Another reason why we need real democracy
Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything has already convinced many of us that the capitalist system, which undermines democracy by concentrating power in the hands of the 1%, is incapable of dealing effectively with climate change – or any other serious problem. The latest book by Robert McChesney and John Nichols, People Get Ready: The Fight Against A Jobless Economy and A Citizenless Democracy, adds another threat to that list. Apparently, automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics are about to come into their own in such a big way that, unless we can change the way political and economic decisions are made in this country, only half of us will be employed by mid-century.
As the authors say, “Many Americans have experienced an economic nightmare, in which millions of hardworking men and women have been cast into a financial abyss, struggling with joblessness, home foreclosures, and personal bankruptcy.” And this economic and political inequality pre-dated the 2008 ‘Great Recession,’ creating different life expectancies for the poorest and least-educated and eroding our much vaunted equality before the law. As the authors say, “The principle that all are equal before the law – with no one above it or below it – has become a sick joke in a society where unarmed African-American men and women are shot down by police officers while the billionaire bankers who crashed the global economy, and fund both political parties, have gone scot-free and even been financially rewarded despite their illegal behavior. This is the circumstance in which the United States finds itself as a digital revolution every bit as sweeping as the industrial revolution takes hold.
Some technology experts expect a loss of 70% of existing jobs in the next three decades, with little hope that many new jobs will emerge to replace what’s lost. University of Pennsylvania sociologist Randall Collins expects an unemployment rate in the neighborhood of 50%. At the very least what’s about to transpire is going to put severe downward pressure on wages and working conditions, which already are deplorable. Most of the world’s population is becoming disposable and irrelevant from the standpoint of capital.
The great issue of the coming generation must be expanding democratic values and principles – building out the democratic infrastructure, if you will – into economic institutions and practices. At the same time, we can expect movements born of immense anger and frustration on the political right (the connection between mass unemployment and fascism is almost universally accepted – it was only with the skyrocketing unemployment of the early 1930s that the Nazi Party in Germany moved from the margins to power).” The authors go on to explain that, under fascism, big business partnered with government to create full employment based on gearing up for war (sound familiar?). Discipline in the factories and political stability were maintained by a political dictatorship, which used tactics ranging from the suppression of trade unions to the concentration camp.
American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood how this worked, saying in 1938 that “The liberty of a democracy isn’t safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, group, or any other private power.”
Getting back to artificial intelligence, the authors quote a New York Times article indicating that it “has become vastly more sophisticated in a short time, with machines now able to learn, not just follow programmed instructions, and to respond to human language and movement.” They add that “computers can now access an unimaginably large body of stored information and process it almost instantaneously. Even highly trained analysts and other so-called knowledge workers are seeing their work circumscribed by decision-support systems that turn the making of judgments into a data-processing routine. Much of this ‘big data’ is accumulated in the ‘cloud,’ a group of enormous server farms controlled by a handful of massive corporations like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. Cloud computing is also ideal for harnessing freelance workers to replace higher-paid labor, and for the ‘Internet of Things,’ a term for the billions of human-made devices connected to each other on a universal computing infrastructure. Each of these devices has its own Internet address, and will communicate with other devices more than with people. ‘Engineers expect so many of these connected devices,’ Philip Howard writes in his book Pax Technica, ‘that they’ve reconfigured the addressing system to allow for 2 to the 128th power addresses – enough for each atom on the face of the earth to have 100 addresses.’
Much of the economy will run through the Internet of Things. Cisco Systems forecasts that by 2022 it will generate $14.4 trillion in cost savings and revenue. A large share of these savings will come by eliminating jobs. In conjunction with all this, an open source Robot Operating System (ROS) ‘is rapidly becoming the standard software platform for robotics development,’ according to Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots. ‘The history of computing shows pretty clearly that once a standard operating system, together with inexpensive and easy-to-use programming tools, becomes available, an explosion of application software is likely to follow.’ What does this mean? ‘It’s a good bet,” Ford says, that ‘we’re, in all likelihood at the leading edge of an explosive wave of innovation that will ultimately produce robots geared to nearly every conceivable commercial, industrial, and consumer task.’ Robots will be not only in factories, they’ll be everywhere. Then there’s 3D printing, which Jeremy Rifkin describes as the ‘manufacturing’ model that accompanies an Internet of Things economy. In earlier stages of automation, Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, explains, firms automated physical work but required humans to be the control system. Now the control system can be automated.
