An Open Letter To Congress.

Dear Senators and Congressional Representatives:

We understand that it’s hard work to win an election. There’s the fundraising, the canvassing, the fundraising, the travel, the fundraising, the public appearances, the fundraising, the baby-kissing and the butt-kissing, the fundraising, the debates, the fundraising, the media interviews, and, of course, the fundraising.

We also believe that, by electing you, we afford you a great honor – the honor of representing us in our seat of government. Given that, we should expect you to appreciate that honor and to do what you can to live up to your campaign promises. We expect you to follow in the footsteps of our Founding Fathers – people like Franklin, Hamilton, Jay, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Washington – to do what’s best for us and our nation.

Unfortunately, that seems to be an increasingly quaint and naive notion as evidenced by an exhaustive study by Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Professor Benjamin Page of Northwestern University.

Gilens and Page collected data on your policy decisions from 1981 to 2002. Their report, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens,” concluded that economic elites (the top 1%) and business groups (lobbyists) have substantial impact on your decisions while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little to no influence on your decisions.

In short, the professors found that our democratic republic has become an oligarchy, defined as a small group of people having control of a country or organization. But the Gilens-Page study only confirms what many of us already suspected.

For example, we have seen how members of Congress have prioritized the profits of defense contractors over the needs of our military and over reason itself. We’ve noticed how you repeatedly vote to increase weapons spending despite the fact that the Pentagon cannot account for its spending of more than $7.3 trillion, and despite the fact that our defense budget is greater than that of the next 7 countries combined (5 of which are close allies). And we suppressed our frustration as we watched you vote to require the US Army to purchase tanks and other weapons systems it no longer uses or needs.

We’re all too aware that you seem far more concerned with the profits of pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies than with the economic and physical health of your constituents. We aren’t blind to the fact that 40 of the lawmakers in your midst held $23 million in shares of health insurance companies as they voted to take health care coverage away from millions of Americans.

We’ve seen how you passed laws prioritizing the desires of Wall Street over the needs of Main Street. For example, in 1999, you voted to deregulate banks, clearing the way for them to gamble with our deposits and pension funds. That decision led to the financial crash and Great Recession of 2008. And yet your GOP members are intent on repealing the regulations enacted to prevent such an event from ever happening again.

We’ve also observed that the majority in Congress is working to eliminate regulations designed to keep our air, water and food clean in order to improve the bottom lines for their large corporate sponsors.

Of course, we have noted that such decisions also improve your campaigns’ bottom lines. Those large corporations reward you with large amounts of money for your re-election campaigns. They pay for junkets to exotic places. They give you tickets to concerts and other galas…the kinds of gifts few ordinary voters can afford.

And though you readily do the oligarchs’ bidding, you hide from your constituents. You avoid town halls. You send letters to constituents that are based on lies. And you have the unmitigated gall to ask your constituents for their money and their support!

Here’s an idea: Instead of beginning fundraising for your re-election campaign the minute you get into office, why not just do the right thing? Why not vote for policies that will help the vast majority of your constituents? Why not vote for better schools, better health care, better roads, safer bridges, better mass transportation and cleaner energy? Why not balance the budget by raising taxes on the fortunate few and cutting taxes for those who are struggling? Why not crack down on those who avoid paying their fair share through the use of offshore tax havens? Why not open your doors to all of your constituents? Not just those with the most money to offer.

Why don’t you treat the office as though you’re in it to serve? Why not prioritize country over party and people over money?

If you do that, believe us, we’ll notice. We’ll ignore your opponents’ attack ads. We’ll contribute to your campaigns. And we will almost certainly vote for you again. And, if you lose to someone better, you can leave office with your head held high knowing that you’ve done everything you can to represent us. You can take solace in the fact that our Founders never intended for public office to become a permanent position. (They sure as hell didn’t expect our nation to become an oligarchy in the mold of Putin’s Russia!)

As reported in John Avlon’s book, Washington’s Farewell, when the father of our nation, George Washington bade farewell to public service, he warned of three things: Hyper-partisanship, excessive debt and foreign wars.

Unfortunately, our nation is now burdened with all three. You may not be personally responsible for creating those burdens. But you can be responsible for ridding us of them…if you just do the right thing.

The US Is No Longer A Democracy. Here’s How It Happened.

Last year, a study from Princeton and Northwestern universities, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens,” concluded that the US government no longer represents the interests of the majority of the nation’s citizens. Instead, it panders to the rich and powerful.

In other words, the US has become an oligarchy defined as a government by the few, a small group that exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.

More recently, President Jimmy Carter, commenting on how big money has subverted our elections, said, “It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations.”

The US didn’t become an oligarchy by accident. We got here as the result of a long list of political decisions designed to pander to the wealthy and the powerful. Here’s how:

During the 1800s, the US went from a largely agrarian society to a society based on the industrial revolution. This created some extremely wealthy individuals often referred to as the “Robber Barons,” who took advantage of cheap labor created by the influx of immigrants. They paid little and subjected their employees to horrific working conditions. During this so-called Gilded Age, the wealthy chose the candidates and ran the nation until the masses began to rebel.

