It’s well known that we Americans are dissatisfied with our politicians in Washington. We have been for a long time. And since Congress is inhabited by just two political parties, that dissatisfaction is with the Democrats and Republicans (just two members of Congress are Independents, Senators King and Sanders).
Here’s how that dissatisfaction looks by the numbers. Currently, only 29% of adults identify as Republicans, and 28% as Democrats, while 40% identify as Independents. As of the first week of May 2017, according to an ongoing Gallup poll, just 20% of Americans approved of how Congress is doing its job. And although it has been lower during the period, the approval rating has not been above 30% since August 2009 (the 111th Congress, under Democratic control), and not above 40% since February 2005 (the 109th Congress, under Republican control).
Finally, an ABCNews/Washington Post poll conducted between April 17 and 20th, 2017 found that 62% of respondents viewed the Republican Party as being “out of touch with people’s concerns.” While 67% held that view about the Democratic Party.
Although the Parties are not the government, so much of what we know about government is filtered through the Parties. Through the President, and the Senate and House Majority and Minority Leaders, who are never introduced to us without their Party affiliation. When they speak to us publicly, they seem to speak first as members of their Party and only second a government representative. Since the laws and policies Congress puts in place bear no relationship to what the people by large majorities want them to do, they do not speak to our issues, they speak representing their Party’s and their donors’ view of government. When they do speak to our issues, they are either lying or paying lip service.
Aside from the relatively infrequent direct contact between a constituent and his/her Senator or Representative, the public’s access to government is typically through Party speak heard via news media. The real disconnect between the people and their government, confirmed by the above numbers, cries out for an explanation and a solution. Congress people rarely acknowledge this issue, let alone address it, despite its great significance for our democracy. What follows is an attempt to explain the disconnect and why it continues. The proposed solution is dealt with below.
There is a psychological phenomenon known as learned helplessness. It comes about when one is chronically subjected to a noxious situation that one is unable to resolve or escape from. The person learns to be helpless in that and similar situations and gives up trying to resist.
For many of us in this country, the economic and political situation has been extremely aversive to our person, our quality of life, our families, our future and the future of our kids. And try as we may, election after election, to change things for the better the situation remains the same or becomes worse. We have no apparent way to fix it and we cannot escape it. These are the perfect conditions in which to learn helplessness. Perhaps that is what accounts for the 47% who did not vote in the 2016 election. They simply gave up after learning they were helpless to make things better for themselves or others.
For the last 40 years, through three Democratic Administrations and three Republican Administrations, the vast majority of Americans have seen their earning power, wealth, standard of living, social mobility and future prospects for their children steadily decline. They have watched our once proud, vibrant and economically ascendant nation lose status and respect around the world. And they have observed as the great achievements of their labor: the interstate highway system, bridges, dams, tunnels, airports, national parks and water systems, have fallen into disrepair due to government neglect. For a people who love their country, watching it decline and take us with it is a highly aversive constellation of events. As patriots unable to come to the aid of the nation and each other is personally painful.
At the same time, as more and more of us are coming to realize, a small minority of our population has seen their fortunes move in the exact opposite direction, almost as though everything we have lost has found its way into the bank accounts and stock portfolios of the group we know as the 1 percent. Coincidental? Not hardly. Since the 1970’s, the corporate elite have been on a mission of their own to “take back the government” from you and I, having suffered major setbacks from the 1930’s through the Nixon years because of the many progressive reforms of the period. Curiously, those reforms took place during both Republican and Democratic Administrations alike. Superseding partisanship throughout that time was the attitude that government existed to serve the people. An attitude reborn in the Great Depression and brought to fulfillment through the sustained mass movements of a conscious and organized populace.
Once the business community went on the offensive in the 1970’s, corporations and business organizations moved their lobbying efforts from the financial capitol, New York City, to the political capitol of the nation. Washington, DC. Pragmatic to a fault, they operated as equal opportunity corrupters, buying political influence from Democrats and Republicans alike. The notion that government was there to serve the people had become quaint. The 1 percent had remarkable success in rolling back pesky profit inhibiting regulations and passing corporate-friendly legislation. But in the 1990’s they really hit the jackpot when Bill Clinton formally ended the Democrat’s alliance with America’s working people by throwing in totally with the donor class. Since that time both parties have been full subsidiaries of the financial/corporate cabal that is the unelected de facto government of the US.