The four most common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk – jobs are highly susceptible to automation. Ford sees 50% of fast-food jobs disappearing, and argues it is likely there will be ‘explosive growth of the fully automated self-service retail sector – in other words, intelligent vending machines and kiosks.’ The two sectors of the economy harboring the most professionals, health care and education, are also under increasing pressure to cut costs, and expert machines are poised to take over. The last remaining labor-intensive areas in agriculture – primarily picking – are susceptible to automation as well.
In China robot installations have been increasing at a 25% annual rate since 2005. It still has only thirty robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees compared to South Korea (437), Japan (323), Germany (282), and the United States (152), however, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Consider the example of Foxconn, the largest maker of electronic components in the world and the largest exporter in China. Foxconn is single-handedly responsible for manufacturing nearly half of the consumer technology in the world, and much, if not most, of what Americans own in terms of smartphones and tablet computers. It has annual revenues of $135 billion and is the third-largest employer in the world, with 1.2 million workers. Foxconn grabbed its market share by providing a low-paid and heavily exploited workforce for Western firms. Soon after its Apple factories received worldwide attention following a string of suicides by workers in 2010, the company began an aggressive program to replace many, or most, of its workers with a robots. Foxconn CEO Terry Gou said in 2015 that he expects robots and automation to be doing 70% of the company’s assembly-line work by 2018.
A few low-tech industries, like garment manufacturing, have been moving from China to places that still have even lower wages, like Bangladesh, but many industries, particularly electronics, are still moving factories to China. That’s because so many of the parts suppliers are now in China that it’s often more costly to do assembly elsewhere. So although building robots to replace workers isn’t cheap, a growing number of companies are finding it less costly than either paying ever-higher wages in China or moving to another country.
The profit system pushes firms to automate as much as possible, and to de-skill remaining jobs as well. But when all firms automate and de-skill, there’s substantially less demand for their products, and the economy stagnates. In our view, for this reason and because of the immense suffering thus produced, the capitalist economic needs to be fundamentally reformed, if not replaced. The number of true believers who think leaving firms and wealthy investors alone to do as they wish will solve all problems is shrinking, and is, after all, a faith-based position. There are also some with a similar faith that technology is innately progressive and powerful enough to solve capitalism’s problems. But researching this book, what’s been striking to us is that many, perhaps most, of the people who have studied these matters recognize that the system, left alone, won’t right itself. Structural changes are needed, and government will have to play the central role in determining and instituting them. The solutions to the employment and economic crises in the United States are political. How will these technologies be deployed, and how will the wealth they generate be distributed?”
The authors review our country’s recent history, and come up with some interesting facts. For example, “since Dwight Eisenhower was president, the top federal income tax rate has collapsed from 91% to 39.6%,” with, as we know, most corporations and rich individuals paying even less than that thanks to ‘loopholes.’
“Progressive tax policy was part of the democratic infrastructure.”
Global trade agreements like NAFTA and the proposed TPP are similarly undemocratic and harmful to workers and the environment, preventing states and localities from passing corrective legislation. They don’t even benefit the national economy in terms of trade deficits – they’re for the benefit of large multinational corporations. The authors describe how Barack Obama spoke out against these kinds of “back-room deals” as a candidate, then reversed himself “within days of assembling the delegates he needed,” and as president “signed sweeping free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama,” and is now pushing for “the biggest trade agreements since NAFTA: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Asian countries and a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe.
Nothing says ‘shut up and give up’ quite so effectively as a candidate who tells the people he’ll champion their interests on a complex issue that matters greatly to them and then, upon his nomination and election, betrays them. It bakes in cynicism about politics and about what’s possible in a democracy, signaling that fundamental issues are off the table. Meanwhile, the elites need only convince a handful of policymakers who are, for reasons of campaign finance, eternally beholden to them.
The news media also play a crucial role in keeping democracy citizenless. Mainstream journalism, even at its best, generally takes its cues for what the range of legitimate debate is on an issue by what political and economic elites say about it, rarely providing critical analysis. Political journalism, with a few fine exceptions, is mostly pointless gossip and nutritionless assessments of spin and polls. During political campaigns, it hits rock bottom, playing along with the fiction that elections represent the will of the people, and that those elected will protect the interests of the voters.
