By Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny is a call to arms and a guide to resistance, with invaluable ideas for how we can preserve our freedoms in the uncertain years to come.
American Democracy is under attack.
Historically, this is nothing new. Immediately after the Constitution was drafted, Benjamin Franklin warned that we would have a Republic only as long as we could keep it. And American history is replete with instances in which the wealthy few captured the machinery of Democracy and used it to the advantage of themselves over the well-being of the many. But in the late 20th Century something changed. The scale, organization, funding, technology, sophistication and effectiveness of the effort to subvert democracy all grew at an exponential rate. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, growing civic involvement around issues such as civil rights, the environment, the Vietnam war, and the shortcomings of capitalism, caused big business to feel that the “free enterprise” system itself was under attack. The wealthy and the corporations from which their wealth derived, felt the burden of paying for social programs and complying with regulations protecting consumers, the environment, the elderly and unfortunate. In response, they felt the need to increase their collective influence on government.
In 1971, the US Chamber of Commerce commissioned Lewis Powel, a corporate lawyer who would shortly thereafter be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, to create a plan for business to exert influence on the government. The resultant Powell Memo outlined a plan involving dramatically increased and coordinated expenditures on lobbying and election campaigns, especially judicial campaigns. “Think Tanks” extoling the virtues of the “free enterprise” system received lavish funding. Specific goals included privatizing government functions, reducing regulations, and reducing taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Over the following years conservatives spent immense volumes of money to identify and exploit the weaknesses inherent in our democracy.
Both political parties were pushed to the right and became increasingly dependent on large financial supporters. Ingenious political tactics were created and implemented with great success. Highly effective gerrymandering, purging voter polls, primarying undisciplined elected officials, powerful partisan media resources, changes in legislative processes, and abandonment of Congressional traditions all contributed to the creation of a government that is more responsive to the wealthy than to the poor or middle classes. As a result, many Americans have become disillusioned with government and democracy itself. Congress has become unable to muster the cooperation necessary to conduct the nation’s business. Absent an effective Congress, the power of the President has grown to dangerous levels. Citizens’ disillusionment with government has grown, causing many citizens to cease participating. All of this has worked to the advantage of those whose agenda would never be approved by a functional democracy.
From Tammany Hall in New York City to Teapot Dome at the federal level and the long history of corruption in Chicago, there is no shortage of examples of individuals and organizations finding ways to use the machinery of government to their personal advantage. But in the late 20th century the focus of the corruptors changed from simple “quid pro quo” payoffs of public officials to a more sophisticated effort to make the very process of Democracy produce results that favored the few over the many. Thus, while crackdowns on old style corruption have been effective in reducing old fashioned quid pro quo corruption, a new form of corruption has been legitimized by achieving its results through the electoral process.
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