracy left in this country is they don’t haul you to jail for speaking out. What’s left of democracy is a significant due process, habeas corpus, freedom of speech and probable cause, and that’s violated when there’s a terrorist attack and people are rounded up, like Muslim Americans.”
“Can there be a democracy when you don’t have a competitive electoral system?” he asked. “No. Can there be a democracy when people who come in second win the election? No. Can there be a democracy when it’s tougher to get on the ballot than in any other Western country in the world by an order of magnitude? No. Can there be a democracy when money rules? And not just the money that politicians raise, but the third-party money. No. Can there be a democracy when people have no influence on the military budget? No. It’s not subjected to hearings. It’s ratified on the floor of the House and Senate, but it doesn’t go through the appropriations process. It’s subject to the most anemic, pathetic, servile questioning you can imagine. The Congress has destroyed any kind of democratic participation … in the military and foreign policy. The Congress is [supposed to be] invested in the sovereignty of the people. They [those in Congress] do not comply with the Constitution and the declaration of war authority. They don’t comply with the appropriations process. They have increasingly less public hearings. They are cocooned on Capitol Hill with a force field of money, militarism and materialism. Self-interests block the American people, who can hardly call their member of Congress [because the calls are diverted to voicemail]. This is the latest racket.”
“Trump is playing rope-a-dope with the Democrats,” Nader continued. “He’s such an inviting target—all the lies, the stupidity, the outrage, the racism, the misogyny—they can’t resist. As a result, they’re weakening themselves by not having an affirmative agenda. They’re still talking about how they can learn how to connect with the average person. Can you imagine? It’s now the end of 2017. They’re trying to figure out a message.”
House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Nader noted, has adopted the mantra “money, message, and mobilization” for the party. “If you start with money, what kind of a message are you going to have?” he asked. “If you don’t have a message, what are you going to mobilize around? So here it is. They still haven’t learned because they will never learn. The party will always be weak, flabby, indentured and dialing for the same commercial dollars as long as the four-time losers continue to run the party. … The country is spinning into the abyss.”
The Democrats have never called for an audit of the Pentagon’s massive and bloated military budget. They do not address corporate crime, champion consumer protection, promote the rights of workers or demand a living wage or full Medicare for all. And because they stand for nothing other than the politesse of identity politics and high-blown liberal rhetoric they have been unable to protect the country from the worst generation of the Republican Party in the nation’s history.
“They don’t even know how to have sonorous political language,” Nader said. “They’re stealing from you—my fellow Americans. A handful of corporate, greedy bosses controlling your government on this national stage and local level, gouging out whole communities, sending industries to fascist communist regimes abroad. They have no loyalties to this country. They have no allegiance to communities other than to exploit them, abandon them. They rose to power on the backs of you, the workers. They were subsidized by Washington and state capitals, by you the taxpayer. The Marines bailed them out when they got into hot water, palling around with dictators and monarchs. Why do you allow them to rule you?”
Nader said the ruling elites have “lost the fear of the people.” This has given rise to “a multifaceted dictatorial government indentured to the plutocratic class symbolized by Wall Street.”
Corporations, enjoying a new tax code that reduces corporate income taxes to 21 percent while individuals pay up to 37 percent, have been awarded the constitutional rights of individuals while individuals have been stripped of their rights.
“The Constitution is increasingly a dead letter,” Nader said.
Corporate media companies view the news division as a revenue stream. They collude with Trump in the daily Gong Show that masquerades as news.
“Trump took the press from profanity to obscenity,” Nader said. “He learned some lessons from ‘The Apprentice.’ He realized the media, with a few exceptions, will do anything for ratings and money. What does he do? He goes down the sensuality ladder. He starts talking openly about racism, rapists and sex, grab them wherever you want and get away with it. They [the media] go wild. That destroyed all the opponents in the Republican primary. Knocked them out day after day, as the press went after sensuality. The coarseness, the brutishness. There’s always a novel attack. He kept them catching up with him. One day he goes after [Sen. Marco] Rubio. Another day, he goes after Hillary. Another day, a veteran family.”
“When The New York Times has two pages of tiny print of Trump’s lies, what impact does it have unless there are remedies and mobilizations that use that material to strengthen the opposition to replace him?” Nader asked. “After a while, people just shrug their shoulders and go back to playing video games. The margin for the defeat of the Democrats by the Republicans can be attributed sufficiently to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and all these creeps. They have a massive soliloquy, day after day after day with no rebuttal. And they’ve got the blue-collar worker that way. What kind of a population on the left of center would have allowed that to happen? Using our public airwaves for free.”
Nader said he feared that the population was so effectively anesthetized by mass culture that it might not rise up against the elites. “The U.S. has developed a society with an almost indeterminate absorptive capacity for injustice, abuse and degradation,” Nader said. “There is no civic education in the schools. They don’t know what the Constitution is. They don’t know what the law of torts is. They don’t know where the town hall is. They’re living in virtual reality, swinging between big screen TV and their cellphones. They’re wallowing in text messages. To an extent, they’re excited by the workings of the minds symbolized by Wall Street and Silicon Valley. That’s the young generation. Great changes start with people in their 20s. But look what you’ve got now. You’ve got 10 years of internet connection, cellphones available to any child. That’s one. The second is 24/7 entertainment. The third is the abandonment by the elderly generation. They’ve sort of given up. They don’t know the gadgetry. They don’t know the language. They have their own economic insecurity. They’re not extending any kind of historical experience to the young which contains severe warnings. Watch out. You don’t think it can happen again, [but] it can happen again and again. There’s no verbal, oral tradition between the generations. Less and less. Then you have the political system, which is deep-sinking the society. How are people going to mobilize themselves? Is there a strong union, a labor movement? No. A strong consumer movement? No. They’re losing their privacy. They’re losing their ability to use legal tender. The corporate coercion is, to a degree, now getting rid of cash. Marx never believed that could happen. Why do they want to get rid of cash? They want to drive everybody into an incarcerated penitentiary that is surrounded by mobile payments, credit cards, credit scores, credit ratings, debit cards, constant debt, invasion of privacy, and the ability to assess penalties, charges and unwanted purchases because they control people’s money. That’s Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo got away with 3 million forced, unknown and unwanted credit card sales, auto insurance sales, repairing their ratings. Some people lost their cars and their homes. They’re flipped over into bankruptcy. Nobody has been prosecuted yet.”