The question must be asked. How did we let this happen? It did not slip by unnoticed. We have long realized that government has not been working for us. We are not a country of dummies. We have the brains, logic and rationality to solve all kinds of tough problems. Americans do that every day.
We were bested by an internal enemy. One that worked within the system, using (mostly) legal means to distort our economy and chip away at our democracy. The very democratic institutions that our nation and citizens rely upon were used by the financiers, corporations and other wealthy sectors to seize control. The freedoms that democratic government provides were abused to achieve that control. The Founders warned of this danger of representative democracy even as they established it. They told us that we must be vigilant for just the sort of usurpation that has occurred. We were insufficiently vigilant and crushingly passive in the face of the takeover.
Here we have the consequence of our learned helplessness. The all-powerful corporate control of government that permits no concessions to the will of the people. And allows us no sanctioned avenue of redress. Our own country has trapped us in awful conditions which we can neither readily fix nor escape.
Such helplessness is typically experienced on an individual level. At that level, it is easy to conclude that we are powerless to affect change. Recognizing that others feel helpless as well is a first step toward a group or class consciousness that facilitates hope, cooperation and joint problem solving. Once we join with others in our same situation new possibilities open and helplessness begins to fade. Organized social action is a great antidote for helplessness and hopelessness. And it is the ONLY thing that solves large societal problems.
As citizens, we are told that if we are unhappy with our government we can remedy the situation through the election process. If that were ever true, it is no longer so today and has not been so through the decades of decline. When we wondered out loud about it we were always answered with one form or another of “it’s the other party’s fault.” When the Dems are out of power, it’s the Repubs’ fault. When the Repubs are out of power, it’s the Dems’ fault. I don’t know how many buy that “explanation”, but by way of explaining 40 years of government consistently and utterly failing to protect the welfare of all but a handful of Americans, it is clearly ludicrous.
I have long believed that the Parties are but opposite sides of the same coin but pretend that they are adversaries. More recently, I have begun to compare our American political drama to the Good Cop, Bad Cop routine familiar to us from police shows on TV. Just to refresh, two detectives, obviously working together, are interviewing a suspect. They decide to use a tactic designed to break down the suspect’s natural inclination toward self-protection, in the hope the suspect will drop his guard and inadvertently or voluntarily implicate himself in the crime. One detective takes a harsh, aggressive approach toward the suspect, threatening and haranguing him/her with all manner of accusations, painting the very worst-case scenario for what will happen to this person if he/she does not cooperate. The other detective pretends to align with the suspect, acting as though he disagrees with the first detective, offering understanding, support and empathy. The message being communicated is: “That other cop is a grouchy, mean bastard. Don’t pay any attention to him. You can trust me. I can help you.”
I am sure that you can see where I am going with this. The Dems and Repubs are working together to neutralize our opposition to the crimes being committed against us by their boss, the 1 percent. Obviously, the Repubs are the Bad Cop. They are NOT acting. Their proposed and accomplished assaults on our standard of living, freedoms and rights are dead serious. The Dems are the actors. They pretend to be our friend, to truly represent us against those dastardly GOPers. They lie to us by still referring to themselves as the party of working people. They ask us to trust them, give them our votes. Like the Good Cops, their aim, however, is to disarm us, to have us believe we can safely put our future in their hands. They will take care of it. The specific message is that we do not need to protest or demonstrate, or to take matters into our own hands. Playing us off the Repubs, but in league with them, they seek to keep us docile, to have us hand them our power, to neutralize us.
The sum up is this. Consciousness is key. We must understand that there are millions of us in this same boat. That our individual sense of helplessness, if we have it, is real. We cannot fight the 1 percent on our own. But together we can accomplish anything. We have allies all around us, but allow artificial barriers to prevent us from seeking them out. Those barriers are: race, religion, sexual preference, education, age, employment status, nationality and more. Only one thing matters. We are ALL victims of the 1 percent and their lackeys. Our seemingly individual struggles all trace back to one source, the unelected, illegitimate ruling class. Once we understand this, solidarity with our brothers and sisters in struggle will be a natural outcome.
Consciousness will also prevent us from falling for the Good Cop, Bad Cop routine of the Parties. Neither is our friend. As we organize against the ruling class, we will need to build our own independent party as well. It will need to be a major political party alongside the others to consolidate the gains won by our movement.