They're hoping Americans won't notice.
Indeed, in late February a "senior administration official" presented The New York Times with a masterpiece of obfuscation and avoidance of responsibility. Speaking of the administration's plans to push users of Medicare and Medicaid into the hands of for-profit corporations, this "official" said, "We're looking at two programs that have worked, that have provided health coverage to people who need it, and we want to help them work better."
Ted Kennedy was more straightforward in his objection to the Bush scheme. "Medicare is a firm commitment to every elderly American," Kennedy said, "not a profit center for H.M.O.s and other private insurance plans."
Robin Toner and Robert Pear of The New York Times wrote in an understated tone that, "The magnitude of the Bush proposals is only gradually dawning on members of Congress."
It's also dawning on mainstream Americans.
When you look closely, you discover that what so many are calling the "conservative agenda" would be shocking and alien to historic conservatives like Republicans Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater. It really has nothing to do with conservative or liberal, left or right, war or peace. It doesn't care about abortion, prayer, or flags, although these are useful props to bring in fringe groups to "fill the big tent." It's not even about liberty, freedom, or prosperity.
Today's so-called "conservative agenda" is, very simply, about ownership.
Specifically, ownership of the assets of the United States of America - things previously owned by "We, The People." And, ultimately, ownership of the United States government itself.
Here's how it works.
In a democracy there are some things we all own together.
Often referred to as "the commons," they include the necessities and commonalities of life: our air, water, septic systems, transportation routes, educational systems, radio and TV spectrums, and, in every developed nation in the world except America, the nation's health care system.
But the most important of the commons in a democracy is the government itself.
The Founders' idea of a democratic republic was to create a common institution owned by its own citizens, answerable to its own citizens, and authorized to exist and continue existing solely "by the consent of the governed."
And make no mistake - it's democracy itself that is today at risk.
As the prescient Chief Justice of Wisconsin's Supreme Court, Edward G. Ryan said ominously in his 1873 speech to the graduating class of the University of Wisconsin Law School, "[There] is looming up a new and dark power... the enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marching, not for economical conquests only, but for political power... The question will arise and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine, which shall rule - wealth or man; which shall lead - money or intellect; who shall fill public stations - educated and patriotic freemen, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital...."
We're entering a new and unknown, but hauntingly familiar, era. The Bush plans to privatize parts of Medicare are just one thread in the larger fabric of this "new world order."
It's new because it represents a virtual abandonment of the egalitarian and democratic archetypes the founders of the United States put into place in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. And it's hauntingly familiar because it resembles in many ways one of the most stable and long-term of all social structures to have ever established itself in the modern history of civilization: feudalism.
Feudalism doesn't refer to a point in time or history when streets were filled with mud and people lived as peasants (although that was sometimes the case). Instead, it refers to an economic and political system, just like "democracy" or "communism" or "socialism" or "theocracy."
In a feudal state, power is held by those who own the greatest wealth. At its essential core, feudalism could be defined as "government of, by, and for the rich."
Marc Bloch is one of the great 20th Century scholars of the feudal history of Europe. In his book Feudal Society he points out that feudalism is a fracturing of one authoritarian hierarchical structure into another: the state disintegrates, as unelected but wealthy power brokers take over.
In almost every case, both with European feudalism and feudalism in China, South America, and Japan, Bloch notes that "feudalism coincided with a profound weakening of the State, particularly in its protective capacity." Given most accepted definitions of feudalism, feudal societies don't emerge in civilizations with a strong social safety net and a proactive government.
There is a slight debate, in that some scholars like Benjamin Guérard say feudalism must be land-based, whereas Jacques Flach and others suggest the structure of power and obligation is the key. But the consensus is that when the wealthiest in a society take over government and then weaken it so it no longer can represent the interests of the people, the transition has begun into a new era of feudalism. "European feudalism should therefore be seen as the outcome of the violent dissolution of older societies," Bloch says.
Whether the power and wealth agent that takes the place of government is a local baron, lord, king, or corporation, if it has greater power in the lives of individuals than does a representative government, the culture has dissolved into feudalism. Bluntly, Bloch
states: "The feudal system meant the rigorous economic subjection of a host of humble folk to a few powerful men."
This doesn't mean the end of government, but, instead the subordination of government to the interests of the feudal lords. Interestingly, even in Feudal Europe, Bloch points out, "The concept of the State never absolutely disappeared, and where it retained the most vitality, men continued to call themselves 'free'..."
