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The Descent of a Nation


Before the electoral year of 2012 slinks into history, it is worth a comparative glance back to the electoral year of 1912 to give us some jolting perspective on how degraded our contemporary elections, voter performance and election expectations have become.

One hundred years ago, workers were marching, picketing and forming unions. Eugene Debs, the great labor leader and presidential candidate that year, spoke to outdoor labor rallies of 100,000 to 200,000 workers and their families gathered to protest low wages and working conditions.

Farmers were flexing their muscle with vibrant political activity in progressive parties and organizing farm cooperatives, through their granges, and pushing for proper regulation of the banks and railroads.

On the presidential ballot were Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party’s choice former president Theodore Roosevelt. Taft would be repudiated for being far too populist and too critical of corporations by today’s Republican Party. He favored national, not state, charters for “national corporations.”

The Democrats were committed to their platform of 1908 which asked “Shall the people rule? Is the overshadowing issue which manifests itself in all the questions now under discussion.” The context was shaped by the giant corporations (“called the trusts”) and their lobbies in Washington, which had to be curbed. The Supreme Court in 1911 had just ruled to break up the giant Standard Oil trust.

Women’s suffrage, abolition of child labor, workers’ compensation; states adopting the initiative, referendum, and recall; the eight-hour work day, minimum wage laws (Massachusetts was the first in 1912), taxing corporate profits and the “inheritance of fortunes,” were some of the many hot issues of 1912.

Taft, Wilson and Roosevelt fought over who was the most progressive. Theodore Roosevelt in an August 1912 speech declared that “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”

While Wilson repeatedly said that the country’s “salvation required the dissolution of the evil partnership between the government and the trusts.”

Apart from how deeply these candidates believed in what they said, they repeated their campaign pledges again and again because the people were rising and breathing down their necks with demands.

Fast forward to 2012 to the far greater grip of big business on government and elections. So much so that both major parties offer no solution to the “too big to fail” perch of the giant banks and additional corporate behemoths, other than to continue bailing them out with taxpayer dollars and under-regulating them to boot.

Entrepreneur, lawyer, shareholder advocate, and author, Robert A. Monks wrote recently that “American corporations today enjoy an absolute reign. They and they alone have the power to control the rules under which they function. Corporations, and the most powerful CEOs acting through them, have effectively seized authority over the United States without assuming any of the responsibilities of dominion.”

Was corporate domination the theme of the recent Republican and Democratic conventions? Only to the extent to which hospitality parties put on by the drug, banking, insurance, energy and other industries had the best booze, food and other allurements.

The Conventions, and their scripted speeches off the PAC-greased election trails, were congealed, b.s.

The leader of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, was trotted out for a few minutes before a nationwide television audience to ignore mentioning both his own priority of legislating “the card check” for union organizing and the needs of 30 million American workers making less than workers made in 1968, inflation-adjusted, due to a frozen minimum wage. Eugene Debs, one of Trumka’s heroes, not only made establishing the minimum wage one of his clarion calls, but he indefatigably ran for president in 1912 on the Socialist Party ticket garnering 900,000 votes (equal to about 5 million votes today) and pushing the major candidates and parties from the grass roots.

In 2012, third-party candidates were blocked from the debates, given virtually no media, obstructed from access to the ballots and otherwise harassed by officialdom.

The two major parties were like corporate lapdogs fed daily with corporate cash to shut up about corporate crime, corporate tax evasion, corporate control of government, corporate abuses of consumers, toxic chemicals and fossil fuels jeopardizing air, water, soil and the climate, corporate abandonment of American labor to fascist and communist regimes abroad, facilitated by the global trade agreements, drafted by their corporate lawyers, corporate corruption of electoral campaigns integrity, corporate fine-print contract servitude, corporate closing of courtroom doors to individuals wrongfully harmed, and the draining corporate-bred military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address.

The Democrats from Obama to the Congressional leadership and candidates took corporate oaths, they wouldn’t even raise the minimum wage issue to “catch up to 1968” for 30 million Americans and their impoverished families laboring for Walmart, McDonald’s and other low-wage companies.

Meanwhile, the clenched teeth Republicans with their vacuumed brains nominated Mitt Romney who, for years, led the Bain Consulting Group to, in Monk’s words, “reap untold millions in profits by using borrowed capital to buy companies, then sucking them dry, leaving the remains for bankruptcy referees to sort through, and stashing vast profits in off-shore tax havens.” In 1912, such an aspiring oligarch would have been laughed away.

Let’s face it, our country is in crisis and wallowing in disgust, discouragement and despair won’t turn it around. Nor will apathy, accepted powerlessness or preoccupation with those weapons of mass distraction we hold in our hands or watch on our screens just about everywhere.

Only together can we make the difference, with far better modes of communication and transportation than our poor forebears, who still managed to rise up and show up more than 100 years ago to make their country better for them and us. (See for my take on this patriotic mission of immediate renewal as well as respect for future generations.)

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition



Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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