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Sen. Bernie Sanders, running for the Democratic presidential nomination, spoke to a record-breaking crowd during a rally in Portland, Maine earlier this year. (Photo: AP)

The Oligarchy vs. The People: Why We Need a 'Political Revolution'

John Atcheson

Hillary Clinton is racking up endorsements from large unions and other groups that used to represent the interests of the people they served.  Now they’ve joined the press, the political parties and government as tools of the oligarchy.

It’s been apparent for decades that the US is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy. Political parties, the press, and government are controlled by plutocrats and a few uber rich families.

But as the endorsements roll in, it’s becoming apparent that the civil institutions we used to rely on to be watchdogs and counterweights to corporate power have also been taken over.

Bottom line: Sanders is right. We need a revolution if we want to take the institutions designed to serve us, both public and private, back from the oligarchy.

A close look at a few of these endorsements shows how their elite is by-passing the interests and desires of their members.

Exhibit A: The Service Employees International Union

SEIU endorsed Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. This, despite the fact that Hillary has not, and will not, endorse one of their chief demands, a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, while Bernie Sanders does. 

There’s the beginnings of a backlash among the rank and file, many of whom remember when Bernie Sanders stood with them in tough times.

Exhibit B: The League of Conservation Voters endorsement of Hillary

When the League of Conservation Voters endorsed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, it ignited a firestorm among environmentalists.  Not too surprising, given their respective records.

It’s worth taking a closer look at the LCV endorsement to see what it reveals. Let’s start with the facts:

  • Hillary Clinton’s lifetime LCV score is 82, Bernie Sanders’ is 95; even her 82 seems bloated when you examine her scorecard compared to Bernie's;
  • The LCV’s response – that they were factoring in electability – is patently and obviously false, considering Sanders beats Republicans by as much or more than Clinton in polls;
  • Hillary’s positions of record on the environmental issues of the day have shifted dramatically in the last few months; indeed, LCV cites her opposition to the XL pipeline as justification for their endorsement, without noting she historically signaled support for the XL until a month ago;
  • LCVs Board Chair is Carol Browner, who was appointed by Bill Clinton to head up the EPA;
  • Among major contributors to LCV, big banks and people from the finance industry dominate – including past officers of Goldman-Sachs; and
  • This is the earliest endorsement in the history of the LCV.

This last bullet is a clue to what’s really going on.  There was no reason to rush this endorsement, unless they wanted to tip the scales one way or another, and certainly there was no reason to tip it toward the candidate with the lower lifetime score—aka Clinton.  The most plausible explanation for this action is that the DLC branch of the Democratic Party—essentially the Oligarch’s wing—was moving as expeditiously as possible to put one of their own in power, mission, membership and environment be damned.

The rank and file greens reacted explosively, and rightly so.  The rating on LCVs Facebook page plummeted from over 4 to 2.3, and the comments on the endorsement are universally—and strongly—negative.

Beyond the LCV endorsement: the Power elite vs the People

This same phenomena—those in power going against the people they claim to serve—can be seen with Unions, where Hillary is collecting endorsements despite her long history of supporting job-killing trade agreements.  Again, Let’s look at the facts:

  • Hillary has been a strong proponent of trade agreements in general and, until about a month ago, the TPP in particular;
  • Sanders has opposed them throughout his career;
  • Clinton opposes a national minimum wage of $15;
  • Sanders supports it;
  • Over the years, Clinton has received most of her campaign contributions from Wall Street, big banks who have encouraged overseas investment in manufacturing and off-shoring of American corporations;
  • Sanders gets his money from the people.

So, the evidence shows that Sanders has been far more supportive of labor than Clinton, for far longer.  But Hillary has gotten endorsements from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) in addition to the SEIU, while Sanders has only picked up two.

But, as with the LCV endorsement, the reaction of the rank and file in these unions to the endorsements has been swift, broad-based and negative.  Take the IAM for example, where members complained bitterly about the endorsement, with some claiming that support for Sanders dominated the Union.  The NEA and FTE endorsements created the same outrage among the rank and file, with many dissenters expressing strong support for Sanders.

So, what’s going on?  Here again, the answer lies in what the senior officials say.  IAM president Randi Weingarten defended her union’s endorsement of Clinton, saying, "If you want to shape something, you get in before the primaries." 

Now let’s parse this statement out.

For starters, the Union’s first responsibility should be its member’s interests.  How does “shaping” the primaries to benefit Clinton do that?

Answer, it doesn’t, for two reasons. 

First, the only possible justification for “shaping” the primaries is if one candidate is so superior in terms of representing Union interests, you want to do everything you can to push the nomination their way.  Arguably, Hillary is the weakest candidate on labor issues, so toss out that reason.

Second, since her nomination offers no clear advantage to labor—in fact, given her historical positions it would likely result in a less sympathetic voice in the White House—the Unions’ best strategy (after endorsing the strongest candidate —Sanders, followed by O’Malley) is to wait as long as possible before endorsing a candidate and use the time to extract promises from them. 

Even the watchdogs have been co-opted

We used to think that the civil institutions functioned as a third arm of society distinct from government and business, and capable of holding both accountable.  The press, unions, NGO’s, religious organizations—in theory, at least—worked to hold both business and government accountable.

Thanks to Reagan, we began losing the press thirty years ago.  Today, they are little more than a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Oligarchy.  Our increasingly secular society means that religion follows politics more than shaping it.

And now, it’s clear that NGO’s and Unions are being absorbed into the Corporate Borg as both Parties become pawns to moneyed interests. 

So, not only has our government and political process been bought, but the senior members of the NGO and Union community have become enmeshed in the game of money and power that is destroying our Democracy. 

In short, someone tossed the watchdogs a steak, and they’re off in the corner, gnawing on their prize and plotting ways to get more. 

It will take a revolution to reclaim our country

Our only chance of snatching our country back from the fatcats and plutocrats is to conduct a quiet revolution.  The key to that is to get money out of politics, and the only candidate who can do that is one who is not on the take from the oligarchy.  The interests of labor, environmentalists, and the middle class cannot be served by people beholden to the institutions they are charged with constraining. 

Only Bernie Sanders fits that bill.  Only Bernie Sanders can lead that revolution.  Sadly, it appears the fix is in, and the Democrats will go with business as usual.

Unions and environmental organizations were born in picket lines and protest marches.  They earned their place in society by wading though tear gas, and even bullets to speak truth to power; to bear witness for the rights of the people and the planet.  It’s time for the rank and file of these organizations to do more than complain about their leadership.  It’s time for them to lead us in the revolution that Sanders is calling for, starting with their own management. 

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson. John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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