(Turning on the music enhances the reading.)
Democracy Had Been Ailing for a Long Time
The Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) Supreme Court case was the final blow. It did not come out of nowhere. It was the culmination of a long leadup of right-wing election fiddling: lobbyist-led financing, the brainwashing and dumbing down of a series of vulnerable demographics (non-high-school graduates, ethnic minorities, hollow billionaires…), vote blocking strategies like gerrymandering and voter qualification limits, and strange bedfellows under blankets in Washington, DC. At bottom was the conviction of the members of the United States Congress–House and Senate, mainlyt Republicans but Democrats, too–that they had a God-given right to be re-elected, never to release the reins of power. And if they were obliged to use and abuse the civil rights of American citizens, their economic opportunities, the lives of their sons and daughters and the United States Constitution itself as bargaining chips in their sacred re-election endeavor, all of those contrivances were justified. They are capable of doing anything to retain their grip on power, even if it requires turning the government over to powerful criminal societies.
Nor am I prepared to affirm that this situation is attributable to capitalism. There are countries where capitalism marries nicely with humanity to create cordial, prosperous and liveable societies in places like Europe, Australia, Japan or South Korea, the new First World. The problem with American capitalism, it seems, is that it’s American.
The Worst of All Possible Worlds
The Citizens United verdict, which came down during Obama’s first term, opened the door to unlimited federal campaign contributions from corporations and consolidated extreme laissez-faire capitalism as the law of the land. That 5-4 decision issued from a US Supreme Court that had hovered between conservative and ultra-conservative thanks to appointments by presidents Nixon, Reagan, and the two Bushes. The first two of these chief executives, both gravely deficient, the first one morally, the second intellectually, are arch representatives of what went wrong with American democracy in the 1970s and 80s. Nixon went so far as to prolong the Vietnam war, with the loss of lives and treasure that implied, in order to take credit for the peace agreement. (Source: The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, by Seymour M. Hersh, 1983).
Reagan was a tall, handsome second-rate Hollywood actor, outspoken anti-communist, FBI informer, and popular television spokesperson for American industry. His main achievements as president were in the field of public relations. According to History.com “Reagan made frequent and highly visible retreats to his California ranch, where he rode horses, fixed fences and cut firewood for the TV cameras.” Following his two terms of office and particularly after his death in 2004 reactionary America converted President Reagan into the essential talisman/myth of 20th-century American political conservatism. That should surprise no one. They also resuscitated Nixon.
The father-and-son Bush presidencies were characterized by devotion to fossile-fuel interests and dubious military interventions abroad. George H.W. Bush was a one-term president who occupied the White House after a landslide victory over Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election. Bush the Father, considered by politologists to have been a mediocre president, engineered the first Iraq War, forcing Iraq to abandon Kuwait. He later ordered a senseless and bloody U.S. military invasion of Panama with the declared purpose of arresting Manuel Noriega, a drug-dealing dictator. It took US forces more than a month to conquer the tiny isthmus country in an operation disingenuously codenamed “Operation Just Cause.” According to Wikipedia, about 6,500 US troops remain in Panama today, ostensibly “monitoring Latin American airspace for unauthorized planes and training troops in jungle combat.” Bush I appointed two Supreme Court justices, David Souter, who abandoned the conservative cause by becoming a member of the Court’s liberal bloc, and Clarence Thomas, who became one of the most conservative judges of his era.
Emerging American Values: Tax Cuts for the Rich and Endless War on Something or Other
George W. Bush, the presumptive heir, was a populist president patently lacking the character and intelligence to occupy the office. The video footage of his reaction to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, sitting in a class of pre-schoolers in Florida, revealed more a confused bad actor than the leader of the free world. He was responsible over eight years for a $1.3 trillion tax cut for the usual suspects, the global war on terrorism, the invasion of Afghanistan, the civil-and-human-rights-destroying Patriot Act, and the lies-based second Iraq War that set that killed, maimed and exiled hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and set the country back two or three generations. Not much of his rich agenda worked out as he planned. Bush the Son appointed two justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, in 2005 and 2006.
This brings us to the current US president, Donald J. Trump, the third American president to be impeached by the House though not convicted, by the Senate. The Trump presidency leverages an unprecedeneted lack of intelligence and tact, innate stagecraft, bald-faced self interest, lies and innuendo, while pandering to the lowest common denominator–white supremacists, neo-Nazis, magical religious cults and remnants of defunct right-wing movements, all of whom he refers to as “very fine people.” This grotesque baggage garnered him a previously unseen level of voter loyalty.
President Trump has nominated two judges to the US Supreme Court, Neil McGill Gorsuch, who has a face like a choirboy who has never broken a glass, confirmed in 2017; and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Kavanaugh is an ultra-conservative whose confirmation hearings were stalled for three years over charges of partisanship. According to Wikipedia, he is a practising Catholic who serves as a regular lector at his Washington, D.C., church, the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament; and has helped serve meals to the homeless. He has also tutored at the Washington Jesuit Academy. Before his eventual confirmation by the US Senate he was credibly accused of sexually assaulting at least two women.
The 16 Republican Supreme Court appointments since 1969 gave rise to the conservative courts that have dominated the American judiciary since the 1970s and culminated in the big-bucks-benefitting Citizens United verdict, which legitimized for all to see the notion that everything and everyone in America can be bought and sold, right down to the sacrosanct American democracy, personified in the United States Congress.
Thus, a minority of US citizens that desired and deserved a country whose pervading values were more complete, more human and more idealistic than those of the pork bellies market, was left out in the cold. Today they find themselves relegated to a sordid zero-sum world in which my gains are your losses, a world where generosity and solidarity have been supplanted by bare-fisted greed and the rule of the filthy rich. This brutal system of national values has exchanged once-normal human customs for cut-throat market standards. “Tell me how much you own and I’ll tell you what you’re worth.” It wasn’t always that way in the US, and Americans don’t have to look very far today to find a better model. There’s Canada right next door with universal health care and a $2,000 guaranteed monthly income for all their citizens. To belabor the point, I suggest you compare any declarations on any subject by Donald Trump on television news with those of Jacinda Ardern, the 39-year-old prime minister of New Zealand. It’s like peering into two different dimensions, Utopia and Dystopia. See which one you can relate to.
The controversial Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision was contested by Associate Justice John Paul Stevens who argued that the Court’s ruling represented “a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government.” A 2012 article on Demos.org lists 10 Ways Citizens United Endangers Democracy:
(These headings are links. You can click on them to learn more.)
- “Independent” Spending Farce Leads To SuperPACs
- Legal Money Laundering Increases Secret Spending
- Corporate Money Distorts Democracy
- Court is Blind to Reality of Corruption
- Citizen Voices are Drowned Out
- Money Is Still Not Speech
- Open Season on Remaining Money in Politics Protections
- Increases Corporate Power
- Unlimited Corporate Spending is Bad for Business and Shareholders
- Risks Reducing Respect for the Supreme Court
Now, ask yourself: Does the Citizens United decision merit revising by a future, less-ideologically-driven Supreme Court? Or can we climb out of the Abyss?