The three post on What Killed American Democracy are here as a single essay.
This article also appeared in Counterpunch.
Trump, Empire and Our Long Retreat to Tyranny
There has been a lot of worry about the Constitution and basic democratic rights since Trump’s election. And worry we should. But, Trump did not fall from the sky, he is a product of our history.
Over the long course of human history, there has been nothing more hostile to democracies and constitutional republics than empire. Empires destroys republics from the inside out.
And, empires demand and create enemies. In the opening act of our empire we fought our race enemy: the natives we tried to assimilate or eliminate. In the climactic scene of empire building after WWII we fought another “red menace:” the Soviet Union and communism.
But after WWII, the American people were deeply tired of war. President Truman was convinced that he would have to “scare hell” out of the people to commit the US to Cold War and global empire. So evil was the Soviet Union, so alien was their way of life, that the red scare summoned up its opposite: American identity as innocent, good, chosen and exceptional.
Our new enemy was made out to be an existential threat even though Russia had just lost 20 million people fighting — as our ally — against Nazi Germany. Our global superiority was based largely on the fact that World War II had wrecked every major competitor. The US stood astride the world without equal.
Under the cover of Cold War the US empire all but disappeared from public view. We were not, according to the official story, an empire at all but the world’s greatest democracy defending the free world. We were not to blame for the costs of empire building: it was the Russian’s fault or the Chinese or the Vietnamese or the international communist conspiracy. The tyranny to come for America was sold with carrot and stick. Fear was the opener while pride in our might and exceptional character closed the deal. Today we still cloak empire with wars fought for “humanitarian” reasons, out of a “duty to protect.”
But no justification could hide the fact that empire changed America forever. A new form of government called the “national security state” now referred to as the “deep state,” emerged to manage our far-flung domain. The changes were stunning and decisively tipped constitutional “checks and balances.” Soon the executive branch exercised sweeping powers far beyond what the US Constitution allowed for.
The Imperial Presidency
The US president has war powers that would make a king jealous. The Constitution is crystal clear: only Congress has the right to declare war. The emergence of an executive that could unilaterally declare war and make continuous war preparations overcame the “separation of powers,” and undermined the rule of law.
Tyranny was sure to follow. It was, after all, an old story.
In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department….
The trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man….War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement…. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honourable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace….
The executive is the department of power most distinguished by its propensity to war: hence it is the practice of all states, in proportion as they are free, to disarm this propensity of its influence. [emphasis added]
“In proportion as they are free.” For Madison, the executive’s capacity to declare war has a direct and inverse relationship to freedom.
Not only does this mean that every war since WWII has been illegal — by our own highest law of the land — but that the system of check and balances, so carefully crafted by the framers has been tilted toward tyranny.
Executive power has grown persistently since WWII and every President, Congress and Supreme Court has added and abetting its growth. Only the anti-war movement of the Vietnam Era marshaled popular resistance to slow, for a time, the empire.
After the US lost the Vietnam War the liberal project of “nation-building” could never be fully revived. Nation-building was our illusion and our conceit: we were not aggressors but engaged in the godly task of helping oppressed people build stable democracies and resist communism.
But by the first phase of US war in Afghanistan (1978-1992) the current pattern of disorder and decline emerged. US elites opted for the chaos of weak or failed states. US sponsorship of the Mujahideen gave birth to modern armed “islamic fundamentalism.” The US would come to rely more and more on shifting coalitions of unstable militias prone to terrorism and internecine warfare. To hide the war and dampen military and civilian dissent the elites grew dependent on corporate mercenaries. And for cover, Bill Clinton sold us “humanitarian war:” noble war, not driven by interest or advantage but for human rights or to end suffering. It is a paternalistic version of nation-building that harkens back to White Man’s Burden.
If this is our history then Trump is very much our President. Trump is an imperial president well suited to a system that values power and authority over democracy and thrives on crisis, chaos and war. And the corporate media agrees that Trump’s wars are full of “heart” and humanitarianism.
Before the Korean War the US regularly maintained only a small army and officer corp. In time of war armies were raised by mass conscription and the citizen-solders were sent home when the fighting stopped. There was no military-industrial complex. Auto and airplane factories were converted to wartime use and converted back. There were war profiteers, yes, but never a powerful and permanent war industry directly linked to government. American has a violent past, true, but we were not militarists.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implication. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted, only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.…We should take nothing for granted.” Today war is big business and we cannot take democracy for granted.
