Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Book Review: 'Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America' by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney

In this book we are told by the authors that our system of government has been "colonized" by a handful of oligarchs and turned from a Democracy into a "Dollarocracy." It is a fact that most of us could have intuited simply by watching at close range for the better part of a generation, this slo-motion oligarchic train-wreck taking place right on our own watch. Now here, in 340 densely-packed pages, we get the full picture of the details of how it was done, and by whom.

The way it was done was mind-bogglingly simple: the super rich, led mostly by the corporations, bought all of our elected representatives by spreading campaign money around like cow mature. It was done through a kind of "pay-to-play influence peddling" and subtle bribery that has only been perfected by the US crooks call our elected Representatives. The oligarchs then get their hired guns, their paid lobbyists, to rewrite the rules so that any crimes they may commit, or even hope to commit in the future, are rendered legal before the fact. With Lewis Powell named as the architect-in-chief of this new way of American business and political life, the oligarchs molded our government into a "crime-friendly" enterprise that would make Dons like Michael Corleone, blush.

By granting personhood to corporations though the "Citizens United" decision, our morally-challenged, strict constitutionalist, (don't call us an) activist Supreme Court, literally gave the keys to the kingdom to the Corporate and Wall Street bank robbers. The authors tell us that the modern version of this idea was the brainchild of Mr. Powell. But these authors tell us more than just "how" and "who," did this, they also tell us that not only has our political process been hijacked by the criminals who change the rules to suit their ideology of convenience and self-interest, but also that these "deep pocket" contributors' money has finally "gone critical" and has so corroded and undermined confidence in our entire electoral process, that it has been essentially reducing to a four-year Kabuki sideshow.

It is thus very difficult not to conclude that altogether this has led directly to turning Washington DC into a new kind of "dollar-based Sodom and Gomorrah." All of our morally-challenged politicians, including our "hope and change" president, have been forced into the equivalent of K-Street prostitution. They even have the gall to complain openly about having to spend the lion's share of their time out on the streets "raising campaign funds" rather than "tending to the people's business?" How sick is that ?

Now that the Press, the last domino on America's political power grid, has also being co-opted, colonized and "turned out" onto the DC streets too, the circle of ideologically-driven corruption is complete: Everybody in the law-making aspect of the U.S. government today is now either a "pimp" or a "whore" for some moneyed interests. In short, obscene amounts of money has turned all of Washington DC into one big 14th Street "pay-to-play" illicit overground business.

The eloquence with which theses authors recite the many defects in our political process is impressive testimony to the fact that they fully understand both the true nature and the true gravity of our nation's problems. They end the book by giving us a proposal for a Constitutional Amendment that guarantees every American the right to vote. On its merits, this proposal deserves serious consideration, but, as a fix for what ails the American political system as a whole, it must be put in the category of "too little too late." Moreover, the authors' rather feeble attempt to leave the reader with an upbeat feeling, must also be considered somewhat disingenuous since their own careful performed analysis roundly contradicts this rosy picture.

The truth is that we have been told a lie repeatedly throughout our checkered history, and told that same lie again here: that except for a few needed mid-course corrections around the margins, America is basically a healthy country. However, the truth of the authors' own analysis shows the American reality to be profoundly otherwise: Their analysis says that America, from the top down, across its demographic grid, is a profoundly corrupt, mean-spirited, selfish, and psychologically unhealthy and unstable country. Full stop.

Why does this cognitive dissonance between the authors' analysis, their attempt to leave us in an upbeat mood, and our own continued unease about what is happening to our country, exist? Far be it for me to say so, but I believe there is a cruel unacknowledged subtext lurking just beneath our collective consciousness. It is a subtext that we all know is there, one that we also know to be the source of the disease that deeply afflicts our nation. That subtext lies on a slightly higher plane, the moral plane.

Morality as the Unacknowledged Subtext of American Politics

The part of the picture missing from this excellent treatise is that from our nation's very inception, the way we have mishandled the moral dimension of our political and civic life has been a scandal that has hovered over the unfolding American experiment and its culture like the proverbial sword of Damocles. Said another way, our national culture has been defined by what can only be described metaphorically as a moral game of three-card monty, "now-you-see-it, now-you-don't?" That is to say, our national morality is best defined as a "wild card" mind trick of "constantly finessing all our moral responsibilities" and then covering up the negative consequences with a slick all-encompassing after-the-fact rationalization or justification.

