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Bernie Sanders vs. the Corporatocracy


We are no longer a nation of self-governing people. Our democracy has been captured by American corporate enterprise, and now we confront a documented plutocracy in its place. If we intend to challenge this and contest it, we will need a President Sanders in the White House.

Only candidate Sanders has fashioned a presidential campaign around this crisis which, for thoughtful citizens, is by far the most pressing issue in contemporary public affairs. (Note the record breaking attendance at Sanders’ rallies.) He alone is speaking truth to power regarding it. Hillary Clinton and the Republican candidates are either indifferent to the issue or ignorant of it, so none of their prospective presidencies can be expected to address it.

Corporatocracy is the power to which Mr. Sanders is speaking. It is defined in the New Oxford American Dictionary as “a society…that is governed or controlled by corporations.” In such a society public policy is crafted not to advance the general well being of the people, but to protect, enhance, or create profit opportunities for hegemonic corporations.

This is America today: our democracy has been supplanted, transformed by the engines of corporate lobbying and the influence of corporate campaign contributions.

The source of the calamity is a Supreme Court case in 1886, the infamous Santa Clara County decision. It declared corporations to be legal persons—bona fide U.S. citizens with rights fully protected by the Constitution. (The precedent established by the case is technically illegal, but it has endured nevertheless.) Corporate lobbying, consequently, is an exercise of the right to petition. And the right of free speech legalizes corporate campaign contributions, because spending money is a form of speaking—which the Court affirmed most recently in Citizens United.

A document as a person and a dollar as a word are absurd equivalents, prima facie, but both are the law of the land.

Here is the truth Mr. Sanders is speaking. Except for a privileged few, the wealth and incomes of American families are systematically declining as matters of public policy, arguably for the first time in our history. Economic security is fading for nearly all of us. Standards of living are slipping.

The privileged few are the beneficiaries of corporatocracy: corporate executives and directors, major stockholders, Wall Street bankers and brokers, top-tier Washington lobbyists, holders of inherited wealth, etc. De facto plutocrats, these are the country’s richest families whose wealth and incomes, in vivid contrast, are steadily rising.

There is no doubt about this: the data supporting it is conclusive. And there is no foreseeable reversal of either trend; left unaltered they point eventually, unerringly to a polarized society of dizzying luxury and crushing squalor—a Hunger Games scenario. Some may call this hyperbole and and others may find comfort in ignoring it, but folk wisdom is unyielding here: if somethin’ don’t change, we’re gonna git where we’re headed. So something must change. A chaotic, intolerable social structure is a frightening prospect, and violence is not unthinkable: there are sobering historical precedents of angry citizens taking to the streets.

The maldistribution of wealth and incomes we suffer could not occur in a functioning democracy: self-governing people would never impoverish the many to enrich the few.

No, corporatocracy is directly and exclusively responsible here. Corporocratic governance relentlessly promotes public policies favoring corporate interests over the public good—and just as relentlessly stifles policies that might do otherwise.

We could have but we do not, for example, a national industrial policy prohibiting or restricting the export of American jobs—a policy clearly in the public interest. In its absence, American corporations over the past several decades profited immensely from labor arbitrage: shifting high paying manufacturing and white-collar professional jobs to lower-wage countries. From 1992 through 2010, some 28.7 million such jobs were exported and millions more have been since. If alternate employment could be found at all, it was typically in the lower-paid service sector. This is the greatest single cause of declining family incomes, but many other factors contribute, such as the corporocratic savaging of labor unions.

Repealing the Glass-Steagall Act during the Clinton Administration is an iconic example of enacting public policies for direct corporate benefit—even at great cost to the public. Wall Street banks, brokerages, and insurance companies sought the repeal, they were quickly accommodated, and they profited extravagantly—until the housing bubble they created collapsed, threatening their bankruptcy. Whereupon corporatocracy fashioned a bailout for them, with trillions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. The stock market and the general economy crashed, driving mortgages under water, decimating 401K’s, and forcing many who lost their jobs to liquidate their savings. The decline in family wealth was a direct consequence.

These intertwined issues, the bleak future for American families and the displacement of American democracy, form the core of Mr. Sanders’ campaign. “Enough is enough!” he insists, proposing a political revolution to address them.

Nothing less than revolution will challenge the corporate dominance of our politics and regain our working democracy once more. Among all the presidential candidates Mr. Sanders alone can undertake the task. Hillary Clinton’s handicap is her decades of comfortable experience immersed in the corporatocracy, working its levers, and the substantial corporate financing of her campaigns. She senses no need for the recapture of democracy. If elected, her presidency will offer little more than triangulated tweaking of peripheral issues, to stay within the corporocratic comfort zone. The diverging social trends would continue and so would the potential for violence.

The Republicans’ handicap is their ideology. In denying any value of any sort in any public enterprise (except the Department of Defense), they have furthered corporatocracy’s stranglehold at every turn. A Republican presidency would render our situation unthinkably worse, almost guaranteeing violence.

Will a President Sanders, can a President Sanders retrieve American democracy during his tenure? No, this will take decades, maybe a generation or more. It will require a return to sanity respecting the status and role of the corporation: finally and totally rejecting the absurdity of legal corporate personhood, ultimately by Constitutional amendment or by overturning Santa Clara County.

Corporations fundamentally are commercial organizations providing goods and services to the marketplace, which they typically do efficiently and well. But there is utterly no reason to have corporations involved in crafting public policy, much less to control the process. Absent legal personhood, they can be prohibited from doing so. And they must be: no corporate lobbying, no corporate campaign contributions, only American people—real, live, sentient ones—deciding what’s right and good for the American people.

Regaining our democracy will call for a fight as ugly as anything since the Civil War— hopefully without the bloodshed. Corporatocracy and its wealthy and powerful beneficiaries will not yield quickly or easily.

Mr. Sanders may not live to see the revolution successfully completed. But a President Sanders can and will undertake it, injecting a new set of aspirations and expectations into the public discourse, and setting a trajectory of substantive reform. He will unleash a new narrative, a revolution in awareness and creative thought about the nature of American politics and what it might become once more.

A revolution is on our radar screen. It will be peaceful and gradual or violent and abrupt.

Only by consciously choosing the first of these can we confidently preclude the other.

Richard W. Behan lives in Corvallis, Oregon. He can be reached at:

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