Guest perspective by Ralph Nader
Just when many conditions seemed ripe for a progressive political movement, the likelihood is fading fast. Concentrated corporate power over our political economy and its control over peoples lives knows few boundaries.
As Republican investor advocate leader Robert Monks puts it: “The United States is a corporatist state. This means that individuals are largely excluded both in the political and corporate spheres.”
Since Wall Street’s self-inflicted multi-trillion dollar collapse last year, the corporate supremacists have shown no remorse. They have become more aggressive: they are blocking regulatory reforms; pouring campaign donations into the governing Democrats’ coffers; and, shamelessly demanding more bailouts, subsidies and tax reductions. They also continue to block avenues for judicial justice by aggrieved people, whether they be the wrongfully injured, defrauded consumers and investors, or jettisoned workers and bilked pensioneers.
The problem: large corporations have too many structural powers over the citizenry. These “artificial persons” have acquired the constitutional rights originally given in 1787 only to “natural persons.” In fact, corporations have enormously greater privileges and immunities than the people themselves because of their global control over politicians, capital, labor and technology.
Normal sanctions do not adequately deter multinational companies that can obscure their culpability, escape jurisdictions or create their own parents (holding companies) and endless progeny (subsidiaries) to evade or avoid accountability.
Even the most ardent progressives in Congress, and the most organized progressive groups, cannot begin to deal with such gigantic mismatches.
Decades ago, there was more debate about the need for different “rules of conduct,” to use conservative Frederick A. Hayek’s phrase, between corporations and human beings. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned about corporations becoming “Frankensteins.” Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft wanted to replace the permissive state chartering laws with tough federal chartering laws for large corporations.
For two generations the ever-expanding superior status of corporations has gone undiscussed in political realms. During that time, corporations and their attorneys rode roughshod over the “we the people” preamble of the Constitution. Our charter of government never mentions the word “corporation.”
Unabated, the corporate crime wave continues. The corporate welfare kings get fatter, the power disparity expands between corporations and shrinking unions, and the pull-down pressures, created by the corporate shipment of jobs and industries to repressive regimes abroad, further corrodes American work opportunities. More of government, including military functions, is being corporatized despite recurring reports of rising waste, fraud and abuse.
The federal government’s budget for auditors, investigators, inspectors and prosecutors is laughable, given the scale of looting: the defrauding of medicare; abuses of Pentagon contracts; the taking of minerals on the public lands; and the giveaways of government research and development to favored companies.
Corporate profits keep going up, except for bailout periods, while most Americans’ standards of living decline. Our country, so full of unapplied solutions, is gridlocked—stuck in traffic. Record levels of poverty, unemployment, home foreclosures, consumer debt and bankruptcies, and people lacking health insurance persist, yet corporate political power has not waned. A bad sign. Indeed, it has increased, notwithstanding large majorities of Americans decrying too much corporate control over their lives. The leave-it-to-the market ideology of Big Business, and its claims of patriotism, have lost credibility in this globalized era. Yet, the myth lives on even as socialism routinely saves big capitalism from its own greed.
What can active progressives do? In Congress, amongst the Republicans and corporate Democrats, the small progressive caucus of 83 members generates little political impact. Ironically, many of those progressive legislators are busy dialing for the same commercial campaign dollars.
Outside Congress, progressive groups have been on the defensive for so many years that they have few offensive political strategies. The two parties are in the narrowest channels of self-perpetuation. They gerrymander their opponents into one-party districts and together produce a matrix of obstacles to keep competition from third parties at bay.
Both parties give preferential access to the hordes of drug, coal, banking and other industry lobbyists, who are allowed de facto to choose many of the nominees that lead the government’s departments, such as the Defense and Treasury Departments.
Enough abuses have been documented. Enough power has been concentrated to shred our democratic processes and institutions. It is time to decisively shift power from the few to the many. Democratic power is the essence of progressive political philosophy, and the precondition for the emergence of a just society nourished by higher public expectations.
How to begin? Progressives—elected, civic, labor and funders—need to come together in a national convention to aggregate the existing forces for change. Such a gathering could create a clear-eyed vision of the common good to shatter debilitating public cynicism and passivity.
In attendance must be a broad range of energetic community organizers, thinkers, the seriously generous progressive mega-rich and the heroic dynamos who have risen from their suffering to act on behalf of “liberty and justice for all.”
There is ample historic precedent for the galvanizing effect of founding social justice conventions. This proposed convocation needs to take civic and political action to unprecedented levels, powerfully fueled by committed resources and strategies to build enduring democratic institutions.
Unused knowledge, and many working models of community economics, environmental advances and educational quality exist to further the larger progressive dynamic.
Lincoln once observed the crucial importance of “public sentiment” for moving a society forward. That “public sentiment” is here, deep, widespread and ready for clearly explained “redirections.”
If a mantra is needed in the convention hall, let the eternal words of the Roman, Marcus Cicero, be emblazoned for all to see: “Freedom is participation in power.” For this aspiration places responsibility where it must always reside: on the shoulders, in the minds, and in the hearts of an empowered American people.
Ralph Nader is the author of Only the Super Rich Can Save Us! For more information, see OnlytheSuperRich.Org.