As far back as the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia, this American immorality play has always been a "one-step forward," and "two steps backwards" dance of moral convenience. It gives me no pleasure to say this because I am a patriot who loves America. But it must be said anyway that we have become a country that thrives on the comforts of living on moral credit. We have a moral American Express card in our back pockets that allows us to "live immorally now, and pay the moral consequences, later (usually meaning never)?"

Sadly, that kind of immorality play has now been enshrined in our political system. And much more importantly, it also has been enshrined in our American business practices and business ethics; so much so that it has become our national signature and thus has now come back to haunt us with a vengeance in the form of a "moral leadership accountability deficit."

Our cultural system of living entirely on an ethos of "buy now, pay the moral costs later (if ever)," has rendered the leadership of our nation completely "accountability-proof." For even as Mr. Obama rescued us from the brink of global financial disaster, even as he brought us back from the precipice of the greatest crime in modern history -- the recent financial collapse of our economic system -- a failure consciously engineered by the financial wizards and crooks on Wall Street, none of them were hauled off to jail? Had this happened in the Communist People's Republic of China, they all would have been lined-up against the wall and shot.

But here, in the diminished democracy of the USA, we still see those same crooks on the nightly news, soberly justifying their crimes, and then sneaking into the backdoor of the White House. Still giving the President economic advice; still rewriting and watering-down legislation that would prevent the next such economic crisis. In fact, we see them doing exactly the same things they were doing before the crash, only this time, like all good criminals, they have learned how not to leave their fingerprints at the scene of the next crime.

As a nation, we cannot be proud of the fact that we have perfected a dastardly clever but insidious and peculiarly American trick of always finding ways to finesse our way out of every moral predicament. Given a choice, the predilection of our businessmen and our politicians today, is to take the "moral low road" and leave the moral high ground to the clergy and the evermore dumbed-down American citizens. Left unsupervised, and to their own devices, the American businessman will take the moral shortcut every time. Despite this, he still never fails to collect every cent of the undeserved moral and patriotic glory, and then covers his moral crimes and debts with clever, sweet-sounding moral rationalizations and justifications.

Always the American businessman is constantly singing the songs of our founding fathers, even as they "off-shore" their businesses to dodge paying their fair share of American taxes. They proudly wear their lapel flags, even as they scrounge the globe for the cheapest labor, knowing full well that they are leaving American workers and families prostrate and without jobs, turning our cities into burnout ghetto moonscapes and our suburbs into "Thrift Store-filled strip Malls, right before our own eyes." While their jobs are being "out-sourced" and "down-sided," these workers are unceremoniously robbed of the traditional American safety net of health benefits, a secure retirement, and the ability to educate their children. These are all draconian changes that have taken place on Main Street right before our own eyes, at the same time that the oligarchs are raking in profits that are so obscene that they would disgrace a nation of greedy savages.

But our businesses are not alone in playing this game of immoral patriotic double-dealing and treachery. "We the people" too are guilty of pulling off our own "moral head fake" too. For instance, now that Dr. Martin Luther King is dead and has become a symbolic national moral treasure, he is continuously quoted across the political spectrum with great solemnity. However, a few of us are old enough to still remember that during his lifetime, Dr. King was reviled and called a Communist, his hotel rooms bugged, his home bombed; he was beat and jailed, and was sent threatening letters by the sick cross-dressing head of the FBI, a vulgar moral ingrate, who now proudly has a building named in his honor.

So like our morally challenged businessmen and politicians, "we the people too" have a lot to answer for morally. We have repeatedly closed moral ranks around many morally illicit practices and then simply dusted off our hands and moved on to the next generation, always pretending that nothing morally on-towards has happened at all? With selective moral amnesia, we too acted as if the moral sins of our fathers and forefathers had never been committed at all; as if the moral debts we are still accumulating are not still outstanding; and, as if there will be no moral accounting or consequences to pay for any of our collective immoral actions of a very ugly and brutal past. Dr. King himself summarized this state of affairs rather eloquently when he said that America has left "marked unpaid" a Promissory Note made out to Black Americans. I believe it is now fair to say that due to the "deep-pockets-run money politics," we can now extend that unpaid Promissory Note to all poor Americans, and even to much of Middle-America as well.

