In my post-journalism retirement, I drive rideshare in the Southern Indiana college town of Bloomington. Every week features random encounters with about 75 citizens who hail from all walks of local life: people of all colors, races and genders, hourly workers, university professors, probationers, college students, the disabled, addicts, etc.
They don’t all chat; and those who do don’t always follow my leads into politics and society. But enough of the 8,000-plus passengers I’ve driven in four years have gone with me that I can draw some firm conclusions.
First, I can say with 100% certainty that, when conversations do turn political, they all respond with reflexive nods of recognition when I say: “The overriding problem in America today is that all of the resources go to the handful at the top, and the rest of us are left to fight for the scraps.”
Second, they all appreciate former President Jimmy Carter’s 2015 admonition that the United States is not a democracy, but, rather, an “oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” – in other words, a government of, by and for the wealthy elites, a.k.a. a kleptocracy.
Carter wasn’t the first to state the obvious. In September 2014, the BBC report US is an oligarchy, not a democracy focused on a Cambridge University Press article that reached the same conclusion.
“Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence,” researchers from Princeton and Northwestern concluded.
Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, bribery is not only unlimited, it has become institutionalized corruption. The court ruled that, with respect to political speech, corporations and other groups have First Amendment rights. And, despite their relatively unlimited resources, there can be no limits on their political spending.
“The justices who voted with the majority assumed that independent spending cannot be corrupt and that the spending would be transparent,” the Brennan Center for Justice said on the ruling’s 10-year anniversary. “But both assumptions have proven to be incorrect.”
Super PACS, enabled by Citizens United, “empower the wealthiest donors, and the expansion of dark money through shadowy nonprofits that don’t disclose their donors,” Brennan says.
Open Secrets estimates dark money expenditures totaled $1 billion in 2020.
When their direct contributions to candidates are piled atop dark money, those economics elites have purchased the government outright.
The top 10 recipients of lobbyist funds thus far in 2022 reflect power for sale, not party or ideology, as Open Secrets reports. Six Democrats and four Republicans are led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer ($760,865) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy ($320,899).
And while Democrats pretend the corruption is antithetical to democracy, 60% of the $51 million donated by the top 10 corporate contributors in the Citizens United age went to Democrats, according to data from Business Insider.
On July 15, Politico reported that, in the weeks before West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin once again nuked congressional action on climate change, he accepted contributions from executives at Georgia Power, Dominion Energy, Concord Energy, Southern Company Gas and the Alaska Oil & Gas Association, as well as PACs for at least four other fossil fuel interests.
Not only do the wealthy elites own the U.S. Congress, they are the Congress. As of 2020, Open Secrets reports, the median net worth of the 535 elected senators and representatives is just over a million dollars. More than half are actual millionaires and, again, they’re not defined by party label.
Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, a health care mogul, is the wealthiest, with nearly $260 million in personal assets. Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, a venture capitalist, is a close second, at $214 million.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ranks 10th, with assets of $115 million.
Reaganism’s unchecked capitalism has predictably produced some of the greatest economic inequality since slavery.
“As of 2016, upper-income families had 7.4 times as much wealth as middle-income families and 75 times as much wealth as lower-income families,” a Jan. 9, 2020, Pew survey said. “These ratios are up from 3.4 and 28 in 1983, respectively.”
The U.S wealth gap has grown exponentially in the 21st century. Only upper-income families grew their wealth from 2001 to 2016, adding 33% at the median, the survey continued. The median net worth for middle-income families shrunk 20%; for lower-income families, it fell 45%.
Such gross inequality, which leaves the many literally fighting for scraps, produces human misery and desperation, which further aggravates the social ills prevalent throughout 21st century American society – crime in general, gun crime in particular; mass shootings and other forms of domestic, political and random violence; racial, religious and cultural animus; and drug addiction, especially.
Like the corruption that underpins it, inequality is a non-ideological phenomenon and, in fact, is a precipitating force in the Second American Civil War.
Charlottesville-style, neo-Nazi extremism is rooted in the fall of a formerly privileged class that was laid to waste by the American oligarchy and is easily manipulated into blaming immigrants, Blacks and Jews. It’s in part echoes of Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound” and George Wallace’s “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Most of Reaganism’s new poor, whose wealth has been redistributed to the oligarchs by corrupt politicians since the 1980s, are uneducated working-class whites, unknown numbers of whom are standing by and waiting for orders for the next battle in CW II.
Disenfranchised whites constitute a fair number of my rideshare passengers, and they too recognize the misery caused by the forces of inequality and oligarchy, even if they don’t understand the nuances.
As Tom Waits put it: “Misery’s the river of the world,” and our toxic torrent’s headwaters are clear.
It’s the corruption, stupid.