Understandably, voter participation in the United States is declining to record-low levels. Despite all that was at stake in the 2014 midterm elections in the United States – control of the US Senate and a majority of governorships and state legislative seats – only a third of those eligible voted. Non-voters were, on balance, younger and poorer, meaning that a small, older and relatively affluent minority picked the winners and defined the governance of the most powerful country in the world for the next two years. All of this is well understood in Republican circles, where repressing the voter turnout, especially among younger, poorer, and non-white citizens, has become job one for state governments over the past six years. In the 2014 election the Republicans won a whopping 59-seat advantage over the Democrats in the 435-member House of Representatives. Thanks to gerrymandered district lines, drawn largely by Republicans who won control of statehouses in the low-voter-turnout off-year elections of 2010, the Republicans were able to win 57% of the House seats with only 51% of the total votes for the 435 House races. The 2014 Republican House candidates nationwide – winners and losers – received the votes of only 16% of the voting-age citizens of the United States, less than 1 in 6 Americans. Things were around the same in the Senate, where all the Republican candidates for the hundred Senate seats received votes from just under 21% of the voting-age population, or one in five Americans. Matters were only marginally better for the Democrats the last time they controlled both the House and the Senate, following the 2008 election. The party’s candidates received the votes of 26 and 28% of the voting-age population, respectively, or just more than one in four.
Groups that monitor voter turnout, such as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, regularly rank the United States near rock bottom on global turnout measures. Voter turnout in the United States is less than half that of other countries with established electoral systems. The 2013 German elections drew a turnout of 72%. In France, turnout in the 2012 presidential election topped 80%. In Sweden, turnout for the 2014 parliamentary elections was 86%. The United States is barely on the democratic grid when it comes to representative democracy. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks it 120th in the world for turnout by eligible voters. Turnout used to be higher – often above 70% in presidential and midterm elections during the 19th century and close to 65% among eligible voters as recently as 1960. But the research of the United States Election Project reveals a marked decline since the 1970s. Americans tend to vote more during periods of crisis and when they believe their vote might make their lives better. For example, FDR won the presidency in 1936 not by convincing Republicans to switch teams, but because in the crisis of the Depression millions of Americans came to the polls for the first time to vote for him. This means that if the promise of American democracy is ever going to realized, it will not be because the dwindling number of mostly older, whiter, and richer voters start to cast ballots for different candidates and parties – it’ll be because of a surge of new voters. That means guaranteeing the right to vote for all voting-age Americans, making it the aggressive policy of the government to do all it can to encourage people to vote, and to ensure that elections decide essential issues that are now held off the table. No change for the better will come within the narrow confines of the low-information, low-engagement, low-turnout politics we have now.”
Turning to our hallowed Constitution, the authors quote political scientist Robert Dahl, who wrote that a constitution must “‘maintain political institutions that foster political equality among citizens and all the necessary rights, liberties, and opportunities essential to the existence of political equality and democratic governance.’ Constitutions aren’t the only place these matters are determined, but they’re central to the process. The framers of our Constitution flunked Dahl’s test miserably. First, African Americans and Native Americans were written out of the picture as potential citizens. In fact, Gerald Horne and other historians make a convincing argument that it was fear of the burgeoning British anti-slavery movement that motivated slaveholders and merchants dependent on slavery to throw in with the American revolution.
Even when looking strictly at the white male population as the relevant group of prospective citizens, as the framers did, the Constitution is a dubious product for democracy. Its intent wasn’t to promote democracy, which the founders feared as ‘mob rule;’ it was to prevent it. The government was originated and organized upon the initiative and primarily in the interest of the mercantile and wealthy classes, even though the revolution had been fought by the poor and those of limited means, inspired by the radical democratic words of Thomas Paine in Common Sense. The federal Constitution was in significant part a reaction to uprisings (like Shay’s Rebellion) by this class, as well as by the more democratic state constitutions. The most radical, Pennsylvania’s, was written in the summer and fall of 1776 by a group that included Paine and Benjamin Franklin. Much of the momentum for it came from rural farmers, the poor, artisans, and the mid-level merchants of Philadelphia, who by 1775 had become, as William Hogeland puts it, ‘a powerful street constituency in favor of American independence as a way to promote economic equality.’ The Pennsylvania constitution allowed for universal male suffrage and the election of a powerful unicameral legislature for one-year terms. The judiciary and executive branches were weak, and no bill could become law after being passed until it had been in print for a year so citizens could respond to it. It also called for the state to promote public education and the establishment of universities. The first assemblies elected under this constitution ‘began passing laws to regulate wealth and foster economic development for ordinary people.’ Laws were passed to restrict monopolies, equalize taxes, and abolish slavery.”