Choose your own metaphor of: morally burying our heads in the sand, selective moral amnesia, sweeping our dirty moral linen under the proverbial national rug, or leaving the virgin moral bride standing alone at the altar, it does not matter, the leitmotif of the American way of life, whether it be businessmen or Americans more generally, is to live on moral credit, and then once we have spent the wee hours of the night eating the enticing and seductive fruits of immorality, we wake up the next morning pretending to be moral virgins all over again, unaware that any moral sins have been committed at all? And even if somehow per chance, we do begrudgingly have to admit later that sins were committed -- like those of the Wall Street crooks, or those of the American people when they reneged on the 1954 Supreme Court decision -- there is never a price to be paid.

One fears that the "one percent," like our politicians more generally, have rehearsed and perfected these practices of moral and patriotic slights-of-hand and treachery so well that they have become "second nature." During Mr. Obama's tenure, they have latched onto them like a laser beam, and thus I believe that today's Republican Party is just a case of the moral chickens having finally come home to roost. And now our culture is paying a heavy price on the back side for our 250-year old moral indiscretions in the form of the consequent degeneration of our political process and civic culture.

So, in light of this book's very fine analysis, is it not now fair to ask a question that has long troubled the American political system -- a question that this book's very careful analysis dramatically exposes, even as it repeatedly begs it? The question is this: Since when does the true patriotic American spirit allow us to equate the immoral and democracy-destroying tactics and vulgar strategies of the Republican Party, with those designed to make this nation a more perfect Union? By granting moral equivalence to the Republicans' vulgar democracy-destroying and bankrupt political ideas, are we not simply dropping the bar of public discourse so low that now anything goes morally? I say this because if we look at previous conservative Republican's successes, for instance Richard Nixon's Affirmative Action, establishment of EPA and OSHA, the Clean air and water Act, etc., we readily see that those conservatively-generated ideas were not only NOT designed to destroy our democracy, but in some cases have proven to be even more progressive and democracy-promoting than those of our "so-called" Liberal Democrats, like Mr. Obama himself?

In my view, one of the greatest scandal of Mr. Obama's very lackluster reign in power has been his earsplitting silence on the same Nixonian enacted Affirmative Action Program that allow both him and his wife to get a free college education?

So, there was indeed a time in recent history when even conservative Republican ideas were used to promote, rather than to undermine and destroy our democracy. But now we have the Paul Ryans, and Rand Pauls riding into Dodge on Ayn Rand's white horse, pretending to be Libertarians and Independents coming to the rescue of a socialist democracy running out of control, when in fact they too are little more than the latest shills or pimps for the deep-pocket fascist-leaning money barons. The best way to expose the hypocrisy of these shysters is to note that were the US Constitution itself up for approval today, before the present morally degenerate Republican run Congress, it too likely would be rejected in a landslide. And worse still, we have seen repeatedly during Obama's tenure, that the Republicans have no problem rejecting their own ideas simply because they are offered up by a Democrat? Really now, how seriously can a political party that acts in such a juvenile way be taken in any form of government, especially in a proud, well-established, self-conscious democracy?

In short, what are we to make of the fact that there once was a time in America's recent political history when both the Republican and the Democratic Parties generated democracy-promoting and morally-uplifting ideas that improved the moral, political and economic health of this country. These were sound and forward moving ideas like those introduced in the much reviled Richard Nixon administration. But now, we get weak, democracy-destroying ideas from both sides of the Congressional aisle. In fact, how twisted and degenerate has our political process become when we see Democrats accepting the same old bad Republican ideas that even the Republicans reject once they see how badly they look when Democrats are peddling them?

Yet, somehow, despite their clear defects, the other side, the Democrats, still find it in their political wisdom to grant moral equivalence and political legitimacy to every democracy-destroying, morally bankrupt, mean-spirited, vulgar and facile idea the Republicans bring to the table? And infinitely worse, is the fact that in doing so, the Democratic Party acknowledges that it is so bereft of ideas, that Mr. Obama's praises Ronald Reagan and adopt as his own, some of these same, bad, immoral, illicit, illegitimate, democracy-destroying, vulgar and bankrupt Republican ideas? By doing this, it is difficult not to conclude that the Democrats see themselves as being so compromised with dirty campaign money, that they themselves have no choice but to "pimp" the same bad corporate-generated ideas as the Republicans do.

