You have to go all the way back to ancient Athens to find an explanation for what's happening in our country today. It was the political philosopher Aristotle who first used the term "oligarchy" to refer to rule by the rich, warning against the dangers posed to democracy when a small elite takes control of the reins of power to advance its own interests.
That danger has never been more real in our lifetimes than it is right now, and perhaps no greater anywhere in this country than in my own state of Illinois. Bruce Rauner, our newly-elected billionaire Republican governor, spent more than $25 million of his own money to win election, then immediately created a $20 million intimidation fund to threaten any politician who won't go along with his agenda.
Rauner's rise to power was fueled by close ties to other billionaires, like Chicago-based hedge fund honcho Ken Griffin, who attracted national attention when he bemoaned the fact that the super-rich have "insufficient influence" on politics.
The reality, of course, is that the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision striking down campaign finance restrictions accelerated the steadily-swelling influence of the über-wealthy on the political process. That means the very rich exert ever more sway over not just the outcome of elections, but also the critical policy issues that affect all our lives.
Many goals unite the New American Oligarchy to which Bruce Rauner belongs: the privatization of public services, a tax system that shields their riches, the destruction of public education, diminished workplace rights and consumer protections, lower wages, and far too much more of that ilk.
But there's no doubt that their first and foremost goal is to clear the playing field of one of the few entities that has the resources and determination to stand up to them -- America's labor unions.
Pundits all across Illinois have been puzzling as to why the new governor, faced with a massive budget shortfall and in need of all the help he can get to resolve it, would make an assault on labor unions a top priority. But that's just what he's done, blemishing his first State of the State address with ugly, divisive rhetoric and flat-out false attacks on unions.
He swiftly followed that verbal volley with a blatantly illegal anti-union executive order that flouts state law by directing state agencies to confiscate employee payroll deductions intended for unions representing state workers. His goal, clearly stated in the executive order, is to deprive unions of the resources they've successfully used to raise employee wages and benefits. Using phony charts and doctored statistics, he's launched a full-fledged campaign to portray state government workers as "overpaid" and their benefits as "excessively generous" -- and to blame them for the $4 billion budget deficit that looms on the state's fiscal horizon.
While Rauner's hatred of public employees and their unions is particularly scalding, it doesn't stop there. He's also launched a full-fledged attack on the members of the construction trades as well, pressing to drive down their wages by eliminating prevailing wage standards and project labor agreements.
The governor's schedule finds him traversing the state almost every day to preach the gospel of union destruction. Calling for "employee empowerment zones," he urges local governments to establish their own so-called "right-to-work" laws that would rob the resources of every union, public or private, in their jurisdiction, and -- again in blatant violation of state law -- to simply refuse to negotiate with teachers and other public employees.
Behind closed doors, Rauner admits where his attacks are headed. In a recent meeting with lawmakers, he "predicted the eventual eradication of union membership in Illinois. ... [T]he governor suggested that if his policies are adopted by the Legislature, union membership will be eliminated in Illinois within the next four years."
While it may seem mysterious to many in the Illinois media, Gov. Rauner's obsession with weakening unions fits within the context of the corporate elite's nationwide crusade to eliminate organized labor from the American political landscape. The New York Times called it "A War on Workers in Illinois", and it's part and parcel of a larger effort to drive down the standard of living of middle class families and shift an ever greater share of the nation's wealth to the top.
Rauner's attack on fair-share fees and his support for "right-to-work" zones is no more about the rights of workers than allowing corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to politicians is about freedom of speech.
Even as he devotes countless hours to his union-destruction roadshow, the governor has not made even a passingly serious attempt to address the state's massive budget shortfall -- a shortfall that derives entirely from his successful push to roll back the state's income tax rate, already the nation's lowest flat tax. The resulting tax breaks will drain more than $5 billion a year away from funding public services, flowing disproportionately to corporations ($1.3 billion) and the top three percent ($1.2 billion).
The budget plan that Rauner recently unveiled for the coming year includes no new revenue to pay for those tax breaks, instead focusing entirely on drastic cuts in essential services such as Medicaid, child care, disability support programs, as well as steep reductions in state funding for local governments, state universities, and nonprofit service providers.
Yet for all the blame he spreads for driving up state spending and all his talk of "shared sacrifice," never once has the governor expressed any concern about the vast sums of money poured into political coffers by the state's super-rich and big corporations, or suggested eliminating some of the $2 billion a year in tax loopholes that mostly benefit Illinois' own oligarchy.
While Rauner rails against public employees coming together through their union to have a voice in the democratic process, he sees no "conflict of interest" in taking big contributions from those big businesses that benefit from those loopholes.
To those outside of the labor movement, the issues involved may seem arcane or parochial. What the heck, they ask, is "right-to-work" all about anyway?
America's incipient oligarchy has staked out Illinois as perhaps its biggest proving ground yet. It's a battle that should rouse not just organized labor, but everyone concerned with preserving the democracy that is the bedrock of our nation. If we want to stave off further consolidation of political and economic power in the hands of the very few, the time is now to stand up and stand together.
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