As the authors point out, the US Constitution was also written way before the development of modern capitalism. It was also “drafted during an era in which the notions that the endless increase of one’s wealth and property is good both for society and a person’s inherent right – central, even necessary, postulates of a modern capitalist society – were considered dubious or even dangerous. As Franklin put it in 1783: ‘All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.’ As corporations began to proliferate in the first few decades of the 19th century, the framers, not to mention many others, while recognizing corporations’ economic advantages, were immediately and deeply concerned about the ability and commercial incentive of corporations to corrupt and destroy the political system. In 1816 Jefferson wrote: ‘I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws.’”
The founders also had a much more proactive concept of the first amendment right to freedom of speech and a free press than we do now. “For Jefferson, just having the right to speak without government censorship is a necessary but insufficient condition for a free press, and therefore democracy, which also demands that there be a literate public, a viable press system, and that people have easy access to this press. Jefferson and Madison argued for such a free press as a check on militarism, secrecy, corruption, inequality, and empire. Near the end of his life, Madison observed, ‘A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.’ There was no sense in this period (and for a long time thereafter) that as long as the government didn’t censor newspapers, private citizens or businesses would have sufficient incentive to produce a satisfactory press. Indeed, the Constitution’s creation of the Post Office was above all else a commitment to seeing that newspapers were distributed effectively and inexpensively. For the first century of American history most newspapers were distributed by the mails, almost for free. It was a conscious subsidy by the federal government to make it economically viable for many more newspapers to exist than would otherwise be the case. Throughout much of the 19th century, newspapers constituted more than 90% of the Post Office’s weighted traffic, yet provided only about 10% of its revenues.
This recognition of the constitutional commitment to a free press declined by the end of the 19th century: newspaper publishing became extremely lucrative and the subsidies disappeared or came to play a smaller role. But today, with the emergence of the Internet, the commercial journalism model based upon advertising providing the lion’s share of the revenues is disintegrating. There are far fewer paid reporters and editors on a per capita basis in both old and new media than there were 25 years ago, and much important news goes unreported. It’s Jefferson’s and Madison’s worst nightmare, and since there’s nothing on the horizon to suggest a commercial solution to the problem, it’s time for Americans to embrace their full constitutional rights and demand policies and subsidies to create a viable, competitive, independent, and uncensored news media. As the framers understood, nothing remotely close to a democratic society can exist unless this happens.
The Constitution has been amended only sixteen times in the past 220 years; two of those were the prohibition amendments that cancelled each other out, and six other amendments were largely noncontroversial bookkeeping measures. Not only is it out of date, constitutional scholar Daniel Lazare writes, but ‘by imposing an unchangeable political structure on generations that have never had an opportunity to vote on the system as a whole, it amounts to a dictatorship of the past over the present.’ Because it’s ‘virtually impossible to alter the political structure in any fundamental way,’ Lazare adds, Americans have ‘one of the most unresponsive political systems this side of the former Soviet Union.’ Jefferson would have agreed. ‘Each generation is as independent as the one preceding. It has then a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness,’ he wrote in 1816. He called on the Constitution to be amended so that there would be a new constitutional convention every ‘nineteen or twenty years,’ such that every generation would have the opportunity to create its own politics and governance. Again, the states provide a rich alternative approach in American history; unlike the federal Constitution, popular involvement in state constitutions is encouraged. This began back in the 1770s and 1780s, when states were routinely meeting to draft and redraft constitutions, and has continued to this day. By 2005 the fifty states had held a combined 233 constitutional conventions, adopted 146 different constitutions, and ratified over 6,000 amendments to their existing constitutions. In general, what one finds when examining state constitutions is that Americans have used their constitutions to demand protective and interventionist government, beginning in the mid-19th century.”
The authors remind us of another important part of American history, noting that when “FDR unveiled the Four Freedoms in his January 1941 State of the Union Address to Congress, he offered up four universal principles for a free and democratic world, which he hoped would define the war against the Axis powers: ‘In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the world.’
Three years later, in his 1944 State of the Union Address, with victory in the war all but certain, FDR introduced the idea of an economic bill of rights, or what has been called the Second Bill of Rights. ‘It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people – whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth – is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy expanded – these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. We have accepted a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are: the right to a useful and remunerative job; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; the right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living; the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; and the right to a good education. All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and wellbeing.’
