Thoughts on Inequality and the Elite

I was talking to someone who is having troubles in their church.

The main problem seems to be that the church leadership is disconnected from the congregation. Issues are being promoted when no one has bothered to ask the average person what they want. The one place in our society where dialogue should be possible is in a church, but surely that is less often the case than would be optimal.

This is seen in every aspect of our society. It’s an inequality of power and opinion.

The leadership of my union, like many other unions, backed Clinton. Yet most union members backed Sanders. The leadership of the NRA fights gun regulation. Yet most NRA members support stronger gun regulation.

This phenomenon is even worse in the corporate media and corporatist politics. It’s not unusual two see two views being debated where neither view matches the public opinion of the majority of the population. In this case, the entire frame of discussion is disconnected from reality on the ground.

But it is most troubling to hear about this in a church. That demonstrates that this dysfunction is pervasive and built into how our society is organized and operates. It’s a profound inequality where most people are silenced and disenfranchised. As I’ve often repeated, the majority doesn’t even realize it is a majority.

All of this is carefully orchestrated by those in power, even those who wield power at the local level in a church. In many cases, those wielding that power don’t understand what they are doing, as they are oblivious to others. It’s too easy for people to take silence as agreement and support. This is how minority views can get portrayed as ‘mainstream’ and how, in the process, majority views are silenced.

I keep repeating this message. And many others have as well. But I don’t know that it can have an impact on our society. This inequality has become so entrenched that it would take mass conflict to dislodge it. A public awakening doesn’t come easily.

* * *

All politicians and political candidates should be required to answer poll questions that are identical to the public. Then the results should be widely disseminated and reported. There even could be an official report sent to every household.

Only politicians who hold a majority of their views and values to the left of the majority of Americans would be allowed to be called liberal or left-wing. But many politicians would fear this. The public would suddenly realize how far left they are or else how far right is the political elite. They’d be able to see that Sanders is a moderate, his views in line with most Americans on most issues. This would leave a large number of Democratic politicians to the right of the American public and all Republicans to the extreme far right fringe.

Why shouldn’t the American public be the standard of what is left and right? I don’t care who is ‘moderate’ by the standards of corporatist politics. I want to know who is a moderate according to normal Americans. If the views of the average American is considered extremist by corporatist politicians, then maybe the problem is those corporatist politicians and not the average American.

I have an odd idea. Maybe our representatives should represent us, considering that it supposedly is a representative democracy. At the very least, it would make for an interesting experiment. Maybe we could try it sometime just to see how it works out. If we didn’t like it, we could always go back to authoritarian plutocracy.

* * *

Positions on issues where Bernie Sanders agrees with and is representative of the majority of Americans, i.e., We the People:

– improving economy for lower-to-middle class
– decrease unemployment, poverty, & inequality
– progressive taxation
– higher corporate taxation
– stronger regulation of corporations
– opposition to neoliberal trade agreements
– universal healthcare
– decriminalizing drug use
– no more wars of aggression
– more effective environmental regulation
– taking action on climate change
– promoting alternative energy
– both gun rights and gun controls
– et cetera

Explain to me in what way Bernie Sanders is a left-wing socialist, in comparison to the American public. If he is a left-wing socialist, then so are most Americans.

* * *

Do you think Sanders was too left-wing to beat Trump? If so, then consider this. What motivated people to vote for him?

Well, Trump promised to stop big money political corruption, end neoliberal trade deals, force American corporations to manufacture in the US, bring jobs back for the working class, rebuild infrastructure, and make healthcare affordable for more people. It’s the exact kind of promises Sanders made.

Do you honestly think that voters looking for someone to make good on these promises would have chose Trump over Sanders? Of course not. The only reason they voted for Trump is because they had little if any trust that Clinton would do anything other than defend the status quo that was harming so many.

You can argue that Trump voters were naive. Then again, you could argue that Clinton voters were naive. Both candidates have spent their lives lying in order to get ahead.

If voters were looking for the lesser evil as they were told they should do, it shouldn’t be surprising that they chose the candidate who promised change, as they voted for Obama who promised change. Guess what? They actually do want change, even if voting for Trump was an act of desperation in response to a failed political system.

The moment was perfect for the Democratic establishment to have nominated someone like Sanders. That is assuming they would rather win with a progressive than lose with a corporatist, surely a false assumption to make. The Democratic establishment knew that Sanders would have had an overwhelming victory and that scared them, because it would have challenged their dominance of the party.

