It’s Time for a Populist Culture War on Corruption
The latest attack on net neutrality provides a perfect opportunity to reassess the operating integrity of our government and the effectiveness of our well-worn responses. Over the past week, I’ve seen requests to sign petitions, requests to call my representatives and requests to donate to relevant organizations to continue their work within the system. But, what if the system is fundamentally broken? What if it’s evolved to work against our interests?
Before this recent attack on net neutrality, there was the draconian Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA), the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA, which recently re-emerged in a new draft as CISA), the proposed Comcast – Time Warner merger and, of course, Edward Snowden’s dramatic revelations about NSA overreach and privacy violations. Why is it that we have to resist repetitive attacks on fundamental democratic values by our own elected representatives? Why is it that we never win?
Lately, I’ve been telling people that the U.S. political system has essentially jumped the shark, a term used to describe that moment when a television series rapidly declines in quality. At this point, our government is so inherently corrupted by the influence of money that it no longer functions as a democracy.
A recent Princeton Study confirms this. One of its authors, Martin Gilens states, “contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” We’re also fooled into complacency because “the politics of average Americans and affluent Americans sometimes does overlap. This is merely a coincidence, the report says, with the interests of the average American being served almost exclusively when it also serves those of the richest 10 percent.”
Several key issues led me to this conclusion personally:
Gun violence: In 2011, someone shot a U.S. Congresswoman in the head and in 2012, another killed twenty elementary school children. Mass shootings occur regularly (there was another today as I wrote this). Gun violence is a rising public health issue, currently the second leading cause of death in young people aged 15 to 24. Yet, despite all of this, there has been no reform on this issue.
Climate change: Scientists generally agree that the 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 is the safe maximum for preserving life as we know it on earth, yet last May, CO2 surpassed 400 ppm. Last month, an iceberg six times the size of Manhattan broke off Antarctica and is floating in the open ocean. Ocean acidification is disintegrating the basic building blocks of our food chain. All of this is in the wake of the massive Deepwater gulf oil spill. Not only has no progressive reform taken place but the President won’t even kill the noxious KXL pipeline.
The wealth gap: The top .1% of the wealthiest Americans hold 22% of the country’s overall wealth (you read that right, the top tenth of one percent). The wealthiest 5% of Americans control more than 60% of overall wealth. More disparity is unimaginable in a democracy.
We typically respond to these kinds of challenges by supporting single issue advocacy organizations but clearly this approach is not getting us very far. Single issue organizing may be an effective strategy for indefinitely funding an advocacy non-profit, but it does not appear to be a winning strategy politically. I’m no longer optimistic that organizations working within the system in this way will bring about the changes that we need.
The status quo provides a daily victory for the forces of corruption, especially with issues such as climate change; we’re literally giving away our ecological future to present day profiteers.
While I pledged support for Lessig’s recent proposal to build an anti-corruption SuperPac and Mayor Bloomberg’s $50 million fund to fight for common sense gun control, I’m not sure these approaches address the root of the problem. Lessig’s SuperPac puts Americans into a financial arms race with the Koch Brothers and most of corporate America. A democracy shouldn’t require a concerned billionaire to fight serious threats.
Instead, I’m most inspired by the radical victories won on gay marriage and marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington State. In just a few years, both issues have reversed not only public opinion but law as well.
In the case of gay marriage, the resulting cultural change has made it toxic for the right wing to stand against marriage equality. This was unimaginable a few years ago. Incredibly, up from 37% in 2003, 59% of Americans now approve of same-sex marriage (similarly, up from 35% in 2005, 58% of Americans now approve of marijuana legalization).
Marriage equality is currently beginning a victory lap through the courts bowling over most opposition and it’s gradually becoming culturally unacceptable to publicly stand against same sex marriage (the overwhelmingly positive coverage of Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend during last weekend’s NFL draft is a related example of this sea change).
While I know that both of these issues fought extended cultural battles (often with single issue advocacy organizations), each has had massively rapid reversals in cultural acceptance during a time in which our government became increasingly controlled by wealthy corporate interests. I think it’s this rapid cultural reversal that forced changes in the law.
I’m beginning to believe that the way to restore our democracy, protect our planet (and the Internet) is to collaboratively fight a culture war against the corrupting influence of financial power in government.
Just as we accepted the inequality of limiting marriage between a man and a woman for so long, we’ve become cynical and complacent about money in politics and the idea that it’s acceptable for wealth to influence critical decisions. We don’t have to accept this any longer and the change is up to us.
My friend and mentor, the late rights-activist Richard Grossman, used to say not to worry about corruption that’s illegal, worry about corruption that’s perfectly legal. As an example, legalized corruption is when we allow corporations to influence senate races on the cheap in small states, then use those senators to dumb down regulatory laws and direct them to approve former corporate officers to oversee agencies regulating their industries.
We need a populist culture war to make the idea that money can influence decisions made by government politically unacceptable, especially for a government allegedly for the people by the people. Let’s demand a culture where government legislates according to values of populism, science, social justice and environmental sustainability acting with transparency, efficiency and accountability.
It’s time for our single issue organizations to begin collaborating in parallel on a platform that demands systemic change. It’s time for all of us to take on our own cynicism and begin to talk about, sing out loud about and create with much higher expectations.