Fear will set us free.
The Democratic and the professional elites whom Frank excoriates are, as he points out, morally bankrupt, but they are only one piece of the fake democracy that characterizes our system of “inverted totalitarianism.” The problem is not only liberals who are not liberal; it is also conservatives, once identified with small government, the rule of law and fiscal responsibility, who are not conservative. It is a court system that has abandoned justice and rather than defend constitutional rights has steadily stripped them from us through judicial fiat. It is a Congress that does not legislate but instead permits lobbyists and corporations to write legislation. It is a press, desperate for advertising dollars and often owned by large corporations, that does not practice journalism. It is academics, commentators and public intellectuals, often paid by corporate think tanks, who function as shameless cheerleaders for the neoliberal and imperial establishment and mock the concept of independent and critical thought.
During Barack Obama’s administration there has been near-total continuity with the administration of George W. Bush, especially regarding mass surveillance, endless war and the failure to regulate Wall Street. This is because the mechanisms of corporate power embodied in the deep state do not change with election cycles. The election of Donald Trump, however distasteful, would not radically alter corporate control over our lives. The corporate state is impervious to political personalities. If Trump continues to rise in the public opinion polls, the corporate backers of Hillary Clinton will start funding him instead. They know Trump will prostitute himself to money as assiduously as Clinton will.
Once corporate money started to pour into the Democratic Party in the early 1970s, legislation that sought to check or regulate corporate power—the auto and highway safety laws, oil pipeline safety laws, product safety laws, the revised Clean Air Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the measure that established the Environmental Protection Agency—was no longer possible. The Democrats began to compete with the Republicans to propose legislation that would provide tax loopholes for corporations. Such legislation now legally permits oligarchs such as Trump and corporations to engage in a de facto tax boycott. The system, designed to exclusively serve corporate power, fell into political paralysis. The consent of the governed became a joke.
“[Bill] Clinton was an enemy of environmental, consumer, and worker issues,” Nader said. “He broke the modest welfare system for single moms. He sold out to the agribusiness companies. He allowed huge mergers in a bill he signed for the communications and the media giants, all in 1996, and this was quite apart from bombing Iraq illegally, killing civilians. He never opposed a swollen military budget that was unauditable.
“If you can smile and have the right rhetoric—Reagan did that, too—you get away with it,” Nader said. “… All you’ve got to do in politics is say the right thing, even though your whole record is contrary, and you’re on your way.”
Those agencies tasked with protecting the citizen from corporate abuse were consciously underfunded or turned over to corporate-approved staff members. Politics, like very other aspect of American life, was commercialized. Everything, from public lands to politicians, was now for sale.
“There’s got to be sanctuaries in a democratic society where nothing is for sale,” Nader said. “Government shouldn’t be for sale. Childhood should not be commercialized and be for sale. The environment shouldn’t be for sale. Our genetic inheritance shouldn’t be for sale. Elections shouldn’t be for sale. They’re all for sale now.”
But Frank fails to grasp that, as C. Wright Mills understood, the Republican and the Democratic elites, along with our financial and corporate elites, are one entity. They are formed in the same institutions, run in the same social circles and cross-pollinate like bees. This has been true since the country’s formation. Harvard and Yale were designed, like Oxford and Cambridge in Britain, to perpetuate the plutocracy. They do an admirable job.
Hillary Clinton sat in the front row for Donald Trump’s third wedding. And Chelsea Clinton, living in a multimillion-dollar penthouse in New York City, was until the current presidential campaign a close friend of Ivanka Trump. George W. Bush, although doltish and inept, graduated from Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School. His appointees were no less steeped in elitist Ivy League credentials than those around Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. Paul Wolfowitz attended Cornell and the University of Chicago. Donald Rumsfeld went to Princeton. Henry “Hank” Paulson graduated from Dartmouth and Harvard Business School before working for Goldman Sachs. Lewis “Scooter” Libby went to Yale and Columbia Law School (as well as the pre-prep school that I attended). Joshua Bolten, a chief of staff for President George W. Bush, went to Princeton and Stanford Law School.
The problem is not the liberal elites. The problem is the elites. They serve the same ideology. They work in the same financial institutions, hedge funds and foundations, including the Council on Foreign Relations, where government officials often are parked when they are out of power. They belong to the same clubs. They are stunted technocrats who function as systems managers for corporate capitalism. And no class of courtiers, going back to those that populated the Ottoman palaces, Versailles or the Forbidden City, has ever transformed itself into a responsible elite. They are, as John Ralston Saul writes, “hedonists of power.”
Contrary to what Frank asserts, the Democratic Party was never the party of the people. It functioned, at best, as a safety valve during periods of discontent. It made possible modest reforms. It was tolerated by the elites because it set the limits of dissent. It permitted a critique of the excesses of the system but never a critique of capitalism, the structures of power or the supposed virtues of those who exercise power. Noam Chomsky has amply elucidated the role of liberals in a capitalist democracy. The liberal class is used to discredit radicals, like Chomsky, and radical movements. It carries out reforms, which are often later revoked, when capitalism extracts too much blood or when it breaks down as it did in the 1930s.
Politics is a game of fear. And if you lose the capacity to make the power elites afraid, you become their plaything. This, in the simplest terms, is what has happened to us.