Poster by Emily May, Boston, MA
Some years ago, as a graduate student, I read Murray Edelman’s book entitled, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, University of Illinois Press, 1964. This book is imaginative and interesting. One of those books you keep on the shelf and often find yourself re-reading.
Well, the last ten years have been filled with experiences that have brought to life Professor Edelman’s concepts about how politics, government and economics really work.
Images, illusions and self-sustaining momentum all directed at a single goal – to preserve systemic power over the economy, judicial and administrative process and the democracy itself.
If we were to create a “bell curve” to depict the allocation of economic security, due process and participatory democracy in contemporary American society, it might look something like this:
The top two percent get A’s. They are the generationally rich. Their wealth is deep and penetrative, almost institutional. They transcend economic variables and easily navigate even the most severe periods of economic reversal, like the depression of the 1930’s and the near collapse of 2008. They will always be with us. They get to control over 90% of the wealth and income. The “Occupy” movement would call them “the 1%” but it is probably closer to “the 2%”. They hire the best lawyers to navigate state and federal judicial and administrative processes, buy the best medical care and make the political campaign contributions which ensure that their interests will be protected by the people elected to high office. In fact, open-ended campaign finance laws are the primary source of their power.
The eighteen percent, doctors, lawyers, bankers, corporate executives and high government officials, get B’s, and pretty much achieve the same things the two percent do, but, in the proper pecking order. That is to say, if the lines below move up, the eighteen percent may be affected, but, never the two percent.
The sixty percent get C’s, and are comfortable. If they confront the criminal justice or judicial or administrative process they can pay a competent lawyer to get a fair outcome. They have good jobs and incomes, health care, nice homes, cars, family vacations, pensions and what they perceive as their share of the American dream. They belong to churches and synagogues and give to charity and view people in the top two percent as venerably entitled, and the eighteen percent as rightly enjoying the fruits of their labors. All true. Being wealthy and financially secure is no vice. So, if when they get up in the morning and the coffee pot works, the car starts and they get to their jobs, and back home at the day’s end, everything is good. The twenty percent below them are a burden. There will always be people who suffer from poverty. That’s life. After all, we know that nobody ever said the system was perfect, and that anyone who wants to succeed financially in America, need only to work hard and play by the rules. As to people who end up marginalized or in prison, well, the system does not pick names out of a hat, so, if you are there, you must have done something in your life to get there. Law abiding people do not have to worry about such things as due process and the rule of law. That is for radical, bleeding heart civil liberties activists and aging hippies to talk about. As for economic justice, that is for socialists and other failures to contemplate.
Now the bottom twenty percent is mostly African-American, Latino, rural and urban poor, elderly, and unemployed. They get D’s and F’s. They fill the nation’s prisons, welfare rolls, charity hospitals, mental institutions, orphanages and nursing homes, and do the menial jobs if they are lucky. They too will always be with us, and the best thing to do is look away and leave them to the institutional sub-culture. Too upsetting. Too distracting. Until the line ___________ moves up, then we start noticing, and it is moving up, not too gradually.
The evening news may begin with stories of joblessness and record home foreclosures, but, when the Wall Street reports play — … investor confidence up — Wall Street soared past the 12,000 mark, evidencing a strong recovery. So what are we worried about? We are worried about a dysfunctional economy and a weakening democracy. Lawyers and Bankers do not just become wealthy and run the government, they run the society – the culture – and the resources and rules are exclusively within their control. It is like playing a game of scrabble with a fellow who has squirreled away twenty letters from the board into his pocket. The playing field is not level. In fact, it is not a field at all; it is a very steep hill.
Don’t believe it?
Look at the numbers of criminal defendants in state judicial proceedings represented by court appointed lawyers, who plead guilty and go to prison, and compare the numbers to similar defendants with paid lawyers who go to trial or plead out and never do a day in prison.
Look at who is taking their family to a food pantry for Friday night dinner, rather than to their favorite fish fry.
Look at people living out of their cars in the driveways of the empty residences they once called home, and look at the number of people who worked their whole lives, paid their taxes and played by the rules who are bankrupt, broke, homeless, jobless, and even in prison because the momentum has slowed down and the bottom line ___________ has moved up, and continues to move up.