In effect, FDR is saying that unemployment and poverty should be unconstitutional, a massive amount of democratic infrastructure must be created, and monopolistic big business is now officially a dubious force. Instead of seeking constitutional amendments, he asked Congress to ‘explore the means for implementing this economic bill of rights.’ So close was Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican candidate for president, to FDR, including on the component parts of the Economic Bill of Rights, that the two of them broached the idea of forming a new political party to unite all the liberals in the nation, and leave the Southern segregationists and big business ‘reactionaries’ to have their own party. Alas, Willkie died suddenly in October 1944 at age fifty-two, and FDR died six months later. With FDR in poor health and then gone, the Second Bill of Rights never got anywhere in Congress. Vice President Henry Wallace never wavered, however; he argued in 1944 that to defeat fascism in the postwar era, the great benefits of the ‘immense and growing volume of scientific research, mechanical invention and management technique’ needed not only to be promoted, but the benefits shared across society. The last hurrah for the issues in the Second Bill of Rights came in 1948. Wallace bid for the presidency on the ticket of a new Progressive Party, opposing President Harry Truman and more cautious Democrats on a third-party platform that not only embraced the economic bill of rights but included the Four Freedoms’ call for demilitarization and an end to Jim Crow. Polls showed Wallace to be competitive early on, but his numbers declined with relentless redbaiting attacks. By the end of the 1940s the country experienced a massive red scare that ended labor’s surge, and established a continual warfare economy. By 1949, if not earlier, to advocate loudly what the president had proposed in January 1944 might be enough to cost a person her job. The weltanschauung had turned on a dime. Still, most of the existing New Deal reforms and much of the democratic infrastructure were too popular to be rolled back, and they provided the foundation for the next democratic surge in the 1960s.
The influence of the Second Bill of Rights played a major role in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, finalized in 1948 under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt and publicly endorsed by American officials at the time. The great political scientist Robert Dahl once asked this rhetorical question: ‘If our constitution is as good as most Americans seem to think it is, why haven’t other democratic countries copied it?’ Well, we now know they have copied it and been inspired by it – only it was the one generated in the 1940s that was never quite made part of the federal Constitution.”
Skipping ahead to 1972, the authors write that “the Democratic Party nominated George McGovern as its presidential candidate after a successful grassroots insurgency campaign. McGovern, who’d supported Henry Wallace’s campaign for president in 1948, was probably the most left-wing major party presidential candidate in US history. ‘Our traditions, our history, our Constitution, our lives, all say that America belongs to its people. But the people no longer believe it,’ the platform began. ‘They feel that the government is run for the privileged few rather than for the many – and they’re right.’ It went on to call for ‘a guaranteed job for all Americans, with government providing employment if necessary at a living wage; huge expansion of public spending projects to rebuild cities, create mass transportation networks, address pollution, and build housing for the poor; progressive tax reform to generate equitable distribution of income and wealth; stepped-up antitrust action to break-up “shared monopolies” like those found with the massive corporations that dominated the automobile, steel, and tire industries; establishing a national economic commission to examine the role of large multinational corporations in the economy to see if federal chartering of corporations is necessary to reduce their influence; policies to directly attack the concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands; extension of trade union rights to workers in the nonprofit and public sector; establishing universal comprehensive health insurance controlled, financed, and administered by the federal government so all Americans are covered at all times; supporting equalization of spending among school districts to end the disparity between the caliber of public education based upon family income; recognizing human rights of prisoners and fundamentally restructuring prisons to make them effective rehabilitation facilities; reestablishing the congressional role in military affairs, reducing military spending, and ending secrecy, except where absolutely necessary; a total overhaul of the campaign-finance system with clear limits on donations to prevent candidates from being “dependent on large contributors who seek preferential treatment,” and an increase in public funding of elections; and universal voter registration by postcard, abolition of the Electoral College, and a run-off election for president if no candidate gets at least 40% of the vote.’
In short, the 1972 Democratic Party platform effectively called for the fulfillment of FDR’s and Henry Wallace’s anti-fascist democratic vision, along with addressing issues that had emerged since then. The Republicans positioned themselves to the right of the Democrats, but their platform was nothing like what would become de rigueur for the GOP by the 1980s. The basic contours of the welfare state were supported, and when Nixon won his landslide victory over McGovern it wasn’t a referendum on New Deal policies like Social Security, the right to form trade unions, or the more recent turns to environmental and consumer regulation. In fact, the Nixon administration (1969–1974) is noted for its passage of trailblazing environmental and consumer legislation, far more sweeping than anything that would follow. More than a few commentators have observed that on balance Nixon’s administration was well to the left of the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It wasn’t that Richard Nixon was a closet lefty; it was the nature of the times.
