How did we get to where we are? Is our time an anomaly in a country that used to be fair and democratic or a logical outcome of our political choices throughout our history?
Here I defer to Robert Reich, a person well-qualified to shed light on the particulars of the last 50 years or so, having living through much of it as a player in the halls of power. He served under three different national administrations and has an insider’s view of how the frog of civility and shared purpose was boiled to death through gradual increases of temperature that few noticed until the water was boiling. In his book The Common Good, Reich outlines some seminal events that changed the political climate and opened the doorways to the thought, action and legislation that works against the “common good.”
Reich defines the common good as “our shared values about what we owe one another as citizens who are bound together in the same society— the norms we voluntarily abide by, and the ideals we seek to achieve.” He reminds us that our very Constitution was designed for “’We the people,’ seeking to ‘promote the general welfare’— not for ‘ me the selfish jerk seeking as much wealth and power as possible.’” In a chapter titled “Exploitation,” Reich lists 50 different scandals and seminal events between the Pentatonic Papers of 1971 and the Wells Fargo Scandal of 2017, each of which raised the temperature of the boiling water so the new norm of “Forget the public trust. Just do whatever it takes to win!” became both the unspoken and spoken narrative driving American politics.
In the next chapter, he highlights three structural breakdowns:
1) Nixon’s Watergate, Robert Bork’s hearing and whatever-it-takes-to-win politics.
2) Michael Milken, Jack Welch and whatever-it-takes-to-maximize profits.
3) Lewis Powell’s memo, Tony Coelho’s bargain, Wall Street’s bailout and whatever-it-takes-to-rig-the-economy.
The combined effect of all three brought us exactly to where we are today, a place we seem surprised by, but if you follow the threads, it’s precisely the place we logically would end up. The super-yachts of the Wall Street moguls, the “Stop the Steal” lies of a President who couldn’t accept defeat, the dark money of the Koch Brothers and the like, the imprisonment of black teenagers stealing candy from a store while the corporate raiders walk free, all of it makes perfect sense in the chain of events the book lays out. As summarized by Reich:
“Whatever-it-takes politics removed all constraints on gaining and keeping political power. Whatever-it-takes-to-make-big-money eliminated all checks on unbridled greed. Put them together and what did we get? We got money pouring into politics in order to change the rules of the game in favor of big corporations and the wealthy, so they can rake in even more.”
The super-rich are—and have always been— a good-ole-boys club who exchange favors entirely independent of values, moral standing or any sense of the common good. When the Supreme Court declared that “money is speech” and “corporations are people,” the presence of big money running the politic show changed from 10% of all contributions to 40% and beyond. Wonder why the NRA continues to thrive in the face of daily mass shootings? Check out who they donate money to.
To give one bizarre example of how quid pro quo works, a famous businessman once donated $25,000 to a political candidate who then decided not to investigate him for fraud. The business man? Donald Trump. The candidate? Hilary Clinton!!!!
Government— particularly democratic government— depends on the checks and balances that keep politicians and corporations accountable. No matter what your view on the inherent goodness of people, it is beyond debate that that goodness begins to disappear when money and power enter the picture. And so we need systems in place that keep things honest. Rules and laws that limit power, taxes that give back some of the personal wealth to the greater economy, unions that keep greedy bosses in check and so on. The gradual erosion of those checks and balances in both politics and business is the hidden story that must now be clearly revealed, with the hope of restoring and/or creating new needed restraints.
“What to do?” is the cry from so many I know who are not happy with this new (yet present throughout our history) world of unchecked greed and turn towards grabbing power, fair voting be damned!, that marks the current political scene. Action is essential, but is most effective when the background of how this came to be is revealed so that we can recognize the next seminal event that moves us yet further from the common good and try to stop it in its tracks. Specific suggestions will come in Part V. Stay tuned.
And meanwhile, if you're curious about Robert Bork, Michael Milken, Jack Welch, Lewis Powell, Tony Coelho and a large cast of other villains, read Reich’s book.