It turns out Sanders was a moderate by the standards of the American public. But in a radical corporatist system, we’ve lost the ability to recognize a moderate. It’s sad that a moderate like Sanders is treated as such a threat, more of a threat than Trump.

* * *

Daniel Drezner, in The Ideas Industry, criticizes the marketplace of ideas. But I’m not sure to what extent he understands the actual problem, in terms of leftist critique of capitalist realism and the destruction of the commons.

I did some searches in his book. It looks like it could be a decent analysis. Still, I wonder if he falls into the standard trap of focusing on the symptoms more than the disease. In the passage below, he dismisses the cause as being irrelevant, which seems like a self-defeating attitude if we are seeking fundamental changes at the causal level. To emphasize this potential weakness, I noticed throughout his book that numerous times he mentions capitalism and the marketplace of ideas while never bringing up the the view of a commons (a topic discussed by Howard Schwartz).

Problematic as that might be, Drezner does bring up important points. He discusses inequality, in how it relates to wealth, power, and influence. It’s not just those at the top have more but that using what they have they can control which ideas get a loudspeaker and which ideas get silenced. It’s unsurprising, as he points out, that surveys show the elite have entirely different values and agendas than the rest of the population.

This is a dangerous situation for an aspiring democracy. The elite control of the Ideas Industry could be called propaganda, since not only the ideas are controlled but the framing, narrative, reporting, and debate of ideas is controlled. It’s controlled by plutocratic funding and organizations along with corporatist political parties and corporate media. It’s because of this concentrated control of ideas that causes so many Americans do not realize they are a silenced majority.

Here is the passage from Daniel Drezner’s The Ideas Industry (pp. 62-5):

“While the rise in inequality has been concentrated in the United States, it also reflects a more widespread, global phenomena. Whether the cause has been globalization, the rise of finance, the economics of superstars, or the ineluctable laws of capitalism is irrelevant for our concerns. What does matter is that both wealth and income inequality are on the rise, and there are excellent reasons to believe that the concentration of wealth at the top could increase further over time.

“As the inequality of wealth has increased in the United States, so has the inequality of contributions to political life. Survey data show that the wealthy are far more politically informed and active than the rest of the public. […] The effect of economic and political inequality on the Ideas Industry is profound. On the one hand, rising income inequality and declining income mobility have bred dissatisfaction with the state of the American Dream. Since the start of the twenty-first century, poll after poll has shown that Americans believe their country is headed in the wrong direction.

“The most profound impact of rising economic inequality is on the supply side of the Ideas Industry. The massive accumulation of wealth at the top has created a new class of benefactors to fund the generation and promotion of new ideas. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to find a profile of a billionaire that does not also reference an interest in ideas.

“Twenty-first-century benefactors are proudly distinct from their twentieth-century predecessors. The big benefactors of the previous century set up foundations that would endure long after they died. While many plutocrats had ideas about the purpose of their foundations, most were willing to trust the boards they appointed. […] Foundations set up by J. Howard Pew and Henry Ford also wound up promoting ideas at odds with the political philosophies of their benefactors.

“This century’s patrons adopt a more hands-on role in their engagement with ideas. Echoing billionaire Sean Parker, they largely reject “traditional philanthropy—a strange and alien world made up of largely antiquated institutions.” To twenty-first-century plutocrats, the mistake of past benefactors was to delegate too much autonomy to posthumous trustees. A new set of “venture philanthropists” or “philanthrocapitalists” has emerged to stimulate new thinking about a host of public policy issues. In contarst to the older foundations, these new entities are designed to articulate a coherent philosophy consistent with a living donor’s intent. Organizations like the Gates Foundation and Omidyar Network have developed a large footprint in significant areas of public policy.

“Most of these new philanthropic foundations are obsessed with the “three Ms”—money, markets, and measurement. Potentially game-changing ideas are like catnip to plutocrats. […] The eagerness to please benefactors affects both the content and the suppliers of the ideas. […] In the Ideas Industry, thought leaders fiercely compete to get on the radar screen of wealthy benefactors.”

A System of Unhappiness

The unhappiness, frustration, outrage, and whatever else many Americans are experiencing is hardly new. It has been around for as long I can remember.