In the early 1900s, the Gilded Age ended when workers began to unionize. The wealthy responded by hiring the police and ex-military (the American Legion) to break the labor strikes by bashing some heads. In reality, it was America’s second civil war.

When the Great Depression struck, the nation moved even further toward socialism which caused the wealthy to try to arrange the assassination of President Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, many of the industrialists wanted the nation’s government to reflect the fascist governments of Italy and Germany. Their agenda was interrupted with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, World War II and the revelations of the Nazi death camps. And they were forced to accept the will of the masses until the 1970s when President Richard Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew attacked the new media in order to deflect criticism of their policies.

By raising questions about the objectivity of the media which were embraced by conservatives, it set the stage (intentionally or not) for the Reagan administration and its economic policy of “Trickle Down” theory. This was nothing more than a return to the “Horse and Sparrow” economics of the gilded age, during which government policies were carefully crafted to benefit the wealthy under the theory that if you feed enough oats (money) to the horses (the wealthy) enough will fall on the road to feed the sparrows (the masses).

Reagan portrayed the government and its regulation of industry as the enemy. He attacked labor unions. He lowered taxes for the wealthy. He increased the amount of money exempted from estate taxes. He deregulated the media by eliminating the Fairness Doctrine which held media accountable to serve in the public interest. And he lowered capital gains taxes, which allowed the wealthy to keep more of their primary sources of income – interest and dividends from investments.

With the wealthy allowed to accumulate more money, labor unions on the defensive and an emasculated press, the table was set for the oligarchs. All of this was made worse by Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed who showed the Republican National Committee that it could thrive by eliminating compromises from our political discussions and treating politics as war – a blood sport. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took congressional dysfunction a step further by transforming the GOP into a parliamentary-style party in which the entire Party is unified on every vote. If you dare to break ranks with Party, you are punished in the next primary and election.

Add to all of this the more than $28 billion lobbying industry, which is financed almost exclusively by the rich and the powerful, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which writes laws on behalf of its corporate sponsors then hands them to its conservative members to sponsor in their state legislatures where the bills are often passed with little discussion or examination, and the George W. Bush administration which cut income taxes for the rich by 4.6 percent and all but eliminated the estate tax.

The last major player is the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court, which by 3 decisions (Buckley v Valeo, Citizens United v FEC and McCutcheon v FEC) unleashed a torrent of money in campaign donations from the oligarchs. So much so, that candidates should have to wear NASCAR-style uniforms with labels of their sponsors. Indeed, of the nearly $400 million donated to presidential candidates so far this year, nearly half has come from fewer than 400 families!

Given all of this, no election in our history has been as critical as next year’s. We can either continue further down the road of oligarchy by electing candidates who try to divide us over social issues while pandering to the wealthy. Or we can elect candidates of change – real change. Candidates who will put the power of the government back in the hands of the people.

That’s why I support Bernie Sanders.

Democracy Lost.

In recent years, much has been written about growing inequality. It is, indeed, one of the most important issues of our time. And the effects of big money on our democracy have been devastating.

Sure, you may still be able to vote to elect those who are supposed to represent you. But that, alone, does not constitute democracy. Not only are the choices of candidates limited to two individuals – the only two who were able to climb their way up the political ladder in order to receive their parties’ blessings and, more important, their campaign funds. All too often, those who are elected are promised large campaign donations by corporations and industries in exchange for political favors. It is not necessarily quid pro quo, but the expectation for a return on the investment is there. So, too is the pressure.

In reality, such high stakes lobbying has long been a part of politics. But, over the past 35 years, things have gotten even worse.

In the late seventies, large US corporations began to see their hold on the world economy slip. New, lower-priced, high-quality imports – many of them made with robotics – from Japan and Germany began to push aside American-made products. US corporations responded by relocating manufacturing – first to the South, then off-shore – in search of lower-priced labor.

Perhaps, the most destructive response was the move to tie CEO compensation to the value of the companies’ share prices. This ushered in an era of ever-increasing CEO salaries and even more lucrative stock options for CEOs – a legalized form of insider trading. The result was for US corporations to seek ever lower-priced labor in countries where there is no regulation and no employee benefits. At the same time corporate profits have soared, employee salaries and corporate investments in the future have diminished – almost guaranteeing that the future will belong to foreign-based corporations. But why would our CEOs care? They and their money will be long gone before it matters.

Our corporations have used the threat of off-shoring jobs to extort our state and city governments. In exchange for their extortion, those governments have assumed many of the risks of corporate relocation or expansion by paying for needed infrastructure, cutting regulations, and delaying or eliminating corporate taxes.

Now these corporations are attempting to extort the federal government.