Secret Police Forces
Alcohol prohibition gave us the FBI, the first national secret police force in the US. But, it was after WWII that the secret police grew and became independent actors in both domestic and international affairs. Starting with the 1948 Italian elections, the CIA quickly developed a global network based on intervention in elections, the overthrow of governments, and assassination. Secrecy, deception and covert activities beyond the rule of law was standard operating procedure from the beginning.
Truman, one of the chief architects of US empire and the Cold war created the CIA . These new institutions were such a troubling departure from US politics that even he feared that the CIA had gone rogue.
Truman shared his concerns in a public letter:
For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government….I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations. Some of the complications and embarrassment I think we have experienced are in part attributable to the fact that this quiet intelligence arm of the President has been so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue….
Now we have 17 secret police forces and they have become a “policy making arm of government.” They are real players in the domestic politics of the US, intervening in our own elections, and suppressing free speech and dissent by spying routinely on millions of Americans.
The imperial presidency, militarism and secret police forces have hollowed out the US Constitution and left our democracy in tatters. Tyranny is the price of empire. The struggle against war and empire is essential to the struggle for democracy. We cannot have one without the other. Real resistance to Trump will be made by those willing to confront the history which made Trump possible.
Empire means more than foreign policy. It did not take long after WWII for the same institutions and the very same culture of war and dominance to fundamentally alter politics at home by creating new forms of social control in America.
- For more on US empire see the work of Chalmers Johnson, especially, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. Andrew Bacevich also presents many well-documented and argued accounts. For example see The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.
- Ryan Alford, Permanent State of Emergency: Unchecked Executive Power and the Demise of the Rule of Law.
This article also appeared in CounterPunch.
Empire Abroad. Empire at Home
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Americans are taught to revel in our power and supremacy. Over 650 major military bases span the whole world. We wage endless wars. American corporations are the most powerful economic organizations in history. The fusion of economic and military power makes our empire unlike any the world has ever seen.
We may be “#1” but it is to this great empire that we have lost our souls and our democracy with it.
The New Paradigm
No great wall separates U.S. foreign policy from domestic policy. The Manhattan Institute is an influential think tank founded in 1978 by William Casey, former head of all U.S. intelligence and Director of the CIA. In a 2006 report “Merging Law Enforcement and Counterterrorism Strategies,” they describe “The New Paradigm:”
We know too that globalization is a permanent fact. The international economy is the engine of our nation and the source of our wealth. It means that all the physical and conceptual walls associated with the modern, sovereign state—the walls that divide domestic from international, the police from the military, intelligence from law enforcement, war from peace, and crime from war—are coming down.
The institutions and ideas U.S. elites used to project “full spectrum dominance” onto the global stage have eventually become part of the political order in the U.S. The “full spectrum” includes us.
It is empire — most of all — that dooms democracy and constitutional republics. As corporations have an insatiable drive for profit, empires have an insatiable drive for power. And that makes imperial actors hostile to the limits on authority, checks and balances, separation of powers and basic rights that the U.S. republic at least aspired to. As the institutions of representative democracy become weaker and weaker — devoted only to serving the corporate power and global empire — the need for social control of the people becomes greater and greater.
Targeting Dissent in the USA
The “McCarthyism” of the 1950s was the first modern wave of coordinated social control. Truman stoked the fear and hatred of communism to serve foreign policy, but soon, in the hands of the FBI and unscrupulous politicians, it was turned against domestic dissent. The establishment decided that some ideas were so dangerous that American citizens did not have the right or capacity to think through them for themselves. The government would do the thinking for us.
Dissent was equated with treason, and it was not until the hard fought battles of the civil rights movement that dissent was once again seen as legitimate. It’s worth remembering that Martin Luther King was widely accused of being a communist.
Starting in the mid-50s, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program attacked dissenters. While the civil rights and black power movements were the primary targets of violent repression, almost all social movements were surveilled and disrupted. Today, protestors face escalating penalties, police violence, surveillance, and intimidation. Particularly since Trump’s election there have been a host of proposed laws that aim to criminalize first amendment rights of free speech and assembly.
Nixon turned to the “War on Drugs” to create the domestic equivalent of war and suppress the political movements. The War on Drugs — waged by Democrats and Republicans alike — went after hippies, the young and the black community as a way of penalizing the populations on which the movements depended.
Now we know the outcome of the War on Drugs.