Even back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a growing sense of unease and a sense that something had gone askew, as wages stagnated and inequality grew while the lower classes waited for the promises of trickle-down. Long before the 2008 recession and Trump’s economic populism, there were the WTO protests in 1999. The failures have been apparent for at least decades, failures of American-style globalization and neoliberal corporatism (inverted totalitarianism?) along with the political elite, lobbyists, and think tanks that serve it.

The sense of tension and conflict has only grown worse, as the economic situation for most Americans has deterioriated. For this past decade or so: Large parts of our government, such as Congress, have had microscopic levels in the general public’s approval ratings. In polls, large percentages (often a majority) of Americans regularly say that they don’t think the government represents them and that we don’t have a functioning democracy. Also, accusations of political manipulation, vote rigging, and media bias/collusion have been regularly heard all across the political spectrum.

With this past campaign season and the presidential election, all of this has been magnified to the point it can no longer be ignored or dismissed by the political and media elite. It seems to have hit a tipping point. But the culmination of it all is still unclear. Sanders voters accused Clinton and the DNC in rigging the primary. Trump accused Democrats of rigging the election. And then Democrats returned the favor by accusing Trump and now the Russians. It seems almost everyone now agrees our system is dysfunctional and being rigged somehow by someone. Whatever it is, it ain’t democracy.

Yet, at the same time, the American public (myself included, sadly) has grown so cynical and apathetic that few can be bothered to start protests and riots in the street to demand democracy. If people are so unhappy, where is the march on Washington or the occupation of statehouses? It feels like most Americans have given up on the system, which is dangerous for that is when the system is most vulnerable to authoritarianism, demagoguery, and dictatorship. When a society gets to that point, the best that can be hoped for is all-out revolution that overthrows the entire system and starts from scratch.

It’s highly probable that the Russians were meddling in American politics. It would be shocking if they weren’t. Russians and Americans have been meddling with each other’s countries since the beginning of the Cold War. The CIA is infamous for its covert activities in fucking around with other countries. You’d have to be naive to the point of idiocy to think that every major government isn’t constantly meddling in the affairs of other countries. We might as well have an open system of international spy exchange, just to simplify things. And it isn’t even just government. Do you really think the Chinese government doesn’t have spies in Western technology companies? Do you really think the Russian government doesn’t have spies in American companies manufacturing and operating voting machines? Come on! Don’t be stupid. In our heart of hearts, we already know this.

As for a functioning democracy, our government was from the beginning designed to not be a functioning democracy. That is what happened when the Federalists won. It’s true the Anti-Federalists got some semi-democratic concessions in trying to protect against the worst aspects of the Federalist aspirations of monarchy, aristocracy, and imperialism. But those concessions have turned out to be impotent.

Consider the electoral college. It was a compromise in the hope of balancing power. The reality of it, however, was that it gave power to the elite. It ultimately wasn’t a compromise between the public and the powerful nor between large and small states. Rather it ended up being an agreement between elites and other elites, in the struggle over which elites would rule and how they would rule.

Electors are part of the political elite, first and foremost. Their purpose is to represent state governments (i.e., local political elite) more than it is to represent local voters. This is why electors have always had the freedom to elect anyone they want. The idea was that, if the public voted incorrectly, the political elite by way of the electors could ensure the correct candidate was elected president. So, if the electors in this election did choose Clinton over Trump, they would simply be doing what is in their job description. Clinton is part of the political establishment and Trump isn’t. The electors purpose is to protect the political establishment, and the party-affiliation of the electors guarantees the state political establishments remains aligned with the federal political establishment.

From this perspective, nothing is exactly malfunctioning.

It’s sort of like modern warfare. The United States didn’t lose the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. They achieved their purpose in destabilizing these countries to keep other global powers from establishing control. It’s how geopolitics is played. The United States could have simply blown any of those countries off the map or turned any of them into permanent colonies, but that isn’t how the modern geopolitical game is played and won. Plus, it is effective as spectacle and entertainment to distract the masses, by playing out scapegoating rituals and propaganda narratives on the global stage. This redirects the public’s unhappiness and anger toward state-approved targets, allowing for emotional catharsis and temporary appeasement of collective anxiety.