What drove both parties leftward were the social movements of the period, particularly the civil rights, student, antiwar, and black power movements, joined later by the women’s and environmental movements. Organized labor still aggressively supported liberal candidates for office, and some elements of it were strong proponents of civil rights, but it tended to be uncomfortable with criticism of the military-industrial complex and the war in Vietnam, and had little sympathy for the student left, black militants, or the ‘hippie’ counterculture. It was cool toward the 1972 McGovern campaign, despite that campaign’s having what was possibly the most pro-labor platform for a major party in US presidential election history.
Between 1969 and 1971 a spate of articles appeared in the business press and trade publications addressing the diminished prestige of business and the apparent embrace of socialist ideas by what seemed like a large segment of the population, especially young people. The most influential communication of this period, by a wide margin, was the Lewis Powell Memorandum of August 1971. It was a confidential memo, prepared for the US Chamber of Commerce and only distributed to a few score corporate executives and wealthy investors. ‘What we are dealing with is quite new in the history of America,’ Powell wrote. ‘The assault on the enterprise system, broadly based and consistently pursued, is gaining momentum and converts. Business and the enterprise system are in deep trouble, and the hour is late.’ Powell called for a huge increase in the cash commitment of business, its trade associations, and the wealthy to changing the culture and making the media, universities, and schools more sympathetic to business and free enterprise. He also called for business to dramatically increase spending in the ‘political arena,’ through increased lobbying and attention to campaigns such that politicians from both parties are beholden to business interests.
In the early 1960s, corporate lobbyists were few and far between, but in the early 1970s businesses and trade associations increased their Washington lobbying efforts dramatically, and coordinated their activities. Where better to find insider lobbyists than from former members of Congress? In the early 1970s, 3% of retiring or exiting members became lobbyists; by 2012 the figure was more like 50%, with lobbyists often earning seven-figure incomes after their stint in ‘public service.’ And, thanks to a process initiated on the Supreme Court by Justice Lewis Powell in the late 1970s, beginning in 2010 the US Supreme Court overturned a century of legislation and jurisprudence and allowed, in effect, unlimited and unaccountable corporate and individual donations to political campaigns. With this newly shaped and decidedly less-democratic infrastructure, business domination and control of governance was all but guaranteed.
The Watergate scandal and an economic recession gave the Democrats overwhelming control of the Congress after the 1974 elections. The progressive wing of the Democratic party went on the offensive and in the middle of the 1970s advocated strongly for guaranteed full employment, tax reform to make the system more progressive, excess-profits taxes on large corporations, Ralph Nader’s proposal for a cabinet-level Department of Consumer Protection, same-day voter registration to encourage and increase turnout, labor-law reform to benefit unions, and national health insurance (Medicare for all), among other things. A few years later, the package of progressive legislation that had seemed likely to pass the day Jimmy Carter was inaugurated in January 1977 went down to ringing defeat within two years thanks to business lobbies. Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential race to mark the ascension of this ‘neoliberal’ approach, though only a few short years earlier the prospect that someone with Reagan’s views might win a national election would have been seen as preposterous.
The Republican Party has moved steadily to the right since the 1970s, purging its entire liberal and moderate wings, and the Democratic Party has moved right as well. The Democratic Leadership Council founded by people like Bill Clinton made the party far more pro-business, pushing for deregulation, lower taxes on business and the rich, cutbacks in social services, and secretive trade deals that benefiting only large corporations and investors. Structural constraints on the political process and the lack of sufficient democratic infrastructure have prevented the development of viable third, fourth, and fifth parties with meaningful alternatives. In the past, when the United States has had great periods of conservatism where elite interests dominated, such as the original planter/merchant aristocracy, Southern slavery, the Gilded Age, and the 1920s, they were followed by reform periods dedicated to lessening inequality and corruption. By historical standards, the United States is long past due, by a good two decades, for such a reform moment. In our view, the evidence points to the deterioration of the democratic infrastructure as perhaps the key factor in delaying or preventing a new era of reform; people have little way to effectively participate in the governing process and they respond (or opt out of responding) accordingly. Until that changes, the paradox will only continue and deepen, despite a universal sense that the United States has entered into a period of crisis.
Still, there are signs that the roots of a new activism on behalf of economic democracy are growing underneath the corporate media radar. There was no movement for a $15-an-hour minimum wage when we were touring in 2010, and only the barest hints of one in 2013. Now that movement is everywhere. Movements like this aren’t as powerful as they will be, and they aren’t yet linked together. But the remarkable response to the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders suggests that the prospect for a transformational moment is real. The country has a more militant labor movement than at any time since the early 1970s, possibly even the ‘30s. Despite the lack of labor reporting by most major media, there are still almost 15 million union members in the United States. They’re under brutal assault by corporate-funded Republican governors and legislators – and, notably, a number of Democratic mayors – who seek to shut down the steadiest defenders of public services and public education in our politics. Yet, in states such as Missouri and West Virginia, workers have blocked anti-labor right-to-work laws. And in cities like Los Angeles and New York, and unexpected regions such as the Rio Grande Valley, unions are actually expanding their membership, especially among low-wage workers.
