Summary: Americans think the nation is heading in the wrong direction. My biggest worries are 1) that our democracy is increasingly being transformed by the influence of big money into a plutocracy, and 2) we are failing to act vigorously to address the pressing emergency of global climate change. On both issues, the Republicans are playing a darkly destructive role, while the Democrats are failing to press the battle with the necessary vigor. That pattern reveals the essential core of America's national crisis.
(This piece ran as an op/ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch this spring.)
For years, the polls show, a substantial majority of Americans have been unhappy about where our nation is headed. But we don't all see the same dangers or agree on what to do about them. For example, the fear of millions that Obamacare is another step toward a socialist tyranny has little to do with reality. This distraction is indeed just one more symptom of what's gone wrong.
Here are my two most important areas of concern:
** The accelerating replacement of government by and for the people by government by and for big money.
Both crises reveal a pathological political dynamic darkening the prospects for our nation and its people.
The plutocratic threat to our democracy has long been visible, but not in living memory has our descent into the rule of the money system gone so deep.
When the aspirants to the presidency from one of our two major political parties travel to Las Vegas to pay court to an unappealing multi-billionaire -- to "kiss his ring," as some in the media say -- it is all too clear that vast and increasing inequalities of wealth are translating into unjust inequalities of power. When a senator like Dick Durbin of Illinois tells us that every senator must spend hours every day of a six-year term reaching out to rich people for campaign dollars in order to stay in office, one must conclude that our "representatives" will give greater weight to the desires of the wealthy than to those of the average citizen.
This has been confirmed in a recent article in Perspectives on Politics by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University. Their extensive empirical study reveals that "ordinary citizens...have little or no independent influence on policy at all." On the other hand, wealthy citizens have "a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy, more so than any other set of actors"
Both our major political parties are contaminated with this undemocratic impulse to follow the money. Yet the two parties differ.
Starting in the 1970s and again in the 2000s, Congress tried to put at least minor obstacles in the way of "one dollar, one vote" displacing "one person, one vote." But in two decisions -- Citizens United v FEC and McCutcheon v FEC-- the Supreme Court leveled even these speed bumps, hastening our descent into plutocracy. Especially in the second of these decisions, party differences were clear: The five justices in the majority -who pretended that, in the absence of outright bribery, infusion of unlimited money into campaigns would have no corrupting effects -- were all Republican appointees. All four who signed onto the powerful, stinging dissent were Democratic appointees.
To move in the right direction, either the Republicans will have to completely change directions, or the Democrats will have to become bolder in pressing the battle. Neither is happening.
We see much the same pattern with respect to climate disruption.