As explained by Diana Johnstone, in Queen of Chaos:

For most Americans, U.S. wars are simply a branch of the entertainment industry, something to hear about on television but rarely seen. These wars give you a bit of serious entertainment in return for your tax dollars. But they are not really a matter of life and death…

In fact, it hardly seems to matter what happens in these wars. The United States no longer even makes war in order to win, but rather to make sure that the other side loses. Hillary Clinton accused Vladimir Putin, quite falsely, of adhering to a “zero-sum game in which, if someone is winning, then someone else has to be losing”. The United States is playing something even worse: a “no win”, or a “lose-lose”, game in which the other side may lose, yet the United States cannot be called the winner. These are essentially spoiler wars, fought to get rid of real or imagined rivals; everyone is poorer as a result. Americans are being taught to grow accustomed to these negative wars, whose declared purpose is to get rid of something – a dictator, or terrorism, or human rights violations.

The United States is out to dominate the world by knocking out the other players.

“Our ideals” are part of the collateral damage.

If you don’t understand the purpose and agenda behind a system, you can’t judge how effective it is in achieving those ends. Maybe that is what is happening with the American public right now. They are waking up to the reality that the world isn’t as they thought it was, that their country isn’t the kind they had been sold.

So, by what right do the elite rule over us? The social contract is being questioned, the legitimacy of the government challenged. Then what?

Extreme Consensus On Globalization

Something I continually am reminded of is how disconnected the ruling elite are from the rest of the population. The political elite doesn’t represent most Americans. And the media elite doesn’t speak for most Americans.

This wouldn’t be as problematic if it wasn’t combined with a citizenry that doesn’t realize they are the majority. Too many Americans have come to believe what the elite say. This creates a sever state of collective disempowerment that is fatal to democracy.

I wonder if ths is how populist movements begin. When it comes to major issues, it probably takes a long time for a consensus to slowly form among the majority. It then would take a long time for shared awaeness to form. And then it would require someone to articulate what everyone was thinking and speak out in a way that breaks past the mainstream filters.

Someone like MLK only can be a great leader because the conditions were right. He came onto the public stage when a tipping point had been reached in public opinion. He simply said what so many people wanted to say and he was in a position to be heard.

Below is a passage from Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country by William Greider (Kindle Locations 903-915).

* * * *

Americans have developed what I call an “extreme consensus” on the subject of globalization. According to pollster Daniel Yankelovich, the public reached a tipping point several years ago, when 87 percent expressed concern about the outsourcing of US jobs. Polling firm Lake Research Partners found there to be a similar consensus about globalization’s impact on wages. In 2006, some 81 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: “No matter what you hear about the economy, working families are falling behind.” Half of the population (51 percent) believes the next generation-today’s children-will be worse off in economic terms than they are.

When people talk about this in everyday conversation, they say things like “I don’t see how the country can go on like this” and “We are going to be okay, but I worry about what it’s going to be like for the kids.” People don’t claim to know all the economic facts and theories, but they can see what’s happening around them. The lost jobs, the closed factories, the middle-aged men working behind the counter at Starbucks. What keeps people up at night is wondering how to pay the bills and worrying about what will come next. Most Americans are not opposed to the idea of global trade, and they accept the inevitability of globalization. What they are against is the unaddressed consequences globalization will have for their own country.

The governing powers, with few exceptions, do not share the public’s sense of urgency. In 2005, the Pew Research Center compared the public’s concerns with the opinions expressed by “American influentials” in various sectors-government, politics, foreign affairs, news media, and others. The public believed overwhelmingly (84 percent) that “protecting the jobs of American workers” should be the government’s “top priority” and considered that to be as important as fighting terrorism. The influentials did not think so. Of those in the news media, only 29 percent agreed. Among academics and scholars at think tanks, only 16 percent agreed. The only group that more or less agreed with the people was religious leaders (55 percent). Opinion leaders overwhelmingly regard new trade agreements as good for the country. Less than half of the public agrees.

Class War is a Rigged Game

As long as there is class war, the lower classes will never be able to be free. It is hard to break the power of an elite. Even if this is accomplished, it is easy for this elite or a new elite to gain power again. It is endless.

It seems to me that struggle from below will never by itself solve the problem. Somehow the elite has to be transformed by coming to realize that what negatively impacts the lower classes also negatively impacts the elite.

It seems to me that playing into the class war rhetoric will always lead to the upper class winning. It is a rigged game.

The reason it is rigged is because it is an easy game for the elite to win and a difficult, if not impossible, game for the lower classes to win. The elite a small group by definition and it is easy for them to organize, especially as they have so much in common in terms of culture and economics. The lower classes, however, are vast and diverse which makes organization difficult. The elite always have the upper hand in a class war.

The game itself has to change.