Over the past few decades the American people have created a vast militarized penal system that is now the most powerful institutionalized racism in the US. And like the forms of institutionalized racism that preceded it, the penal system functions as an effective form of social control. Discriminatory and militarized policing, on-the-spot executions, slave-like prison labor, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, restriction of trial by jury, lengthy and mandatory sentencing, predatory fine, fee and debt traps, and its gigantic sweep and size constitutes nothing short of a preemptive war against the most potentially rebellious parts of the population: the young, people of color, the poor.
Mandatory sentencing laws passed by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton shifted the power from judges to prosecutors. By tilting power away from the judiciary and toward the executive, a highly “efficient” system of incarceration took shape.
Police often get military training appropriate to an occupation force. Training that emphasizing weapons rather than conflict resolution. The “oil cops” at Standing Rock were employees of a private firm with ties to Blackwater, the corporation that provided the mercenaries used by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The use of facial recognition software, the recording and monitoring of electronic and phone communications and the commercialization of internet browsing data — all without consent or indictments — are part of the most sophisticated system of electronic surveillance ever created. Mass surveillance is a profound attack on the First Amendment. Knowing big brother is always listening chills free speech, dissent and free association.
The penal system chipped away other key provisions of the Bill of Rights including the protection from unwarranted search and seizure, the right to a trial, and the most fundamental rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
With 2 million behind bars, a million of which slave away for big corporations and the military, the penal system is the main example of how the empire’s increasing reliance on force and violence to solve political problems turned inward toward the American people.
But, as intimidating and brutal as the penal system is — it also a last resort. The use of force is evidence that the empire is losing control over the hearts and minds of increasing numbers of its subjects.
The NDAA on the Homefront
The line between empire abroad and empire at home was further eroded by provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
The 1990 NDAA, passed by Congress and signed by President and former director of the CIA George Bush, allowed for the transfer of military weapons to domestic police forces accelerating the militarization of the penal system.
President Obama signed the 2012 NDAA which extended the rules of war worldwide — in effect making the US. homeland a theatre of war — by allowing indefinite detention without trial or justification, in violation of the constitutionally guaranteed right of Habeas Corpus.
The NDAA also included provisions that allowed the “US government to broadcast American produced foreign propaganda in the U.S.” And that is a lot of propaganda. In 2009, $580 million was spend in Iraq and Afghanistan on the information war. Another $500 million was spent by the Pentagon to produce fake Al-Qaeda videos. The NDAA essentially legalized the propaganda efforts of the CIA that were revealed as far back as 1975.
The first amendment is precise and sweeping: ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” The Bill of Rights is designed to protect the people from the power of government not to protect government from the people.
In the last weeks of his term, Obama signed off on a bi-partisan effort to amend the 2016 NDAA and establish a “counter-propaganda” program, once again placing government in a position to determine what is propaganda and what is not. In a free country, that is the job of the people.
The chilling logic behind Obama’s record prosecution of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act and the intense Russian-baiting unleashed by the Clinton machine was taken to it’s extreme conclusion when Trump’s CIA director Mike Pompeo targeted Wikileaks as “a non-state, hostile intelligence service,” in a direct threat to free speech, free press and public access to information. Yet, in the last days of his term Obama insured that the 17 secret police forces would be able to freely share raw data and information gathered on millions of American citizens.
They can know all about us but we cannot know about them.
If the elites trusted the old forms of social order and enculturation— the media, educational system, family, military, church, or even the Constitution itself — to maintain order, would they need to create a system of mass surveillance, incarceration, and propaganda?
What a strange moment we live in!
The revolutionary vision of the Declaration of Independence, the checks on tyranny that structure the U.S. Constitution and the limits on government power listed in the Bill of Rights — though they be flawed, two and a half centuries old and obstructed direct democracy— are far more advanced than the form of government we now have. There is no democratic representation in the U.S. today We, the unrepresented people, are taxed and the represented corporations rule us. The U.S. empire and the corporate power have done what the old British empire could not.
Only massive and disruptive social movements can unmask the abuses of power to truly test the limits of our rights. The most important question: how do we organize the social movements necessary to restore democracy?
Next: As corrosive as empire is to democracy, another set of institutions joined the assault on republican forms of representation: the Corporate Power.
