Here's what the latest census data tell us: in 2011, the middle class shrank to "an all-time low" (as the Washington Post headline had it), while the income of the wealthiest Americans continued to climb. The poverty rate leveled off at a still shuddering 15%, with more than one of every five Americans under eighteen living in poverty. The Gini Index, a measure of income inequality, rose by 1.6%, the "biggest one-year increase in almost two decades."
In a way, of course, this should be no news at all. Middle-class wealth has taken a staggering hit since the economic meltdown of 2007 (and African American and Hispanic wealth has gone through the floor). This disaster, linked to the Great Recession, has had a sideline effect. On the theory that what goes up must come down, money flooding out of American households and into the coffers of the incredibly wealthy and their corporate cronies has also been flowing back down in tidal amounts. It's been pouring biblically into this season's political campaign.
The news out of the dog days of August, for example, was that the Obama and Romney campaigns had raised a total of more than $225 million dollars that month alone. (In the 1984 presidential campaign between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, the two candidates raised a "mere" $202 million during that whole election season!) And, of course, those figures don't even include the dollars filling Super PACs to the bursting point and the "dark money" going into the 501(c)(4)s that don't have to disclose where their contributions even come from. (Eight of the top 10 Super PACs are "conservative," reports the Daily Beast, and 77% of all contributions this campaign season will come from "business interests," according to the invaluable Open Secrets website.)
We now know as well that the 2012 presidential campaign is going to cost in the somewhere-over-the-rainbow range of $2.5 billion, and the total election season a record near-$6 billion, with startling amounts of that money going into attack ads. (You can practically hear TV and radio station owners popping the champagne corks.) This time around, the Obama campaign is relying heavily not on its famed base of small donors but on the staggeringly wealthy; and Mitt Romney is betting on the money pouring into his campaign war chest from the financial sector and oil and gas types (who are also running a gusher of anti-Obama TV ads). Both candidates are spending unheard of amounts of time not on the campaign trail but raising money from the obscenely wealthy.
In other words, the 1% (or less) are using money vacuumed out of our world to invest in "democratic" politics -- and as with any other investment, they naturally expect a return, whichever party ends up in the White House. Isn't it time, under the circumstances, to bring back a few of those choice words like "plutocrat" and "monied interests" from the late nineteenth century, that previous moment when a Gilded Age fused with a round of recessions and depressions? Or as Lewis Lapham suggests today, how about "oligarchy" as the new form of American democracy? The famed former editor of Harper's Magazine now edits Lapham's Quarterly, which, four times a year, brilliantly unites some of the most provocative and original voices in history around a single topic. (You can subscribe to it by clicking here.) TomDispatch thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive online look at his fierce take on American electoral politics in 2012, the introduction to the magazine's fall issue. Tom
Feast of Fools
How American Democracy Became the Property of a Commercial Oligarchy
By Lewis H. Lapham
[A longer version of this essay appears in "Politics," the Fall 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly; this slightly shortened version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]
All power corrupts but some must govern. -- John le Carre'
The ritual performance of the legend of democracy in the autumn of 2012 promises the conspicuous consumption of $5.8 billion, enough money, thank God, to prove that our flag is still there. Forbidden the use of words apt to depress a Q Score or disturb a Gallup poll, the candidates stand as product placements meant to be seen instead of heard, their quality to be inferred from the cost of their manufacture. The sponsors of the event, generous to a fault but careful to remain anonymous, dress it up with the bursting in air of star-spangled photo ops, abundant assortments of multiflavored sound bites, and the candidates so well-contrived that they can be played for jokes, presented as game-show contestants, or posed as noble knights-at-arms setting forth on vision quests, enduring the trials by klieg light, until on election night they come to judgment before the throne of cameras by whom and for whom they were produced.
Best of all, at least from the point of view of the commercial oligarchy paying for both the politicians and the press coverage, the issue is never about the why of who owes what to whom, only about the how much and when, or if, the check is in the mail. No loose talk about what is meant by the word democracy or in what ways it refers to the cherished hope of liberty embodied in the history of a courageous people.
The campaigns don't favor the voters with the gratitude and respect owed to their standing as valuable citizens participant in the making of such a thing as a common good. They stay on message with their parsing of democracy as the ancient Greek name for the American Express card, picturing the great, good American place as a Florida resort hotel wherein all present receive the privileges and comforts owed to their status as valued customers, invited to convert the practice of citizenship into the art of shopping, to select wisely from the campaign advertisements, texting A for Yes, B for No.
The sales pitch bends down to the electorate as if to a crowd of restless children, deems the body politic incapable of generous impulse, selfless motive, or creative thought, delivers the insult with a headwaiter's condescending smile. How then expect the people to trust a government that invests no trust in them? Why the surprise that over the last 30 years the voting public has been giving ever-louder voice to its contempt for any and all politicians, no matter what their color, creed, prior arrest record, or sexual affiliation? The congressional disapproval rating (78% earlier this year) correlates with the estimates of low attendance among young voters (down 20% from 2008) at the November polls.
Democracy as an ATM
If democracy means anything at all (if it isn't what the late Gore Vidal called "the national nonsense-word"), it is the holding of one's fellow citizens in thoughtful regard, not because they are beautiful or rich or famous, but because they are one's fellow citizens. Republican democracy is a shared work of the imagination among people of myriad talents, interests, voices, and generations that proceeds on the premise that the labor never ends, entails a ceaseless making and remaking of its laws and customs, i.e., a sentient organism as opposed to an ATM, the government an us, not a them.
Contrary to the contemporary view of politics as a rat's nest of paltry swindling, Niccolò Machiavelli, the fifteenth-century courtier and political theorist, rates it as the most worthy of human endeavors when supported by a citizenry possessed of the will to act rather than the wish to be cared for. Without the "affection of peoples for self-government"cities have never increased either in dominion or wealth."