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Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

The Supreme Court and the "Broken Middle"

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By striking down the Montana campaign finance law that dates back to 1912, the Supreme Court steams ahead on its long-term project of turning our political system over to giant corporations. (So much for "states' rights," or the role of states as "incubators" for best practices).

A century ago, the same year Montana passed the law the Roberts Court just eviscerated, the United States held a presidential election where progressive voices dominated. The Socialist candidate, Eugene Victor Debs, won over 900,000 votes, and Theodore Roosevelt challenged his former protégé, Republican President William Howard Taft, by starting his own Progressive Party ("Bull Moose"). The Democrat, Woodrow Wilson (who also embraced progressive policies), skated to victory largely because TR had galvanized the left wing of the Republican Party (TR even won more votes than Taft).

There was no catering to the "job creators" or private equity firms in the 1912 election. The electorate demanded their politicians bring down a hammer on the excesses of corporate power that characterized the preceding three decades. We live in a similar period today: thirty years of metastasizing corporate power, historic gaps in income and wealth inequality, battered labor unions, environmental toxics contaminating the commons, etc. But today, with two centrist candidates each vying for the biggest pile of corporate cash, the election of 2012 will be nothing like 1912.

The Roberts Court appears to be hellbent on ensuring that a corporate oligarchy consolidates, once and for all, its control of our political system. And this comes after years of coddling corporations largely because of their corrupting influence on political campaigns. Over the past thirty years corporate taxes have been slashed and the tax burden shifted onto the backs of working people, while at the same time the High Court hands down ruling after ruling that serve to strengthen corporate power over our politics. At the end of World War Two, for example, for every dollar Washington received from individual taxpayers, it got $1.50 from taxing corporate profits. Today, for every dollar people pay in income taxes to Washington the federal government only gets 25 cents from taxing corporations. If "corporations are people" they at least should pay the same level of taxes as real people do.

The Supreme Court knows exactly what it is doing. They're smart lawyers who are aware of the widening chasm in wealth and income. They know the corporations use campaign donations to corrupt our nation's politics. They know that about 100 million Americans are currently consigned to living under austerity, economically insecure, and with minimal access to health care and education. That's why the Court went out of its way to beat up labor unions, with its ruling in Knox v. Service Employees International Union to force working people to "opt-in" before independent expenditures of their union can be spent on political campaigns. This ruling further ties the hands of labor unions by forcing expensive and time-consuming notifications and elections before the leadership can spend political money. Next time you hear anybody put forth the worm-eaten argument of a false equivalency between corporations and labor unions in political spending, point to this anti-labor ruling.

So the Roberts Court, with Citizens United and its offspring, is making it easier for corporations to dominate our politics while it tears down labor's ability to fight back against the onslaught. This is a conscious effort. The Republican Supreme Court is setting up an uneven playing field so that the Republicans can run the table of power in Washington. Checkmate!

Ninety-three percent of all private sector workers in this country have no union representation, no contract, no protections. The only reason why the public sector unions grew over the past thirty years is that states and municipalities could not pursue the aggressive union-busting tactics that have become the norm in the private sector since President Ronald Reagan crushed PATCO back in 1981. But the "Great Recession" and the fiscal crises it has wrought changed all that. As Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and other Republican governors have shown, it's now open season to impose the same kind of punitive anti-union tactics against public workers as is customary in the private sector. Add to this assault against working people the fact that 40 percent of their wealth has been scooped out over the past 5 or 6 years as well as the loss of over 600,000 public sector jobs (the SEIU lost 100,000 members due to layoffs), and you get a clear picture of which side the Supreme Court is on.

We live in a period of permanent "crisis." We remain frozen in suspended animation waiting for the moment when the Republican right "goes too far" and sensible alternatives to the policies that have brought the country to this sorry state are tried. But the day of reckoning never comes to Washington when "over-reach" sparks a political backlash because of the lack of true fighting spirit among the "opposition" party. The duopoly limps forward with its truncated "debate" even when the times call for a bold new direction.

What we've experienced during Obama's first term is a kind of "Broken Middle." The literary critic Isobel Armstrong, in a different context, points to a "broken middle" that replaces the Hegelian "triumphalist dialectic of resolution" with "a logic of breakdown." (The Radical Aesthetic, 2000, p. 8) The failure of our current money-drenched politics with the millions of demoralized and battered working people left in its wake has given us a persistent state of disrepair.

We already got the "Thesis": Reaganomics; tax cuts for the rich and corporations; deregulation; "free trade"; expansive military spending; slashing health and human services; unlimited money in politics; a lack of anti-trust enforcement; a wholesale assault on labor unions.

But we never got anything near the required articulation of the "Anti-Thesis" to these policies: Truly progressive taxation; regulations to protect workers, consumers, and the environment; trade pacts that stop outsourcing; reductions in military spending; a single-payer national health care system; child care funding and pay equity for women; limitations on campaign spending; enforcement of anti-trust laws; the Employee Free Choice Act, and raising the minimum wage.

In 2008 candidate Obama talked about forcefully countering Reaganomics but once in power his repeated capitulations to the Republicans failed to put forth the substantive rollback that was necessary. Since we never got the "Anti-Thesis" to the Republican free market ideology because the Democratic Party that should have been its vehicle failed to deliver, we were denied any kind of "Synthesis" that might have produced a new set of reforms, ideas, and institutions that could guide us into the 21st Century. We're left instead with a "Broken Middle" that normalizes Reaganomics with both major parties beholden to the same corporate interests defending the status quo despite its catastrophic failures.

Those 636,000 public sector jobs that have been destroyed in recent years will affect American society in negative and unpredictable ways for decades to come unless there is unleashed a progressive third party force capable of driving fundamental change. Today we see as "normal" proposals coming from the Simpson-Bowels Commission or the Peterson Institute or the Paul Ryan budget that will annihilate what's left of the federal social safety net in this country at a time when it is needed most.

The Supreme Court has become a lynchpin for the Republican right in cementing this dreary future. By striking down the Montana campaign finance law and undermining labor unions' ability to spend political money, the right's "activist" court is setting up a situation where progressives are forced to fight with both hands tied behind their backs. We have an anemic Democratic Party duplicitous in the 1 percent's assault on working people. The economic crisis has been successfully deployed to beat down public workers and their unions (the Democratic base). The close of each new Supreme Court session brings added horrors.

We could learn a lot from the election of 1912 where a third and fourth party shook up the foundations of corporate control. It's a disgrace that 100 years ago the United States could run an election with far greater choices than it is capable of running today. Until some catalyst for real change emerges that can punch a hole in this drab edifice we'll continue to be relegated to life in the nether reaches of the "Broken Middle."