Look at the additional three million Americans who will lose their homes this year as a result of foreclosures by banks and vulture funds financed with their tax dollars, who refuse to restructure their loans or lend to them.
Look at the thousands of young men and women we send to war, who experience unspeakable violence and trauma, and look at the billions of dollars a month we spend on these wars, and the way we treat veterans when they return – no jobs, no care, no counseling, and when combat related post-traumatic stress leads them to drug abuse or violence, we lock them away in our state prisons and forget about them.
We are mostly all capitalists, some more than others, and most of us are moderates, and neither of those labels should prevent anyone from advocating for national policies that promote fiscal responsibility, public safety, national security, economic and social justice, and an uncompromising fidelity to the rule of law.
The deficit will never be eliminated until we come to grips as a society with the fact that we cannot afford to imprison or supervise 10% of our population. We simply can no longer afford to collect human beings. We should try going back to coins, stamps or hummels. People are too expensive and balancing budgets and eliminating the deficit on the backs of unions, the middle class, unemployed and the working poor is not the answer either.
Alternatives to prison must be studied and implemented. We need to build more schools and mental health and addiction recovery clinics, reconcile more offenders with their victims and close more prisons. We need to address the root causes of crime and violence and not ignore them. We should not keep prisons open in order to maintain a dysfunctional economy for residents of our rural communities where factories and mills have long ago been abandoned. We must recognize that while society has a legitimate duty to punish offenders, it does not have to destroy them in the process. There is a difference. Rehabilitation and drug and alcohol abuse treatment must also be a factor, and we should start trying to control the epidemic of sex crimes by restricting the availability of hard-core pornography in the media and on the internet and by providing psychiatric treatment and hospital confinement for sex offenders, instead of long prison terms, which only exacerbate the pathology.
We need to stop depleting our treasury with unnecessary wars conducted by a national security elite who approach war as if it were some intellectual exercise and who have stretched America’s military apparatus to the limits. The security of the nation can be strenuously ensured without overextending our military or wasting our money.
We need to re-examine the widespread immunity given to law enforcement officials.There are thousands of dedicated effective individuals serving in law enforcement in America. There are also too many marginal and emotionally unfit people attracted to these jobs, and we need to weed them out, and hold them accountable and not allow distorted perceptions of our need to be protected to prevent us from doing so.
We need effective financial and regulatory reform which protects the public without criminalizing ordinary commerce. We must hasten to acquire and restructure defaulted mortgages so homeowners and farmers are not displaced, and property values are not further depressed. Until this is done the residential real estate market will not fully recover and the jobs we need will not be created.
We have to start creating jobs by building things. Factories and mills, plants and laboratories, clean energy sources and revitalized infrastructure, and see to it that everyone who wants to work gets a job. We have to stop outsourcing our core employment opportunities.
We have to stop investing our wealth in phantom financial instruments too difficult to understand, except by the select few who cash in on them and explain them to us later.
We need to reduce our dependency on oil. It is pure folly to allow our addiction to oil to cause us to pay trillions to the same people who we say are dedicated to our destruction.
We have to harness the unbridled power and discretion that unelected administrative officials exert over every aspect of our lives and reduce the number of government agencies.
We have to stop worrying about labels and amend the new health care bill to provide the equivalent of single payer Medicare for every American. If people want to enhance their coverage with supplemental private insurance, they should be free to do so. We need to strengthen and maintain Social Security, Medicaid, unemployment insurance and programs which assist families, children and the elderly in their time of need.
We need to simplify the tax code, and work toward an equitable tax system that encourages the growth of small business and creates jobs, eliminates taxation altogether for people earning $25,000 or less and proportionately increases taxes on the highest income brackets. There is scarcely anything new about such a proposal. Thomas Jefferson advocated this concept at the early stages of the Republic.
We have to finish the job of guaranteeing every American their civil rights, not with symbols and images, but, to start with, by providing jobs to everyone who wants to work, and by working to keep fathers off the streets, out of prisons, and back at the kitchen table and by remembering that we started out as a “nation of immigrants”. This means creating a national environment where justice transcends race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic status and nationality.
We have to let go of our own insecurities and let law-abiding people be who they are, worship God as they choose and marry who they love.
