In this powerful work of reportage, Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman, two vigilant watchdogs, expose legalized corruption and link it to the kitchen-table issues citizens face every day
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
With the above words the founders of our nation explained their goals in writing our Constitution and in risking their lives to break their ties to England. They were not mincing words when they chose to describe the proposed government as a “union.” And they put this goal first, not because they loved government more than they loved liberty, but because they realized that without a union none of the rest of their goals would be accomplished. They knew firsthand that unanswered power is not generous. They knew that as thirteen independent colonies they were helpless to stand up to exploitation by the King of England and the corporations in which he and so many members of parliament held interest. So, they formed a union.
The union created by our founding fathers was formed for the very same purposes as are modern labor unions. The people of the colonies wanted fair compensation for their labors and a voice in the rules that governed them. While it began as a stand against the country of England, our government continues to play the role of uniting ordinary people so they can stand up to powerful entities that would otherwise not treat them fairly. To a large extent this has become ordinary people versus powerful amoral corporations and the bizarrely wealthy individuals that run them.
Governments instituted among people are generally named in honor of whoever gets represented by them. Monarchies represent the monarch. Autocracies represent an autocrat. Oligarchies represent a small group of very wealthy individuals, i.e. oligarchs. Theocracies serve theocrats. Tyranny represents the tyrant. Dictatorship, the dictator. On and on. You get the idea. Notice that all these forms of government represent the interests of a very small segment of the population. The rest of the population is generally rendered powerless and relatively poor. This is the most common feature of governments around the world and throughout history. They serve a few and control the many. By world standards this is the norm. Regardless of the particulars, this is the bottom line toward which governments tend no matter their original form or purpose.
Democracy is, by definition, a system in which the interests of the demos, or people in general, are served by the government. As Madison put it, the government should serve all citizens equally, “not the rich more than the poor.” Aristotle likewise observed that in a democracy the poor will rule since there are more of them than the rich. As long as decisions are made by choosing the single option that garners the largest number of votes, this will be true. And our founding fathers, as magnanimous as they may have been, were concerned about the possibility that the masses could be just as tyrannical as the King of England. They feared, just as do today’s wealthy and powerful special interests, that the poor might simply vote to take their wealth. So, they built in safeguards against this possibility right from the beginning. Most notably, they denied poor people the right to vote. Sound familiar? More on that later.
“The majority rules,” is the guiding principle used in our government’s decision-making processes. But due to the size and complexity of our government, the majority of citizens do not vote on most issues. Instead, we elect representatives and let them vote on our behalf. This form of government is called a representative republic. Anyone silly enough to say the word “democracy” in a crowd with members of the republican party in it will be promptly reminded that we don’t live in a democracy. That is true. We live in a “representative republic.” Contrary to the general rule that forms of government are named after those whose interests are represented, and counter to the understanding of many republicans, a “representative republic” is not supposed to exclusively represent the interests of republicans. Nor is it intended to represent the personal interests of representatives, of any party, some of whom are confused about that as well. It is supposed to represent the interests of the demos, i.e. the general public.
Our government is, then, a union charged with defending the interests of the general public which are threatened by the interests of a few who would convert our government into a more run-of-the-mill system for enriching themselves and controlling the majority of its citizens. Just as was the case at the beginning of our country, these threats come in three distinct forms: threats from a foreign country, threats from a would-be king, and threats from well-organized factions, e.g. corporations, super wealthy individuals and other special interests. Our union spends a large proportion of its resources on a military ostensibly maintained for the purpose of preventing the government of some other country from simply crossing our borders, taking our stuff and enslaving us. This has happened often in history and is certainly a reasonable concern. We are seemingly well prepared to defend ourselves from foreign military threats. Threats from within are more difficult to recognize and defeat. But their goal, though achieved in a more insidious and perhaps less violent means than those typical of a foreign invader, is the same: the aggregation of wealth and political power in the hands of the few. This is never good for the many. This is currently the greatest threat to our democracy not because there are more such domestic contenders for aggregated power but because over the past 30 to 40 years they have increasingly abandoned even the pretense of affiliation to the basic idea of democracy and become more open about their unbridled lust for power and wealth.
The cultural change that led to the open abandonment of the basic idea of democracy was heralded in the 1987 movie “Wall Street” when the character Gordon Gecko gave his infamous "Greed is Good" speech. It was an open acknowledgement of the underlying ethos or personality of big business and a prediction that this ethos would eventually become that of the U.S. government. This merger of the formerly paternalistic ethos of government and the predatory ethos of big business, with the latter becoming the dominant element in both business and government, is outlined in Sheldon Wolin’s great book “Democracy, Inc., Managed Democracy and the Spector of Inverted Totalitarianism.” Elements of the plan to bring this about had been underway since 1971 when the Powell Memo outlined what was needed to make that happen.
The similarity between labor unions and the union we call government becomes more evident when viewed thru the lens of big business’ approach to them. Labor unions are competitors for management power. Unions can demand decent wages, safe working conditions, reasonable workload, freedom from arbitrary firing, healthcare and some provision for retirement. All of these Un things are costly. Whatever management may feel personally about them, the imperatives of competition demand that costs be driven down to an absolute minimum. From management’s point of view, the cheaper and fewer employees that can be forced to do the work, the larger the profits. When greed is the only factor driving management decisions, the well-being of workers is only a minor consideration. Like labor unions, government can also make demands on business. Government can enact laws that grant basic rights and protections to workers as well as to the environment. It can mandate adherence to quality and safety standards for products and enforce liability for damage caused by dangerous products. And, of course, it can levy taxes for expenditure on the common good such as streets, schools, public safety, etc. Again, profits are adversely affected by the power exercised by government. And, as with labor unions, the strength of the government derives from its representation of the interests of the general public and its support by a majority of the public. When driven by the singular goal of maximizing profit, business chafes at both of these “unions.”
