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Billionaire Power and Politics

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

I watched the last two Democratic presidential debates with heavy heart. Not a single question about the engulfing catastrophe of climate change. The warming waters of Lake Michigan are no longer hospitable to perch. However, the billionaire owners of ABC and CBS are not interested if the restaurants in Milwaukee frying perch. They feel uncomfortable reminding the American people of the coming anthropogenic storm and potential hunger. They like the money they make from advertising fossil fuels and the massive industry they spawned: petrochemicals, pesticides, electricity power companies, and the car economy. Besides, Trump, the Republican Party and the executives of the largest fossil fuel corporations deny global warming. Only Senator Bernie Sanders and billionaire Tom Steyer mentioned climate change.

The television oligarchs running the “debates” ask divisive and misleading questions about the economy and health care, trapping the Democrats in guessing how many trillions it would cost to implement Sanders’ imperative that health care is a human right, and that all Americans deserve medical services.

Then the television media sponsoring the debates turn their arrows against Sanders who won the Nevada contest. They call him socialist and radical, epithets Americans associate with the Soviet Union, China and Cuba.

Steyer agrees with Sanders about corporate and billionaire corruption. He avoids slandering Sanders. But the other politicians running for president (billionaire Michael Bloomberg, vice president Joe Biden, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, and former small city-mayor Pete Buttigieg) bite the TV bait and follow up with insults. They cannot grasp why the senator from Vermont would take pride describing himself as a socialist with democratic vision for an economy working for all, rather than the 0.1 percent of Americans who are billionaires. They seem to be oblivious to the political reality all around them: that America is a plutocracy.

Both Plato and Aristotle denounced the rule of the rich – plutocracy. A few rich men grab political power, becoming oligarchs and, eventually, tyrants.

An oligarchy of rich Athenian farmers (equivalent to our billionaires) enslaved so many family farmers in sixth century BCE, that Athens faced the prospect of civil war. Cool minds prevailed and politicians invited Solon to extricate Athens from the tyranny of the rich. Solon, a lawgiver and poet, forgave debts and mortgages and abolished serfdom. He wrote he removed the boundary stones of slavery and freed those who had been thrown to shameful servitude, trembling before their masters (Aristotle, Constitution of Athens 12.4).

Aristotle was not exactly an admirer of democracy in Athens. The Peloponnesian War in late fourth century BCE had tarnished its reputation. Nevertheless, Aristotle was a keen observer and student of power and politics. He said the heartbeat of democracy was its virtue of rule and be ruled (Politics 1317b17-1318a10).

This virtue defines democracy to this day. But how can Americans trust their government and democracy under the control of Trump? They rightly demand the end of his presidency, though they have yet to appreciate the threat of the billionaires. They are still confused by socialism and capitalism.

The billionaires probably make up less than 0.1 percent but own most of the wealth of the country. They are running America and are determined to maintain their monopoly of power. Most of them like Trump because he bribed them with tax cuts. They plan to buy the presidency for him.

Anand Giridharadas, an editor at Time Magazine, has thought about the American schizophrenia over socialism and capitalism, rarely making sense of the political importance of the concepts and economies and power they represent. He describes the 2020 election as the “billionaire election” and the billionaire referendum. He is right that “billionaire power is excessive and is suffocating the American dream.”

Myths die hard. The oligarchs of television and newspapers like the existing political parties. They make tons of money from the policies compromised politicians enact in support of privilege. Billionaires are the greatest beneficiaries of tax cuts, tax havens, paying no taxes, the export of well-paying American jobs, freezing workers to the salaries of the 1970s, and environmental deregulation and ecocide.

Yes, pollution kills and deforms people and wildlife. But who is watching? Not the corporate-funded large environmental organizations. Not the doctors and health experts who make billions from a sick society. Not the political appointees of Trump at EPA. Their sole responsibility is to keep environmental and public health harm under wraps. Trump keeps saying we have the cleanest air and water.

The Republican Party looks at Trump as another Reagan who promotes “conservative” values. I often wonder if these well-heeled rich Americans look at their children and  grandchildren in the eyes assuring them of a healthy future in the midst of the tornadoes of climate and political change.

Giridharadas says the billionaires are even stealing the future:

“When… the future, progress, rains on us, who gets it? Who harvests the rainwater?…. the future has become a thing that is privately gated and enjoyed and monopolized by very few people, which means that you can be living in an age where extraordinary things are being invented, the internet is being invented, medical advances are happening, but if you are not in the gated community that enjoys the fruits of the future, you are stuck in 1979. And that’s true as a matter of wages for many people. It’s true as a matter of health access for many people. It’s true as a matter of information access for many people, who are listening to media that is distorting their minds. And I think what’s at stake in 2020 is we wake up to the idea that either we are going to resign ourselves to living in a country that billionaires rule, or we’re going to actually muster the gumption to remind billionaires that they are living in our country.”

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Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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