- See the work of The American Empire Project, “Empire, long considered an offense against America’s democratic heritage, now threatens to define the relationship between our country and the rest of the world. The American Empire Project publishes books that question this development, examine the origins of U.S. imperial aspirations, analyze their ramifications at home and abroad, and discuss alternatives to this dangerous trend.” Also see Andrew Bacevich many articles and books such as The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.
- Ellen Schrecker, Many Are The Crimes: McCarthyism in America
How the Corporate Power Killed Democracy
Corporate Power is the Fusion of the Corporation and the State
The rise of Corporate Power was the fall of democracy. Over the long haul, US politics has revolved around a deep tension between democracy and an unrelenting drive for plunder, power and empire. Granted that our democracy has been seriously flawed and only rarely revolutionary, yet the democratic movements are the source of every good thing America has ever stood for.
Since the mid-1970s, when the corporations fused with the state, a new imperial order emerged that killed what remained of representative democracy. Not only would corporations exercise public authority as only government once had, but government would coordinate and serve corporate activity. Power and profits became one and the same. Corporate power has replaced democracy with oligarchy and justice with a vast militarized penal system. Instead of innovative production, they plunder people and planet.
To achieve this new order, elections and the economy had to be drained of any remaining democratic content. Both Democrats and Republicans were eager to have at it.
By the 1990s “Third Way” Democrats like Bill Clinton abandoned what was left of the New Deal to try to outdo the Republicans as the party of Wall Street. The Republicans pioneered election fraud on a national scale in 2000, 2004, and 2016; a lesson the Democrats learned all too well by the 2016 Primary. Neither major party wants election reform since free and fair elections would threaten the system itself.
So-called private corporations like Facebook, Google and Twitter control information and manage the 1st Amendment. The corporate media now broadcast propaganda and play the role of censor once monopolized by the FBI and CIA. The migration of propaganda work to civilian organizations began under Ronald Regan.
While both major parties offer the people nothing beyond austerity and the worst kind of identity politics, the big banks like Goldman Sachs gained positions of real influence with both Republican and Democratic administrations and always with the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve. Without pubic money and political protection the banking system — the headquarters of the mythical free market — could not function.
The Rise of Corporate Power
Corporations made the first big power grab in 1913 when the Federal Reserve was created. Banks were given the power to impose corporate regulation on the “cutthroat competition” of the free market. Competition was chaotic and lowered profits. Corporations killed not just democracy but the free market as well.
Corporations also had their own private militarized police force. The Pinkertons, infamous for attacking striking workers, was the largest armed force in the US in the early decades of the 20th century: larger than the US Army at that time.
The mid-1970s were nonetheless a pivotal time as corporations achieved unmatched political supremacy and overthrew a brief period of relative economic democracy. Corporate power was the reaction to the American revolution that occurred between 1955 and 1975.
The corporations wanted to lower wages while maintaining high levels of consumption and profit. Their solution was to deny workers raises while offering instead record levels of credit and debt. And for that move they needed massive banks. Finance capital then leveraged even greater profits by repackaging debt as an investment and selling the world on their scheme. And for that maneuver to work banks needed to act with the full faith and confidence of the US government.
The shift to austerity for workers and power for bankers began during the mid-1970’s as wage increases no longer tracked productivity. During the last two years of the Carter Administration — with a majority Democratic congress — those trends continued and were dramatically accelerated by Reagan who empowered bankers, revised tax codes and redistributed wealth. By the 1990’s the corporatization of government was more or less complete. Take Robert Rubin’s career for example: he was a 26 year veteran of Goldman-Sachs and Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary. Along with Henry Paulson, Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers, Rubin rewrote economic rules in the image of the corporation: a law unto themselves and in direct command of the power of the state.
A well-funded revolving door insures the power of “Government-Sachs.”
After the 2008 crash $19 trillion was destroyed as everyday people lost their homes, jobs and pensions but the banks received the largest global bailout in history. Big banks grew larger and more powerful than ever. Not only were there no indictments, but Obama returned Summers, Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke to power despite their roles as architects of the crisis. Hillary Clinton pandered to them, Trump railed against them, but after the 2016 election Trump appointed Goldman-Sachs executives to key postions.
Property is the Creature of the State
In order to kill the economic underpinnings of democracy, Corporate Power rigged the game. So deep is the fusion between the corporations and the state that profits are now created largely by political means. There is nothing “free” about this market; instead it is driven by political intervention every step of the way. From start to finish, the supply chain of corporate profits is government action.
- Big corporations, like Google, Facebook, and Apple start by appropriating technologies developed at the public expense by governments and universities.