The strategy used by big business to “bust” the union that is the United States government is more readily understood in terms of its parallels to the ways big business deals with labor unions. The overall goal of big business would be to have no union at all or, and perhaps preferably, to have a union in which the top officials are corrupted and secretly in cahoots with the management of the business. The latter arrangement has the advantage of making union members feel as though they are being represented when, in fact, their interests are being compromised. Such a corrupted union can act to absorb the energy and anger of the workers and make it much harder for them to re-organize in a more effective organization. A corrupted government can serve the same function on a broader scale.
The means of corrupting union officials are 1) direct or indirect payments to officials, 2) facilitation of promotions for said officials, many of whom are employees of the company while representing the workers, and 3) the promise of high paying positions, perhaps managerial, after their tenure as a union official is over. If union leadership cannot be corrupted, sometimes it can be misled by the provision of false or misleading information. Another tactic used by management is division. This can be accomplished by dividing workers in varying work groups from one another for the purpose of bargaining or to convince them that one group is being treated better than another by the union leadership. A common method of dividing workers is to propose a “split-scale” under which employees hired after a certain date are offered reduced wages and benefits in return for existing employees retaining their benefits. Another standard method for weakening a union is often called “cutting the head off the snake.” This involves creating doubt that the leadership of the union is honestly and/or accurately representing the interests of the rank and file. And finally, management can convince the rank and file that union dues are too high or should not exist at all because management would be providing good wages, hours and working conditions even without the union. And last, there is the appeal to freedom; the right to work whether or not one pays union dues, thus bankrupting the union by forcing it to give away its product.
As can be seen, many if not all of these tactics have close parallels in the tactics used by big business to “bust” the union that is the United States government. The more divided the population and the less powerful the government, the more freedom there is for big business to exploit workers and the environment. Corrupting government so that it appears to be functioning but is, instead, acting in the interest of the ultra-wealthy and their corporations is perhaps the ideal situation for big business. This is the outcome that Sheldon Wolin calls an inverted tyranny . Note the parallel to converting union leaders to work for management rather than rank and file membership. When a democracy can be controlled “behind the scenes” by special interests while maintaining the illusion that citizens are still in control, an inverted tyranny exists. As opposed to a traditional tyranny (e.g., Hitler), there is no tyrant for citizens to revolt against and overthrow. There is no noticeable effort to suppress opposition voices and movements unless they become a serious threat to the inverted tyranny. For the most part, political opposition groups are ineffective in achieving their goals but serve the inverted tyranny by dissipating the civic energies of their constituents. This, sadly, has been the situation in the USA for several decades now. The behind the scenes operators of our system have been serving their own goals by such accomplishments as bank deregulation, non-enforcement of anti-trust laws, rollbacks of environmental regulations, and tax law changes that serve the oligarchy, not the general public.
Our collective amnesia about our government being a union whose purpose is to serve the public has been no accident. A protracted public relations program sponsored by various sources and coordinated by “think tanks” such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation and others has been aimed at decrying the faults of government while extoling the virtues of an unregulated market. Reagan’s “nine most frightening words in the English language” (“I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”) marked the official adoption of the republican assault on government. For at least the past four decades republican candidates have run on the theme that government can’t do anything right. Once in office, they have worked assiduously to make sure that is the case. As it turns out, it’s much easier to keep government from working well than it is to make government work well. Over those decades the government has, in fact, become less and less beneficent towards its citizens. And people wonder why “no brainer” policies like internet neutrality and having medicare bargain for lower drug prices are not adopted. (Low and behold, a week after the2020 election, DJT announces that Medicare will now pay only the lowest price for a drug that it sells for in any other nation. Where was this during the previous nearly 4 years of his administration?)
Our government is a union of all United States citizens. It is the only way ordinary citizens can stand up to powerful entities that would otherwise treat them unfairly. Over the past 50 years its capacity and inclination to work on behalf of average citizens has been under attack by a well-funded and successful conspiracy to vilify the very idea of union and to weaken our government’s ability to function on behalf of ordinary citizens. This effort is well described by Nancy MacLean in her book “Democracy in Chains” and in a 45-minute video available here. As she points out, the success of this program is dependent on stealth. If it were well known by the public, it would never be accepted. So one of our jobs as defenders of democracy is to make this program known to the public.
A second very important point made by MacLean is that the perpetrators of this takeover have realized that changing the rules under which we practice our democracy will have a much greater effect ultimately than changing the rulers. Therefore, changing the rules of government is where they have focused their attention. Expanding the ability of corporations to participate in electoral campaigns, increasing the role of money in campaigns, implementing onerous ID requirements for voting, requiring super-majorities to enact legislation, and ultimately, re-writing the US Constitution to make government beneficence an utter impossibility, are among the rule changes that will ultimately permanently deprive the general public of any means of opposing utter domination by brutish corporations and unembarrassedly greedy individuals.
Fix Democracy First is ideally positioned to address both of these strategies. Our public education program is well placed to make this hidden attack on democracy known to the public. Our non-partisan legislative efforts are directed at making rule changes that empower government to reflect the interests of rank-and-file citizens and enact policies that benefit the general public, not the will of a well-financed minority. Please join us in this effort.