The country is also seeing the renewal of historic ideals of public and cooperative enterprise. New movements are taking on what Gar Alperovitz, the cofounder of the Democracy Collaborative, refers to as the ‘huge and agonizing long-term task’ of developing and popularizing alternative models for ownership and job creation, transforming the system over time, beginning in local communities where the pain is greatest.’ Along with renewing old ideals of worker ownership and consumer involvement, there are proposals to democratize finance, with public banking at the state and local levels (along the lines of the century-old and highly successful State Bank of North Dakota), and a coalition of unions and consumer groups is working to renew postal banking as a vehicle to strengthen the US Postal Service and provide necessary and responsible financial services to low-income and rural communities.
Along with the climate change and Black Lives Matter movements, the country also has the most vibrant crusade for constitutional reform in a century. More than 600 American communities have formally demanded congressional action to begin the process of undoing the Supreme Court’s Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United, and McCutcheon decisions. They seek nothing less than a constitutional amendment that will renew the fundamental American premises that money is not speech, that corporations are not people, and that citizens and their elected representatives have a right to shape campaign finance laws to ensure that votes matter more than dollars. Sixteen states have formally requested action to amend the constitution. Millions of Americans have voted in referendums, signed petitions, and appeared before legislatures, city councils, and town boards to demand an electoral politics defined by ideas rather than the money power of self-interested billionaires and pay-to-play corporations.
The number of Americans actively involved in the work of addressing the economic and social and political challenges of this moment is enough to form a critical mass, but the various movements aren’t yet communicating with each other, and there’s still a tendency on the part of advocates to imagine that ‘their’ issue must be dealt with first. If history is any indicator, however, the defining and uniting issue will be economic.
Most writers assume capitalism is the basis for democracy and freedom, and that whatever happens in the future, the necessity of preserving current capitalism (or some sped-up version of it) all but trumps other concerns. Even the truest believers in capitalism, if they are honest with themselves, have to recognize, however, that this is a political gambit, a means for taking the biggest issues off the table. When we can’t have a wide-ranging debate about economics, concentrated economic power translates into power, period.
The one solution that has currency, and that’s promoted by scholars who have done much to identify the concerns outlined in this book (Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, and Martin Ford, among them) is the notion of a guaranteed annual income. The idea is that everyone gets a sufficient income, usually between ten and twenty thousand dollars annually, so that no one starves to death or goes homeless in an era where jobs become far more scarce. The sales pitch to the affluent sector of the population that will pay higher taxes to bankroll the program is twofold: (1) these tens of millions of unemployed people will spend this money on goods and services, so it will end up back in your pockets and make the economy stronger, and (2) unless the wealthy buy off the majority of the population, there will be extraordinary social turbulence that could make the 1930s look like a day at the beach.”
In addition, the authors believe that “certain functions should be removed from the market altogether. Make broadband Internet, healthcare, education, and extensive public transportation access free and ubiquitous, for example. Our economy would need to be radically transformed – off the drug of militarism, and having ended crony-capitalism policymaking, in order to provide all the elements of the economic bill of rights, and the transformation would need to be ongoing. Today’s circumstances also require that a few new protections be added to FDR’s list. For instance, the ancient sanction against corruption must be updated to guard against the privatization and outsourcing of public education and public responsibilities. It’s imperative to remove profiteering from the provision of public goods: education, municipal services, public safety, and the defense of the land from foreign threats. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that, as taxpayers and citizens, we can’t afford a prison-industrial complex,” especially one that doesn’t rehabilitate prisoners. “Likewise, having an ecology that can sustain human life isn’t some premium channel a society can select in addition to the democratic basic package. It’s the very foundation for human existence for all societies and must be regarded as such.
A full democratic infrastructure provides more than the right to vote; it provides economic and social security, a free flow of information, and absolute protection against discrimination and corruption so that every citizen – not just those who are wealthy – has the freedom to engage fully in the politics and governance of the nation. None of this presupposes a particular type of economy, yet all of it presupposes that every American will have the right to participate fully and meaningfully in determining what type of economy best serves her, and best frames the future. When a crisis causes a jolt, as will surely be the case with the technological and social transformations that are now unfolding, citizens must retain the power to put economic options on the table, and to embrace the best of those options.
