One hundred and fifty years ago today (I am writing on July 3, 2013) there occurred a pivotal moment in the collapse of the southern Confederacy’s military struggle to preserve and expand black chattel slavery in the United States. The two great armies of the North and South met in an epic three-day engagement in the southern Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. With 165,000 troops deployed, Gettysburg remains by far and away the single largest battle ever fought in North America. It ended in humiliation for the South, with the epic failure of “Pickett’s Charge “(involving a large march across an open field under withering Northern rifle and artillery fire) – Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee’s greatest blunder – on July 3rd. Lee retreated on the symbolically important date of July 4th. His army would never again set foot on northern soil. The three-day Gettysburg battle left more than 46,000 dead, wounded, or missing.
That the Nation Might Live and Popular Government Survive
Addressing the question of why this monumental slaughter had occurred in his famous Gettysburg Address more than six months later, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln gave two reasons. The first was preservation of the Union: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation…can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”
The second reason was to keep alive and rejuvenate, even remake, the principles of equality and democracy, or popular government: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal….It is for us the living…to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us….that we here highly resolve that that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Did the Gettysburg dead perish in vain? Speaking of Lincoln’s first rationale – survival of the nation – there can be little doubt that the answer is a resounding “no, they did not.” More than merely surviving the Civil War intact, the United States went on to fulfill the wildest global dreams of Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, accurately described by the distinguished American historian Eric Foner as “a self-conscious empire-builder”. Within three decades of the Civil War’s end, the United States would emerge as a great player on the world imperial stage. Within four score years it stood as the post powerful nation in world history – a status it retains to this day though no longer on the scale it enjoyed in the wake of its hideous thermonuclear holocausts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The New Gilded Age
On Lincoln’s second score – the preservation of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” – it’s a rather different story. There have been, it is true, remarkable surges and waves of popular engagement and power in American history since the Civil War: Radical Reconstruction in the post Civil War South, the Progressive Age, and the long New Deal era (1932-1970s), including the industrial workers movement of the 1930s and 1940s and the remarkable many-sided Civil rights and democracy awakening of the 1960s and early 1970s. But none of these waves or surges has ever dislodged the underlying disproportionate and undemocratic power of the wealthy capitalist few who have controlled the lion’s share of the nation’s productive economic resources and shaped the nation’s politics and policies in accord with their selfish interests and with U.S. founder John Jay’s dictum that “those who own the country ought to run it.” Writing at the height of the Progressive Age, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that “politics [was] the shadow cast on society by big business.” It would stay that way, Dewey prophesized, as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by commend of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”
Dewey’s prediction has been born out, to say the least. Each progressive reform wave has been followed by a sharp upward distribution of wealth and power, from the first Gilded Age of the late 19th century (the time of Robber Baron industrialists and financers like John Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan) to the corporatist “roaring 1920s” and the current neoliberal Second or New Gilded Age (1979 to resent). Currently, reflecting more than three decades of savage, deliberately policy-generated upward distribution of resources, the 400 richest Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom half of the U.S. population – 150 million U.S. citizens . The top 1 percent holds as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, a reflection among other things of the fact that the lowest two U.S. wealth quintiles (the bottom 40 percent) of the U.S. control an astonishingly paltry 0.3 percent of the nation’s net worth, essentially nothing. Six Waltons, heirs of the stupendous Wal-Mart fortune (based on the off-shoring of U.S. manufacturing jobs and the ruthless exploitation of retail workers), own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans. Between 2007 and 2010, as typical U.S. families lost an astonishing 39 percent of their wealth (median family net worth fell from $126,400 to $77,300 across those three years), the wealth of the Walton family members rose from $73.3 billion to $89.5 billion – a nearly 22 percent increase.
Democracy is impossible under such radically anti-egalitarian circumstances, something that has been grasped by leading Western and American thinkers, activists, and policymakers from Aristotle through Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Henry George, Upton Sinclair, Dewey, Eugene Debs, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Mario Savio, and Noam Chomsky. U.S. Supreme Court Louis Brandeis’ less-than-novel observation in 1941 that “we must choose” between democracy and “wealth concentrated in the hands of a few” arises from the simple fact that disproportionate political, cultural, ideological, and policy influence flows to those who possess large concentrations of money and worldly goods while those with little of either exercise little power in the absence of remarkable, difficult-to-achieve and sustain solidarity and organization.