Unwilling to pay US income taxes on profits made off-shore, these corporations are stashing cash in foreign banks until the federal government agrees to “repatriate” the money at a greatly reduced tax rate. Of course, they’re justifying the extortion by saying that “repatriation” will lead to greater investments and more jobs in the US – the great “trickle down” fraud.

In reality, the money is more likely to be doled out to CEOs and other executives in the form of bonuses (as a reward for robbing ordinary taxpayers) and stock options.

In the meantime, corporations and billionaires have been working to rig the system. Realizing that buying Congress and our state legislatures is cheaper than paying lobbyists, people like the Koch brothers have stuffed the pockets of candidates willing to do their bidding. To pave the way, they pushed conservatives to stack the Supreme Court with ideologues such as Alito, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas. That inevitably led to favorable court rulings giving corporations the rights of people and all but eliminating limitations on political donations. They got the IRS to change its rules allowing “non-profits” to fund political campaigns. When they won control of legislatures, they gerrymandered congressional districts making it all but impossible for anyone but “their people” to win office. And they introduced Voter ID laws to suppress the votes of minorities and the poor.

In 2014, their efforts finally came to fruition. Having already bought the House in 2010, they now own the Senate. It’s no coincidence that the first bills to reach the House and Senate floors were to repeal “Obamacare” and to build the Koch…er…Keystone XL Pipeline. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also made it clear that issues such as raising the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, unemployment insurance and student loan costs will be pushed aside in favor of gutting regulations on health care and financial services and eviscerating the EPA.

If you’re still worried about the effects of so-called “dark money” on our democracy, don’t. Last year, our democracy officially became an oligarchy.

An Informed Voting Public?

Our Founding Fathers created a democracy based on informed voters carefully selecting a representative government. The reality is that, after nearly 240 years, we have neither an informed public nor a representative government. The most recent election is a case in point.

After six years of Teapublican obstruction, the approval rating of Congress was lower than the approval of cockroaches. So what did our “informed” voters do? They re-elected the vast majority of the incumbents and gave extra seats to members of the party that was responsible for the obstruction. Our national political pundits explained this phenomenon as the result of a low voter turnout and massive spending of “dark money” to elect candidates who would repay their benefactors with fewer regulations and more tax cuts. I explained that it was the result of the failure of the Democratic Party to promote its record of pulling our economy out of perhaps the biggest hole in history, making affordable health care available to most Americans, improving our nation’s standing throughout the world, expanding consumer protections and attempting to expand civil rights to all segments of our population.

There’s a better explanation.

This past Sunday, Fareed Zakaria, on his CNN show Global Public Square, featured an Ipsos MORI international study that measured the political ignorance in 14 western nations. The study asked respondents from those nations about various issues ranging from unemployment to immigration. While Italy ranked number one as the least informed citizenry, voters in the US ranked a close second. For example, when asked about unemployment in the US, our respondents guessed that the figure was 32 percent when the real number is less than 6 percent nationwide. When asked about the number of recent immigrants in our country, Americans guessed that they make up 32 percent of our population, when the real number is about 13 percent. Asked about the number of Muslims in our country, Americans guessed that Muslims comprise 15 percent of our population, when the real figure is 1 percent.

The large number of poorly informed voters explains why voters continue to vote against their own self-interests; why poor people vote for officials who give large tax breaks to the wealthy and large corporations; why they vote for officials who refuse to raise the minimum wage; why women vote for officials who refuse to demand equal pay for equal work; why the retired and near-retired vote for representatives who want to eliminate Social Security and Medicare.

Of course, we also have to ask ourselves why so many Americans are so poorly informed. The answer can be summed up in two words: schools and media.

Many of our schools no longer teach civics. As a result, many of our young people have never read the Constitution. They don’t even know how our government works. In addition, many of our nation’s textbooks are edited and approved by Texas conservatives so that they more resemble Christian and military propaganda than American history or science. For instance, we are still teaching children that Christopher Columbus discovered America when historians agree that he didn’t. And many of our schools are forced to teach “creationism” as an alternative to evolution, even though evolution is a fact as established as the theory of gravity.

Further, our so-called news media have placed an emphasis on entertainment and sensationalism to drive ratings at the expense of real news and information. As a result, we all know about the latest murder trial or the marital status of celebrities. But we don’t know the beliefs and agendas of the candidates on our ballots. Neither do we know world events that will ultimately affect us. We don’t even know that the US has been fighting wars for all but 13 years of our nation’s history. And we don’t know that our own actions led to most of them. Worse yet, we don’t know that our nation is no longer a democracy. Numerous political scientists and economists have proven that, by definition, it has become an oligarchy. (Of course, our poorly educated public likely doesn’t even know what an oligarchy is.)

The point of all this is to say that, if you don’t like our government, it’s not entirely the fault of those who were elected. It’s not necessarily the fault of one political party or our political system. The fault is our own, because we voted the scoundrels into office without ever bothering to ask what they will do. We’re only interested in which tribe they belong to – red or blue.