The battle between money and the majority is the story of American politics and has been the central theme of the evolution of American democracy. It starts with the historic deal providing for representation of property or land in the U.S. Senate and representation of people in the House of Representatives. It continues through Dred Scott, slavery, the suffragettes, the Voting Rights Act, and recent Supreme Court decisions equating the right to spend money with political speech.
The extreme concentration of wealth in the United States is not an accident, but a reflection of our political structure and a strong strain of American ideology and values that idealizes unregulated free enterprise. When the majority of Americans feel they have the chance to better themselves financially and that their children will someday live better than they do, they support the ideal of unregulated capitalism. When that hope disappears, the majority moves in the other direction, and we see politics like the New Deal and what I think will soon resume here in America.
The role of money in politics is not always obvious and is often quite subtle. Political scientists sometimes call this non-decision making the ability to keep issues off of the political agenda. For example, we see a concerted effort to delegitimize regulation. Politicos with their hands out for corporate donations keep talking about "job killing regulations." They are so effective that even our once "hopeful" president goes along and kills air pollution regulations that he knows create rather than destroy jobs. The impact of money in this case is that it sets the agenda and defines the issue of regulation in ways that benefit the short-term interest of a few wealthy interests. According to this definition, regulation is anti-freedom. You could say the same thing about traffic lights, but most of us are happy to comply with them.
Americans are being told they get the same choice that is offered to impoverished Chinese workers. You get a job, but the river turns orange, the air is toxic, and your family may get sick. But maybe one of your children will thrive and go to college. We in America already lived through that. Our rivers caught fire. The cars in Pittsburgh were once coated in orange dust every morning and taxpayers have spent over a trillion dollars in health care and toxic waste clean-up costs in the aftermath of America's toxic mess. The factories moved out anyway- not because of "job killing regulations" but because of cheaper labor and the opportunity to build newer, more competitive plants overseas.
While the deck is stacked against the majority, the rules still allow everyone to have a voice. Sometimes that voice acts in ways that money doesn't understand and can't control. Both rich and ordinary folks have made lots of money off of social media, the internet and cell phones, but it also turns out those technologies make it easier and far cheaper to organize political demonstrations. When my friends and I protested against the Vietnam War forty years ago, we lugged boxes of printed filers on the subway back to Brooklyn from print shops on the west side of Manhattan. Today, protestors just set up a Facebook page and email their "friends." Barack Obama raised hundreds of millions of dollars in small campaign donations through a viral internet campaign that required little purchase of expensive advertising time.
Today we may be seeing the start of a new mass political movement in protests in New York and Boston. While the message is not going out without distortion by the corporate-funded mass media, the protestors on Wall Street and on the Brooklyn Bridge are getting their message out about the extreme concentration of wealth and the decline of opportunity. The smarter elected officials like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognize the danger of a nation without economic opportunity for its young people. Last month on his radio show he observed that:
"You have a lot of kids graduating college who can't find jobs. That's what happened in Cairo. That's what happened in Madrid. You don't want those kinds of riots here."
When faced with demonstrations here in New York last weekend, Mayor Bloomberg took the interesting approach of arguing that the protestors were attacking the wrong target, trying to pretend that they were attacking the typical Wall Street office worker. That is of course nonsense. The protests are acts of symbolic political speech. They are the low-cost way of getting the message of economic distress and injustice on the political agenda. Modern communications technology makes them difficult to stop. But it is also difficult for the protestors to control how their message is disseminated to the American public through the mass media.
The voices promoting unregulated capitalism dominate the airwaves as they argue for the end of the social safety net begun during FDR's time. While conservatives advocate for the elimination of government programs and regulation, other voices are starting to be heard as well. Unlike the Tea Party, these other voices do not have the advantage of being amplified by the corporate funded mass media and elected officials. But they have the advantage of grass roots legitimacy.
It is actually the message of FDR that the wealthy in this nation ought to be remembering. Roosevelt was considered a "traitor to his class" for proposing the New Deal. However, he understood that unregulated free enterprise without a safety net for the less fortunate could not survive. Obviously, the New Deal did not kill America's free enterprise system, it saved it. The advantages of free enterprise were obvious to Roosevelt and they are obvious today. The technology that today's protestors rely on are products of a global economic system that combines public resources with private entrepreneurship. The food we all eat comes from the same source. We need the productivity and creativity of private enterprise and the profit motive. But we also need the long-term perspective, protection, and safety that typically comes from the public sector. We need a well-balanced, well-managed mixed economy. We need to avoid both unregulated corporations and unresponsive, rule-laden governments.
The American public is used to economic growth and opportunity. The global challenges of emerging economies and sustainable development require new thinking if America is to thrive. I think President Obama's broad support in 2008 came from people who sensed the need for such a new approach and hoped that he might be the transformative figure that FDR was in the 1930s. The roots of the Tea Party and of the protests in Lower Manhattan can be found in our collective disappointment that such a transformation was never even tried. Someone should tell the President that it's not too late to start.