“Counter to the Wishes of Most Americans”
The epic concentration of wealth and income that has taken hold in the United States during its Second Gilded Age (making the U.S. more comparable to Latin America and Africa than to Western Europe in terms of economic disparity) stands in cold defiance of public opinion. It’s not for nothing that corporate neoliberal politicians Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Barack Obama gave significant if carefully hedged voice to progressive, populist-sounding values in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2012, even while their campaign teams and the Clinton and Obama administrations were loaded with elite operatives from and for “the 1%.” Most U.S. citizens reject corporate and financial dominance, harsh socioeconomic disparity, and the ruination of social and ecological health in service to the rich and powerful. The vast majority do not accept “plutonomy” and plutocracy. They prefer a roughly egalitarian society where wealth and power are well distributed and the government is run by and for the populace in pursuit of the common good. “Taken literally,” the Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels notes in his important book Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (2009), the survey data illustrating these and other progressive majority views imply “an astonishing level of public support for what would have to be a very radical program of social transformation,” including the outlawing of inherited wealth and of social and economic advantages based on race, gender, ethnicity, and intelligence .
But no such program is remotely entertained by U.S. policymakers and politicians. In fact, even the mildest reforms supported by most U.S. citizens are regularly vetoed by the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s phrase). The public’s progressive policy attitudes are regularly captured by pollsters, but they are not reflected in government behavior, however much they inform the deceptive election-time language of corporate-captive politicians.
The Health Care “Debate”
The “debate” that took place in the national political and media arena over the 2010 federal health insurance reform as it was reviewed by the Supreme Court in early 2012 is an excellent case in point. In Washington and across the airwaves, the Republican right reprised themes that brought us the corporate-backed “Tea Party” by preposterously accusing Obama and the Democrats of attacking “American liberty and prosperity” with “radical left socialism” in the form of “socialized health care.” Republicans and their FOX “news” and talk radio troubadours could hardly contain their fear for the republic, threatened by totalitarian “Obamacare.” They did not inform those they egged into dread that the president’s measure was based on corporate-friendly prescriptions developed by the right wing Heritage Foundation in the 1990s and that his notion of “change” left giant insurance and drug companies free to extract massive profits that drove the nation’s health care costs to the breaking point. Nobody on either side of the “debate” bothered to inform Americans that, as economist Dean Baker showed, the U.S. could eliminate its much-bemoaned fiscal deficit by replacing the nation’s highly dysfunctional privatized and largely employment-based health insurance system with a universal public model similar to what exists in other industrial nations – with a system that would cut health costs in half and yet deliver superior outcomes. Also unmentioned in the dominant media discourse was the curious fact that a solid majority of Americans had long favored a Canadian-style single-payer system whereby the government would grant equal coverage to all citizens regardless of wealth, income, and other social distinctions? None of this garnered attention under the doctrinal rules imposed by the reigning “plutonomy,” where “the financial institutions and Big Pharma are far too powerful for such options even to be considered.”
Deficit Reduction v. Jobs Creation
Another case in point concerns the priority given to the supposedly urgent necessity of deficit reduction in national politics. The U.S. public repeatedly tells pollsters that government’s main priority ought to be job creation, not deficit reduction. As Demos magazine noted last December, 2011 and 2012 polls found that “the public remained focused on jobs and the economy over the deficit by two-to-one margins or more.” Surveys undertaken after Obama’s reelection found that “49 percent thought the election was a mandate for job creation while only 22 percent said that the President’s mandate was for deficit reduction….NBC’s exit poll showed that only 15 percent of voters thought the deficit was the biggest problem facing the country” A majority supports “spending money to invest in infrastructure/public sector hiring, like teachers and firemen, versus cutting to reduce the deficit.”
