On Monday, I stood in the rain on the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento with thousands of students and workers to protest further deep cuts to California’s beleaguered public infrastructure. Last Saturday, over 85,000 people marched in Madison, Wisconsin in support of the basic rights of workers to collectively bargain. What these actions have in common, aside from being largely ignored by corporate media outlets, is a renewed commitment to resisting the relentless assault on the American middle class exemplified by Governor Scott Walker’s phantom anti-worker agenda in Wisconsin and the persistent lack of democracy in California.
In last fall’s elections, Scott Walker did not campaign on stripping the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Yet that has become the non-negotiable central goal of his brief tenure in office. Similarly, the progressives who swept every statewide office in California while continuing to hold commanding majorities in both chambers of the legislature did not campaign on a platform of cutting further billions from California’s education and health care systems. But such cuts are the most conspicuous feature of Jerry Brown’s proposed budget.
Electoral democracy has effectively ceased to function across vast swaths of the federal, state and local governments of the United States of America. This did not happen by accident, but rather is part of a plan orchestrated and carried out by a relatively small group of wealthy plutocrats and radical right-wing ideologues with converging interests. They accept frequent assistance from heedlessly self-interested corporations particularly those in the financial industry along with various fundamentalist Christian organizations. All of this may sound like a conspiracy theory, but I would hardly call it that. Much of this plan has been carried out in the open and there is extensive literature documenting it all the way back to the late 1970s. A recent example of this documentation would be Jane Meyers’ extensive investigative report for the New Yorker on the hugely influential political activities of the Koch brothers, who are well known industrial billionaires that believe in radically remaking the U.S. to have an authoritarian government exclusively of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.
For these reasons, elections can no longer be the principal means that the American people use to express their political will because the results of elections have become increasingly detached from actual government policymaking. One can look at the unanticipated but vicious attacks on workers rights across the Midwest, or California’s non-democratic legislature, or the absurdly dysfunctional institution that is the United States Senate, to know with certainty that this assertion is true. Voting is still important and seems to occasionally yield results, but the machinery of governance has become too disconnected from the voting booth for it to be reliable as the primary democratic action. I am advocating that given the deteriorating position of the middle class and the perilous state of global climate systems, U.S. citizenship demands more from those who benefit from its rights and privileges.
But what else can we do? If the electoral process is too corrupt to be effective and a self-selected billionaire elite is systematically dismantling democratic self-government, it would seem that despair is our only option. Except to believe that would only be buying into the modern mythology about ultra wealthy people. We are meant to believe they are wealthy because they are brilliant, or talented, or because they add untold value to our economy, or even due to a preternatural luck that the rest of us cannot access. But in reality, they are only rich because of us. The Koch brothers are nothing more than a pair of clever thugs who have helped push the government to systematically redistribute the wealth of the nation upwards for the last thirty years, some of it into their own pockets. We make them wealthy and we can stop anytime we want.
When I was in Sacramento, there were huge numbers of students from community colleges and CSUs, but very few from the University of California. I think that is because UC students do not understand that we don’t need the boss. Rather, the boss needs us. Put simply: the University of California, the state of California, the United States of America and most especially the moneyed elites that have driven our country into a ditch, can only function if students keep going to school, workers keep going to work, and the police keep securing the institutions of public and private governance against the collective will of the governed. What would happen if we just stopped playing their game?
Crossposted at A Gilded Planet.