Unfortunately, the circle of moral corruption and contradictions does not end there, for "we the people" are also complicit participants in this circular firing squad of immorality. It is a clear case of: He who is without moral sin must cast the first stone? Because when we don our ideology-coded red and blue jerseys, and parade around carrying the banner of theses same dead, democracy-killing ideas, we too are swimming in the same sea of corruption as that of our morally challenged politicians. If you dive into polluted waters, you will come up with slime in your mouth too.

As this book makes clear, whatever we thought about our leaders before the 2007-2008 financial crash, "we the people" were no longer moral virgins or naive children afterwards. We now know that wearing color-coded ideological jerseys do not facilitate improving the moral climate or the moral accountability of our leaders. In fact quite the contrary, it forces us to hold our tongues in the interest of party loyalty and solidarity, while we contribute our hard-earned cash to the same corrupt coffers that the deep pockets oligarchs contribute to.

But more than this, and this is the coda to this story, we know from our respective Bibles that once immorality has been allowed to seep-in, it propagates its way through our culture where it then corrupts and morally destabilizes everything. Once this happens, it can only be purged from the bottom up: Everybody has to give up their moral American Express cards at the same time, otherwise we are merely going around the same corrupt immoral treadmill once again.

Here is the truism that I believe the authors are trying to get at, one we are loath to forget: The 1% are just "the rest of us with a lot more money."

Thus it is no longer sufficient to make the standard grace-saving disclaimer of "but we have made so much progress ... ?" as the global atonement for 250 years of willfully committed sins. The truth is that except for minor adaptive adjustments on the surface, we have not made any progress at all. The American social order remains exactly as it was during slavery. This modern false idea of "progress" is mostly an artfully crafted "majority group rule" illusion, a form of dissembling centered around a grassroots tribal ideology of self-interest -- the same ideology not co-incidentally that the 1% has used demagogically to trap us in our own moral quicksand.

Given that this moral circle has now been completed, from top to bottom, I believe it is much too late for a Constitutional Amendment to ensure every American the right to vote. That should have been accomplished at the very first meeting of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Then we would not have needed no less than six other additional "right to vote" measures, all of which were eventually overrun and reversed the same as is being done to LBJ's most recent one. Mr. Obama's response to this state of affairs is one of biblical cowardliness. In his great wisdom and sensitivity to inequality, he has seen fit to establish a bipartisan Committee to study "how to better improve the American voting experience?" LBJ called us "niggra," but he did not skimp when it came to our rights. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, has yet to see a need to tilt in the direction of America's most needy citizens. To me that is much more an embarrassment than being pre-awarded a Nobel prize.

What we need today, is not a Constitutional voting rights Amendment, but formal moral self-absolution. We need our own "Truth and Reconciliations Commission." And more importantly, it takes a very twisted and distorted vision of our own history for us not to be able to see that the reason why, after 245 years, we have not become the "more perfect Union" we continue to claim we want to become, is because we have selectively turned our heads towards the rosier false picture we have manufactured of ourselves in our rearview mirror. That rosily recomposed and much edited picture is not progress, but nostalgia. And the "twisted distorted vision" we see in the rearview mirror is little more than our collective defense mechanism against 250 years of living on moral credit: It is the last fig leaf we have to cover our nation's morally exposed naked bottom.

Lets face it, America needs to have a "Come to Jesus talk" with itself, and then it needs to call on all those heart-felt well-meaning "would be patriots," who sit in their offices at the CIA, the NSA, the State Department, on duty in the military, staffers on Capitol Hill, in the Executive Offices at the White House, and CEOs of major and minor corporations, to join hands in a "Truth and Reconciliations Commission," one that will recommit us to a higher moral standard, a standard worthy of the lofty self-image living on moral credit has allowed us to construct of ourselves. And then together, we need to proceed straight ahead with strengthened resolve to fight the Fascist juggernaut that is rapidly bearing down on our young and still very fragile, but untested democracy. To the 1% we must say: enough is enough; the buck stops with "we the people," and if you don't cease and desist, we will grind the U.S. government to a halt. Five stars.

Editor's note: This review was written by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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