Since it is based on the Greek word for stealing, the term "kleptocracy" sounds inflammatory. But as income gaps open up wider and wider, there is evidence of a serious rift in American democracy, and in that rift one finds untold greed, corruption, and cronyism. Since the Reagan era, middle-class families have seen their income rise a paltry 20 percent while the richest have increased their wealth tenfold. In the current downturn, the economy has officially recovered. As of this fall, the gross national product is higher than before the downturn, as is consumer spending.
This means that the widespread malaise isn't evenly distributed -- in fact, the distribution is grossly unjust. Consider that Wall Street continues to hand out staggering bonuses to hedge fund managers, who cram the ranks of the top one-tenth of 1 percent of income earners. At the other extreme, unemployment among women and minorities soars, and only 7 percent of those who gain a new job after losing their old one receive pay that equals or exceeds what they earned before.
We consider ourselves a democracy, but several long-standing trends indicate that American democracy has been bought and sold. Financial elites have a virtual monopoly on influence and power.
-- A right-wing Supreme Court has heard numerous cases involving individuals suing corporations, and in the vast majority of cases, it has founded on behalf of the corporation.
-- The Roberts court has also permitted anonymous and unlimited contributions made by corporations to political campaigns.
-- Using the filibuster as a constant veto weapon, the Senate Republicans block the President's appointments to staff departments that they disapprove of ideologically, the most blatant example being the refusal to approve a department head for the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.
-- Republican legislatures are pushing through voter registration restrictions aimed at intimidating minority and immigrant voters.
-- A handful of congressmen in charge of military appropriations are virtual colleagues of the military-industrial contractors who receive billions on the basis of cronyism and influence.
-- The traditional censure of influence-peddling in general has vanished, leading to a hand-in-glove arrangement that leads directly from public office to becoming a fat-cat lobbyist on K Street. This corrupt symbiosis allows corporations to essentially write the very legislation meant to regulate them, while a figure like Newt Gingrich can brazenly deny the obvious fact that he has grown wealthy as an influence peddler.
These trends go beyond the "normal" shadiness that has always been part of the lobbying system and the tendency for rich elites to combine their interests in the halls of power. There is a direct assault on democracy, as seen in the debate over national health insurance. Lobbying efforts emasculated the bill and achieved almost everything that big pharma, the medical establishment and the insurance companies wanted. The interests of the public were obvious, as they remain today. Health care should be a citizen's right, with cost-cutting managed by eliminating fraud and cutting back drastically on optional and marginal procedures. Everyone can see this quite clearly, but our ability to translate public interest into law has been crippled.
The solution? It's easy enough to take each toxic trend and dictate that it be reversed. But these trends are solidly entrenched. There is literally no elected official at the national level, except the president, with the power and ability to speak for the public as a whole. Inside the daily workings of Congress, the system of cozy corruption and influence-peddling has become amoral -- it's business as usual conducted without a blush. I retain my faith in President Obama as a leader who sees the situation without blinders and who would reform it overnight if he could. And informed citizens can seek out the candidates who stand for progressive reform.
Yet ultimately, there must be a shift in collective consciousness. Reform isn't revolution. It arises through acts of conscience that turn wrongs into rights. It depends upon an informed electorate that arouses itself from passivity and cynical indifference. We aren't there yet. But the air is filled with discontent and anger, which is a start. The Occupy movement has stung our conscience. The various types of social injustice and income inequality have been publicized over and over. Set against this, however, one must confront 30 years of right-wing indoctrination, public apathy, and the discouragement of the current economic downturn. The contest has been engaged. Now it's your turn, and mine, to speak the truth and act on behalf of justice. There is no other way to create the shift in consciousness that we need.