But so what? As Demos writer J. Mijin Cha explained, “The ‘donor class’ – the segment of the population that donates to political campaigns – is disproportionately comprised of affluent Americans.” This “donor class” (predominantly from households in the top income quintile) “does not prioritize policies to create jobs and economic growth.” It is “twice as likely to name the budget deficit as the most important issue in deciding how they would vote than middle- or lower-income respondents.” And it is strikingly and overwhelmingly rejects federal government action to help create jobs. Just 19% of the nation’s affluent households think the government in Washington should “see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job” – a statement that is favored by 68 percent in the general U.S. public. A tiny 8 percent of the wealthy think that government “should provide jobs for everyone able and willing to work cannot find a job in private employment” – something a majority (53%) of Americans support.
The “donor class” has won the policy argument, in defiance of majority opinion. “Austerity dominates the current political debate” in ways that reflect “the influence of money in our political system…as evidenced in how well the interests and priorities of the affluent class are represented in Congressional action – even when they run counter to the wishes of most Americans” – and, we might add, counter to the requirements of meaningful economic recovery. 
Minimum Wage and Gun Control
We could also mention strong majority (71 percent) public support for a significant increase in the federal minimum wage, prevented by a solid bloc of House Republicans and conservative Democrats beholden to the investor/donor class, and for significant gun control legislation, blocked by the lobbying power of the big money gun lobby. Fully 91 percent – yes, 91 percent – of Americans polled by Gallup last January supported background checks for all gun sales, to no policy avail in the NRA-controlled U.S. Senate. 
The Democracy Deficit: From Shadow to Dark Enveloping Cloud
These are just a handful among a vast number of illustrations of the nation’s gaping democracy deficit – the chasm between the United States’ rhetorical commitment to popular governance and the reality of its subordination to concentrated wealth and power. It’s a much bigger problem than the constantly decried fiscal deficit, which could itself easily be erased by three basic and popular policy moves that cannot be granted serious consideration because of the unelected dictatorship: serious national health care reform on the model of other industrial states; major reductions in the nation’s bloated “defense” (empire) budget; significant progressive tax increases on the wealthy. But then, the nation’s leading business class “deficit-scolds”  have never been all that serious about slashing “the deficit.” Representing multinational corporations and investment houses who possess no particular commitment to the United States (its economy, society, or government) as such, they see “the deficit” as a useful weapon with which to assault social programs for poor and working class Americans and to undermine the notion that government has a progressive role to play in providing comfort and security for ordinary Americans.
Welcome to what Sheldon Wolin calls “Democracy Incorporated” and what Chomsky pithily describes as “wrecked.” Transcending Dewey’s forecast, the moneyed elite’s control of American politics and government has reached a level that almost defies belief in the neoliberal period. “Since the 1970s,” America’s leading intellectual Chomsky observed in the wake of the elite-manufactured and highly unpopular 2011 debt-ceiling crisis, “[Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.”  As John Bellamy Foster Robert W. McChesney have noted, “The United States, despite its formally democratic character, is firmly in the hands of a moneyed oligarchy, probably the most powerful ruling class in history.” By now, Chomsky observes:
“control of government is narrowly concentrated at the peak of the income scale, while the large majority ‘down below’ are virtually disenfranchised. The current political-economic system is a form of plutocracy that diverges sharply from democracy, if by that concept we means political arrangements in which policy is significantly influenced by public will….There have been serious debates over the years about whether capitalism is, in principle, compatible with democracy. It we keep to really existing capitalist democracy – RECD for short (pronounced ‘wrecked’) – the question is effectively answered: they are radically incompatible.” ”
An Age of Corporations and Masters
In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial reflecting on the legacy of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s subsequent famous battlefield address, historian Allen C. Guelzo argues that “The age of plantations and masters has passed away, helped in no small measure by the people who rallied to Lincoln’s challenge….Not hierarchy, but bureaucracy, has become the new agent” of top-down authoritarianism, Guelzo feels.  With all due respect for Americans’ venerable opposition to red-tape and officialdom, that is a profoundly idiotic formulation in an era when 400 Americans possess as much wealth as the bottom half of the populace and when the rich’s giant corporations and financial institutions drive politics and policy in deadly authoritarian defiance of majority opinion and the democratic political tradition that was so eloquently articulated by Abraham Lincoln in November of 1863. If Lincoln were alive today, he would sense and denounce an American (and indeed global) age of corporations and masters (or corporate masters) – one that violated his own republican “free labor ideology” (Foner’s excellent term for the pre-Civil War world view of the once progressive-and-even radical-for-its-time Republican Party ) as well as his sense of government of, by, and for the people. As a dissenter from the expansionist Manifest Destiny nationalism of many U.S. politicians of the time , he would also, I suspect, draw some key connections between American inequality and American empire at home and abroad.