We have to promote life, not death, and this means policies that stop the flow of drugs into this country, eliminate the death penalty, protect the environment, encourage adoption over abortion, control the use of guns, eliminate hunger and homelessness, especially for our children and the elderly, and make education the primary weapon we use to preserve our cherished American traditions. We have to treat our teachers as heroes and do everything possible to encourage young people to become educators.
We need to go back to schools that teach our young people about reading, history, government, art, music, science, math, literature, language, and writing to prepare them for college. We do not need schools which are glorified vocational centers. We need to educate our children to become whole human beings, and this means all of our children. We must promote civility in the classroom and protect our young people from bullies.
In his last published work, The Economics of Innocent Fraud: Truth for Our Time, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith said this: “… Let there be a coalition of the concerned. The affluent would still be affluent, the comfortable still comfortable, but the poor would be part of the political system …”.
Today we are surviving on images of prosperity, democracy and justice.
We live in a kind of conscious unreality, where the sheer momentum of everyday existence creates the illusion of prosperity, justice and liberty. We borrow frantically, mete out justice sparingly, neglect participatory democracy regularly, and rotely exclude millions of people from the mainstream of the good society, and the economic life of the nation. Sadly, what most Americans mistake for democracy and economic recovery these days is really just momentum.
We have created a prison sub-society which breeds violence, terror, and despair, destroys the family unit, and is bankrupting us. We spend our national treasury and our young people on unnecessary wars.
The solution to these problems is not to be found in fringe movements, or the ranting of extremists who want to cut back essential programs and services.
The answers are in the hearts of ordinary decent Americans who use common sense; do their duty every day, and strive to make sure that everyone has a place at the table.
That is democracy, and true capitalism and that is the kind of genuine patriotism that “the greatest generation” exhibited when they encountered their “rendezvous with destiny” in the 1940’s and conquered fear, poverty and tyranny and went on to ignite the greatest period of economic expansion the world has ever known.
No true progress on any of these fronts can be achieved until the imagery is taken out of the political process, and we return to this kind of genuine patriotism and to a true participatory democracy. This means that there must be mandatory public financing of every local, state and federal election as well as continued funding of public and alternative radio and television as a means of the open and free exchange of ideas.
Money is driving public policy as never before, and not just from corporations, but, from unions, political action committees, and known and unknown individuals and enterprises as well, who direct cash to political candidates from both parties, who wax elegant with imagery during political campaigns, but, once in power, do the bidding of their financial backers. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue; it is a matter of human nature. When you accept things from people, you obligate yourself to them.
We have allowed ourselves to be controlled by expensive radio and television political advertisements and a saturated internet which distorts the political process.
This corrupts us by convincing us to enter into covenants for governance with people whose primary purpose is to perpetuate power, not to serve the public interest, or the rule of law. There is a vast difference between the rule of the law and the rule of power.
And it does not stop after the campaign. Candidates continue to maintain and spend these funds well after they have assumed office on other like-minded candidates, and to further their own political and personal agendas. There can be no reasonable expectations of breaking loose from the hold of political imagery has on the political process until we enact into law legislation that requires 100% public financing of every political campaign from local alderman to President and impose reasonable term limits.
The results might surprise us. There are thousands of decent, competent, well-intentioned Americans with much to contribute to society who could run for political office if they had the means to do it, and did not have to contend with financial monoliths running against them.
This would open up the political process to include, young people, students, teachers, professors, farmers, retired and senior citizens, laborers, shopkeepers, pharmacists, doctors, scientists, homemakers and on and on. Indeed, this is the democracy our founders envisioned. The citizen public servant, who holds office, serves, leaves office and makes room for another citizen to serve; not a cabal of lawyers, financiers and career power brokers who take control of the government and never let go, and give us a good speech and saturate us with imagery every two, four or six years.
At the time of the ratification of the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin warned us that our new adventure with liberty would last only as long as the people keep it honest. When the people become “so corrupt” as to require a “despot” Franklin said, the experiment would surely fail.
We have allowed imagery to corrupt the political process and the economic underpinnings of our society. This did not happen because Americans are corrupt – far from this; we are a people rich in character, courage and generosity. What happened is that we all got caught up in the momentum, and then the stillness came, and now we are remembering, listening, asking the right questions and are ready to act.
If we treat our present financial, legal and political crisis as our own “rendezvous with destiny”, we will not lose our economy, our democracy or the law, we will restore them. After all, we are Americans.