- Corporations win billions in subsidies, including five $trillion a year for fossil fuels. Corporate power depends on what now seems a permanent regime of “quantitative easing” or virtually free money for finance capital.
- Workers are exploited for profit. Low wages and labor standards at home and abroad are enforced by law and trade agreements.
- Most discretionary spending in the US federal budget is for the military-industrial complex which is, with the possible exception of China, the largest centrally planned economy in the world.
- Tax codes permit and encourage corporations to avoid taxes and hoard capital. The amount staggers the imagination: corporations and billionaires shelter between 21 and 31 $trillion from fair taxation, a sum equal to the GDP of the US and Japan combined. Political representatives enforce the fiction that the government is broke and austerity measures must be imposed.
- The corporate system still relies on plundering the natural world. The largest cost of resource extraction is environmental destruction. Pollution costs to the tune of 2.2 $trillion are “externalized” and taken off the corporate ledger books.
- Risk is externalized and the public pay. The government committed 16 $trillion to the bank bailout between 2008 and 2015.
If the true costs of risk, labor, research and development, environmental damage, war, and taxes were charged to their accounts, what corporation could claim profits? On environment costs alone, almost no industry would be profitable.
The fusion of the corporation and the state, not free-market capitalism, is the true political economy of the U.S.
The State is the Creature of Property
Want to kill democracy? Rig the elections and restrict political rights.
While there are many, many, many ways to prove that big money rules America, Supreme Court decision “Citizens United” provides compelling evidence that corporations wield state power. Instead of insuring that the people have protections like the Bill of Rights against the corporations that now govern, “Citizens United” repealed the 1st Amendment by recognizing corporations as people and protecting money as a form of free speech. Corporate power is cloaked and protected, the peoples’ rights are stripped and rejected.
Justice Steven’s dissenting opinion in “Citizens United” argued:
“The Court’s…approach to the First Amendment may well promote corporate power at the cost of the individual and collective self-expression the Amendment was meant to serve. It will undoubtedly cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress, and the States to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process.”
The “corporate domination of the election process.” Done.
Given that the top 0.1% is now worth as much as the bottom 90% and that long-standing inequalities in wealth have only increased during the Obama Administration and are sure to continue under Trump, the super-rich have the capacity to drown out all others voices and secure their domination of politics in the US.
The price tag for federal elections held in 2016 was $6.5 billion. A tidy sum for an election so bankrupt and dismal that over 90 million eligible voters stayed home and at least 1.75 million that did vote refused to do so for President. Millions more could do no better than hold their noses and vote, once again, for some fabled lesser of two evils.
Corporate Power Must Be Confronted
It’s late in the day. In a 2014 study — the most comprehensive of its kind — Princeton and Northwestern University researchers have demonstrated the utter lack of democracy in the US. Corporate Power and the US Empire killed American democracy while political cowardice and propaganda have us looking for other perpetrators. No it’s not the Russians. Its our own history, culture and political system. American democracy is dead and we must own it in order to revive it.
Corporate power has created a world so unequal that there is no way to change it within the existing political framework. Teams of researchers using data that span thousands of years have concluded that the current extremes in wealth are setting the stage for conflict. In The Great Leveler, historian Walter Scheidel, concludes that only mass mobilization wars, transformative revolutions, pandemics or state collapse have redistributed wealth once it has reached current extremes.
Americans have always dreamed that we are an exception to history but we are not. Not only will “incremental change” or the “lesser of two evils” or faith in the wonders of technology fail to prevent disaster — such ideas have delivered us to the crisis we now face. We long for an easy way out — a way that does not demand risk — a way without the only kind of struggle that has ever made history. Of the most likely outcomes that lie ahead transformative revolution and transformative social movements like Standing Rock, are our best chance to minimize violence, reduce harm and create a better world.
Corporate Power is so destructive to democracy and dangerous to the planet because it recognizes no limits other than those imposed upon it. Corporate Power has but one reason for being: the maximum possible profit and the maximum possible power. Corporations must grow or die but now their growth threatens ecocide, perpetual war and the death of democracy. Such a way of life cannot be sustained. There are but few possible outcomes: the internal contradictions of system will drive us to desperate crisis, or we intervene first, rebuild democracy, protect the planet, and overthrow the corporate dictatorship.
. The 2010 Academy Award winning film Inside Job documents the rise of the corporate state in the context of the 2008 crisis.