The transition from a governmental society to a feudal one is marked by the rapid accumulation of power and wealth in a few hands, with a corresponding reduction in the power and responsibilities of government. Once the rich and powerful gain control of the government, they turn it upon itself, usually first eliminating its taxation process as it applies to themselves. Says Bloch: "Nobles need not pay taille [taxes]."
Bringing this to today, consider that in 1982, just before the Reagan-Bush "supply side" tax cut, the average wealth of the Forbes 400 was $200 million. Just four years later, their average wealth was $500 million each, aided by massive tax cuts. Today, those 400 people own wealth equivalent to one-eighth of the entire gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States.
And those who would take over the government of the United States have a specific plan for how to do it. It begins with tax cuts, which are then followed by handing government-mandated services over to private corporations.
Tax cuts are not just about kowtowing to the Nobles of the new conservative feudal state. Although that happens, the most important function of tax cuts is to deprive government of oxygen.
The result is that the government must then turn to private corporations - the new feudal lords - to administer the commons. This shift of the commons ranges from the commons of health care for the elderly to the commons of the vote, as we're seeing now with private corporations linked to hard-right Republicans taking over the election systems of states like Georgia, Florida, and Texas.
According to hard-right Republicans, killing off government to make way for corporate rule is truly at the core of the so-called "conservative agenda." For example, the lead cheerleader for Bush's tax-cutting fervor is a man named Grover Norquist, well known to every politician in Washington.
"I don't want to abolish government," Norquist told National Public Radio's Mara Liasson in a May 25, 2001 Morning Edition interview. "I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
At first, gullible politicians and voters thought drowning a democratic government in the bathtub was, at worse, just another way for big business to make more money. It might even make some of the functions of government more efficient, they thought, even though any benefits of that efficiency would be turned over to stockholders and CEOs rather than the broader public that uses the commons.
Take over power plants and water systems built with tax dollars, privatize hospitals built with tax dollars, run private prisons with tax dollars, auction off the airwaves to for-profit enterprises. It built empires, like Bill Frist's vast hospital fortune, and made wealth more of a politically defining factor than party affiliation.
It is corporatism, to use Mussolini's word (which he later renamed
"fascism"): "a merging of corporate and state interests." It's simply the modern version of feudalism.
The greatest force promoting corporatism in America is the mistaken interpretation of the court reporter's headnotes in the 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case before the Supreme Court. That mistaken interpretation granted human rights to corporations, thus enabling them to use "free speech" to buy politicians and thus strike down laws against corporate political activity.
But there's a movement growing across America to rescue democracy from the conservatives' bathtub.
Communities have passed resolutions and laws denying corporate personhood, and cases like Kasky v. Nike are showing up before the Supreme Court that may bring these questions into the open. And, perhaps most important, the naked corporate grab of government in an administration made almost entirely of corporate CEOs, is being outed.
America's largest progressive talk radio network, broadcast from Alaska to Florida and available on the web at www.ieamericaradio.com, runs 12 hours of programming a day that openly discusses these issues, and regularly attacks "the Bush Crime Family." Radio stations across the nation are starting to seek out progressive programming, with AnShell Media developing a new progressive talk radio network, and even the right-wing bastion Fox announcing this week that they've syndicated the moderate democrat Alan Colmes with a talk show in a handful of the largest of America's radio markets.
Unions - the traditional defenders of working-class people - are becoming politically active and pointing out that all people who draw a paycheck, be they blue- or white-collar workers, are suffering from the new American feudalism. Check out www.uaw.org and www.aflcio.org for an extraordinary insight into how clear America's unions have become in their understanding of the true neo-conservative agenda, and how it can be challenged.
Hopefully one day soon such open plain speaking may even reach the website of the party founded by Thomas Jefferson, although for now the activist-run www.democrats.com site far outstrips the Party's www.democrats.org for clarity, purpose, and political momentum.
Perhaps, as Leonard Cohen sings, "Democracy is coming to the USA." If so, while the opportunity is still available to us, this nation's citizens must listen, join, share, read, campaign, and enlighten others. It will be no small effort to roll back the damage done by the so-called conservative feudalists, but if we are to bring democracy back to the land of its modern rebirth we must awaken, step forth, and speak out.
Thom Hartmann is the author of "Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights." www.unequalprotection.com and www.thomhartmann.com. This article is copyright by Thom Hartmann, but permission is granted for reprint in print, email, or web media so long as this credit is attached.