Compounding the decay is the collapse of the legal profession, a problem exacerbated by Trump’s stacking of the federal courts with incompetent and far-right judges selected by groups such as The Federalist Society. The courts, he said, have already destroyed the freedom of contract and the law of torts. They have repeatedly revoked constitutional rights by judicial fiat, ruling, for example, that unlimited campaign contributions by corporations is a form of free speech and the right to petition the government.
Wall Street and the big banks, bailed out in 2008, have returned to the games of speculation that led to the global financial collapse. And when the next collapse comes, the banks and Wall Street will again descend on the U.S. Treasury for trillions more in bailouts.
“The banks are making huge profits,” Nader said. “Therefore, they’re taking bigger risks. The consumer dollars are being transferred to corporate profits, which are now being transformed into stock buybacks in order to meet the criteria for higher compensation even if it’s against the interest of their own company.”
“From 2005 to 2014, you had $3.9 trillion of stock buybacks, 50 percent of all corporate net profits,” he said. “Fifty percent of the top 500 corporations profited in that decade with stock buybacks. Not to better salaries or shoring up pension plans, not to dividends, not to research and development, not to productive capital and job creation. It’s to stock buybacks. The biggest story untold, or minimally told, in the American economy today. With all this money repatriating from overseas and more corporate offices, they’re planning more stock buybacks. It’s like burning money.”
“Walmart, instead of raising wages for its wage-starved masses, has about $65 billion stock buybacks in the last seven years,” Nader said. “If you take a million Walmart workers and you give them a thousand dollars more a year, that’s $1 billion. Multiply that by 60 to 70 times.”
The speculation, which is trashing the country’s economy, will continue, Nader said, until the financial system collapses and the U.S. defaults on its bonds.
Nader worries that as long as “10 to 15 percent of the American people are well-off” the elites will have enough support to continue the assault.
“Societies have been repressed by far smaller members of well-instituted upper classes,” he said. “That’s what we forget. Eighteenth-, 19th-, 20th-century Europe. A tiny clique controlled them. When there’s any problem it flips over to dictatorship. As long as the contented classes are not upset, the system of control is in lock, like connecting gears.”
“The corruption never ends,” he said. “We’re a gambling society. We bet on the future. We don’t build the future. You’ve got casinos everywhere, video gambling. They’re pushing for gambling on your mobile phone. They’re pushing for legalization of gambling in sports. Then you got marijuana. Day after day there are stories about the legalization of marijuana. What’s going to happen? It’s already a big business. The paraphernalia. They don’t write anything about legalizing industrial hemp. Which could be a significant industry in the country. All the farmers want it, and even the paper companies want it. And the DEA has still got it on a proscribed list. You got [Sen.] Rand Paul and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell supporting legalization of hemp. It’s not being pushed in Congress by the Democrats.”
Resistance, Nader said, must be local. First we need to organize to take back our own communities, he said. Congressional seats have to be contested by grass-roots organizations that use the power of numbers to overwhelm mass media and corporate money. And we can expect the corporate state to attempt to shut out our message.
“Living wage, taxes, universal health insurance, that have 70 percent support or higher,” Nader said in listing campaign issues. “Breaking up big banks, 90 percent support. Cracking down on corporate crime, similar. People need to give corporate crime a face. This is what happens to your credit. This is what happens to your home. This is what happens to your job. This is what happens to you if you have cancer. This is what happens in the hospital. This is what happens when you’re denied health insurance; you can’t cover your kids. It’s pretty crazy when you can’t make this kind of a pitch to a large audience.”
The greed of the corporate state leaves us unprepared for the ravages of climate change, he warned. And by the time the elites respond it may be too late.
“It’s a race,” Nader said. “Once Miami gets inundated, especially Fisher Island, it might bring the wealthy class to their senses. The problem with solar is it needs a network. Solar panels are fine, but if you’re going to have solar electricity you need a different type of grid system. That requires infrastructure investment.”
“Justice needs money,” he concluded, calling on enlightened elites to spend a billion dollars to fund resistance movements outside the Democratic Party. “The abolition movement needed money. The suffrage movement needed money. They got it from wealthy people. Civil rights movement. The Curry family. The Stern family. The early 1950s, 1960s. Environmental movements got money from rich people. Don’t wait for the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is an instrument. On the first round you’ve got to use it and control it. On the third round, when you’re mobilized, you can throw it aside. It’s a hollowed feature that is a part of the duopoly. But it’s there. These parties are very vulnerable. They’re shells that rest on money and television ads that nobody likes. Unrebuttable right-wing talk radio. All these can be circumvented neighborhood by neighborhood, but you’ve got to have money. Labor halls are unoccupied. Veteran halls are unoccupied. Libraries are unoccupied. There are a lot of meeting places around. A lot of empty stores can be rented.”