In Memoriam: Putting American Democracy on Sale

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Common Dreams

In Memoriam: Putting American Democracy on Sale

Well, another Memorial Day has come and gone.  Another day when we were supposed to remember those who gave their lives to preserve our democracy by working ourselves into a shopping frenzy to get really great friggin’ deals on stuff.

This confluence of commercial excess and sacrifice is the ultimate irony.  Because, while we chase bargains and debate the endless faux war on terror, we are ignoring what amounts to a real war being waged right under our collective national nose.  Our foe has already taken over our government and undermined our freedoms.  We are on the beachhead, standing at democracy’s Dunkirk.

That war is between public good and private profits.  And the public is losing. In fact, it’s a rout.

This war is an existential threat to our democracy, and it has the capacity to enslave us in a system that is little better than serfdom.  Yes, we have more stuff than serfs did, but our power, our dignity and our wealth are being systematically stripped from us. 

How else do you explain the fact that we can’t pass a bill requiring background checks for gun purchasers when 90% of the citizens want one?

How else do you explain our failure to end subsidies for big oil when 74% of Americans want to?

How else do you explain the fact that when the majority of citizens favor allowing tax cuts for those earning over $250,000 to expire, the best we can do is compromise on $400,000?

How else do you explain that when, for decades now, some 70% of Americans consider climate change to be a high priority issue,  we’ve taken no action.

How else do you explain that when some 80% of Americans favor shoring up Social Security even if it means higher taxes and a similar number support retaining Medicare as is, we’re considering cuts to both programs? 

How else do you explain the fact that students can’t discharge debts in bankruptcy, but corporations and fat cats can?

How else do you explain that when more than 80% of Americans want to clamp down on Wall Street we get only weak-sister legislation that is being completely eviscerated as it is translated into regulations.

These are not isolated issues.  In case after case where the wishes of ordinary citizens collide with those of the powerful and the rich, we lose.

In case after case where the wishes of ordinary citizens collide with those of the powerful and the rich, we lose.

And the consequences are dire.  Our wages are flat-lined, and have been for decades.  The amount of wealth held by the few continues to skyrocket –  the top 20% now holds 80% of the nation's wealth, while the remaining 80% have only 20% of it.  And it’s getting worse.  Meanwhile, income mobility is down; the American dream is turning into a nightmare and Horatio Alger is dead.

The streets of our capital are occupied by an army of more than 12,000 paid lobbyists – mercenaries in the war on public good.  They write our laws, decide our budgets, define our future. 

There’s an all-out assault on the public sector.  Unions are being busted; public programs are being starved into incompetence and that incompetence is being used as justification for further assaults on the credibility and effectiveness of the pubic sector.

For example, the flood of private money unleashed by Citizen’s United resulted in some 6,000 applications for non-profit status, the overwhelming majority of them from conservative organizations funded by front groups.  When a beleaguered section of the IRS—starved of resources by Republican budget cuts—tried to cope with this flood of applicants by using search terms as a shortcut, it was labeled as a politically motivated “scandal.” It was politically tone-deaf, but no scandal.  In actuality it was a desperate attempt by a woefully underfunded IRS to confront illegal actions, most from conservative organizations.  The classic two-step; create an issue by gutting government’s capacity, then use the resulting issue to justify more cuts.

This two step has been used against the post-office, teachers, firefighters, transportation workers—anyone in the public sector.  And under the guise of “necessary” austerity (in a time of rapidly shrinking deficits) Republicans are trying to do the same with Social Security, Medicare, student loans, etc. etc. etc. 

Why?  The prize is privatization; turning public sector programs administered for the public good, into profit centers for private gain. Robbing the many, to benefit the few. At stake, is tens of trillions of dollars a year.  Privatizing Social Security alone would pump more than a trillion dollars a year into Wall Street. Privatizing public education could put more than $780 billion into corporate coffers.  Privatizing publically funded health care could turn over another trillion plus dollars. On and on it goes.

Similarly, if government were to address climate change in a meaningful way, it would mean leaving $20 trillion worth of assets in the ground.

The first casualty in this war had to be our freedoms.  Our votes had to be neutralized by money and wedge issues.

Tyranny, it turns out, comes most often from within: it rides on steeds of fear, hate, bigotry, anger, and greed, and persuades us to freely give away that which others have not been able to take. 

And it makes a mockery of the nearly 750,000 thousand men and women who have given their lives to preserve our freedom.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, an eco-thriller and book one of a trilogy centered on global warming. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News and other major newspapers. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on

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