Paul Street is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (2004) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014).
- Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010), 102.
- John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York; New Press, 1916).
- Truth-0-Meter, “Michael Moore Says 400 Americans Have More Wealth Than Half of All Americans Combined,” (March 2011), Journal-Sentinet PolitiFact Wisconsin, http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2011/mar/10/michael-moore/michael-moore-says-400-americans-have-more-wealth-/ (accessed December 18, 2012).
- Nicholas Kristof, “America’s Primal Scream,” New York Times, October 15, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/opinion/sunday/kristof-americas-primal-scream.html?_r=0; Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, “Building a Better America One Wealth Quintile at a Time,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2010.
- Tampa Bay Times, “Bernie Sanders Says Walmart Heirs Own More Wealth Than Bottom 40 Percent of Americans,” PolitiFact.com (July 31, 2012), http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/jul/31/bernie-s/sanders-says-walmart-heirs-own-more-wealth-bottom-/
- Quoted on the Web site of Brandeis University at http://www.brandeis.edu/legacyfund/bio.html and in Harvard Magazine (March 2011) at http://harvardmagazine.com/2011/03/quotable-harvard. The original source in the latter is Labor, October 14, 1941.
- Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 130-31.
- Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006,), 225.
- Noam Chomsky, “America in Decline,” New York Times Syndicate, August 5, 2011, reproduced in Chomsky, Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire, and Resistance (San Francisco: City Lights, 2012), 287
- J. Miljin Cha, “Why is Washington Reducing the Deficit Instead of Creating Jobs?” Demos (December 7, 2012), http://www.demos.org/publication/why-washington-reducing-deficit-instead-creating-jobs.
- Cha, “Why is Washington Reducing the Deficit.”
- Lydia Saad, “Americans Back Obama’s Proposals to Address Gun Violence,” Gallup Politics (January 23, 2013), http://www.gallup.com/poll/160085/americans-back-obama-proposals-address-gun-violence.aspx; Frank Newport, “Americans Wanted Gun Background Checks to Pass Senate,” Gallup Politics (April 29, 2013), http://www.gallup.com/poll/162083/americans-wanted-gun-background-checks-pass-senate.aspx; Sabrina Saddiqui, “Assault Weapons Ban, High Capacity Magazine Measures Fail in Senate,” Huffington Post (April 17, 2013), www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/17/assault-weapons-ban_n_3103120.html
- A more accurate term than “deficit hawks” when it comes to describing the powerful Washington lobbying and propaganda complex that purports to be obsessed with the federal deficit. The complex has never been serious about slashing the deficit, as is clear from its longstanding attachment to cutting government revenues b slashing taxes for the wealthy few. As Krugman observes, “recent events have…demonstrated what was already apparent to careful observers: the deficit-scold movement was never really about deficits. It was about using deficit fears to shred the social safety net.” Paul Krugman, “Hawks and Hypocrites,” New York Times, November 12, 2012, A29.
- Noam Chomsky, “American Decline: Causes and Consequences,” Alakhbar English, August 24, 2011.
- John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, “A New Deal Under Obama?” Monthly Review, Vol.66, Issue 9 (February 2009), 7.
- Noam Chomsky, “Can Civilization Survive Really Existing Capitalism?” International Socialist Review, Issue 88 (March-April 2013), 50-51.
- Allen C. Guelzo, “Gettysburg and the Eternal Battle for a ‘New birth of Freedom,’” Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2013, A15.
- Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995 .
- Foner, Fiery Trial, 102.