The Constitution should also be clarified so that it sustains rather than throttles democracy. Do away with the Electoral College. Ban the practice of gerrymandering. Close the loophole that allows governors to appoint cronies to vacant Senate seats. Ask why America maintains a House of Lords–like Senate where, today, the vote of a member elected by 121,000 Wyomingites can cancel out the vote of a member elected by 7.8 million Californians. Consider electing members of the House to four-year terms that parallel those of the president, so that the popular will of 131 million voters in a presidential election can’t be stymied by 90 million voters in the next mid-term election. Object to any calculus that prevents a majority–African American District of Columbia and a majority–Hispanic Puerto Rico from becoming states. Reexamine barriers to popular participation, including those of poverty, ignorance, and incapacity.
Citizens also need to be in charge of the funding of a more democratic media system, beginning with supercharged funding of public broadcasting, robust support for community media, and substantial public investments in journalism as a public good.” The authors propose that “every American adult get a $200 voucher to donate to the nonprofit news media of her choice. Imagine if a public television station in a metropolitan area of a million people ill-served by existing media – which is to say any and every metropolitan area – managed to get 50,000 viewers to donate half of their Citizen News Voucher to help with the development of a newsroom to cover state and local elections and government. Imagine if most of those 50,000 viewers donated the other half of their Citizen News Vouchers, in combination with similar numbers of viewers from twenty more metropolitan areas, to develop an evening radio and cable news program along the lines of Amy Goodman’s ‘Democracy Now.’ The program would have close to $100 million to hire journalists to cover national and international issues. Let’s put it all online, with podcasts, apps, and alerts so that each of these initiatives is available to everyone, as news happens. A condition for getting the vouchers would be that everything produced be put online immediately for free, entering the public domain where anyone can use it as needed. Old media and new media would work together to produce journalism that matters, not relying on advertising, subscriptions, or the vagaries of the market. The people who need the information would be paying journalists to go out, get it, and deliver it to them.”
As it goes about the process of breaking up undemocratic corporate monopolies, a democratically elected government could also take over, own, and manage “industries in which it’s impossible to maintain effectively competitive conditions,” including banks ‘too big to fail.’
“We would link the elements of the democratic infrastructure already described to the development of what the United States has never really had: a national industrial policy focusing on creating and retaining meaningful and well-compensated work in all sectors of the economy; guarding against the development of monopolies that reduce competition and innovation, and that threaten small business; supporting research and development, especially in areas where investment is necessary but not necessarily profitable in the short term; working with private and public employers and communities to establish a proper balance between work and leisure; maintaining the planning, funding, and support networks needed to guarantee healthcare, disability, and retirement security for all, as well as the education, training, and transportation services that are required by 21st-century workers; encouraging economic development in industrial sectors and geographical areas that may not be immediately profitable, but have great social value; ensuring that workers have a voice in their workplaces and, through their unions; recognizing the value of public utilities and public services to the whole of the economy and society, and encouraging public ownership and cooperative development; guaranteeing that the benefits of technological advances are shared by all, and that changes in the workplace are made to ease economic and social burdens rather than merely to boost profits; requiring that trade policies benefit workers and the environment in the United States and the countries with which it trades; maintaining a steady commitment to environmental protection and climate justice; addressing the unique challenges faced by rural and urban Americans, and by people of color and immigrants who have suffered from historical discrimination and contemporary inequity; and establishing a national land-use policy that supports sustainable agriculture and the development of livable communities rather than sprawl and factory farming. The process would constantly evolve in a transparent and inclusive manner, with democratic oversight and governance. Another way of saying this is that economic planning needs to be democratized, popularized, and made accountable, and this democratic planning must be done locally, regionally, and nationally.
Imagine if Americans recognized that what’s terrifying isn’t automation technology, or the fact that everything’s going to change. What’s terrifying is that they have no say about the scope and character and direction of the change. What’s terrifying is that they can’t put proposals for a new economy on the table and make them the law of the land and the framework for our future. What’s terrifying is that the essential economic [and other] issues of the time aren’t the essential political issues of the time. Imagine if the people recognized that they must have a say or they’ll have nothing at all. And imagine if they were hooped together, finally and fully, across what were once considered lines of division. Imagine if the people were ready to demand a new Constitution, a new politics, and a new economy. Imagine if the people were ready, finally, to demand democracy – and all of the freedom, fairness, and human potential that extends from the moment when the profiteers and the pretenders are pushed aside and we, the people, forge our future.”