The Audacity to Wield Power

In a Feb 2, 2011 photo, American flags line the entrance to the Ralph Buckner Funeral Home and Crematory in Cleveland where W
In a Feb 2, 2011 photo, American flags line the entrance to the Ralph Buckner Funeral Home and Crematory in Cleveland where World War II veteran Berthold Chastain was honored. Chastain, of Dalton, Ga., is one of 12 World War II servicemen whose remains The Pentagon has identified. The military said Thursday, July 28, 2011 that they died in a plane crash in Papua New Guinea on Oct 27, 1943. Their remains will be buried Aug. 1 at Arlington National Cemetery. (AP Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tim Barber) MANDATORY CREDIT: TIM BARBER/CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS

Americans are good people, and at times we can be wise. But we're often under-informed by media, misinformed by our government and ill-served by both. Issues are presented to us wrapped in the illusion that we really have much choice in the matter, the issue having first been processed by a corporate and political machinery that determines what we're even permitted to consider. This leaves the people of the United States pretty low on the food chain of vital decision makers regarding activities of government that affect our daily lives.

The primary social contract between the people of the United States and their government -- quaint though it might seem to even mention it at this point -- is that ours is to be a government "of the people, by the people, for the people."

Abraham Lincoln wrote that phrase while on the battlefield of Gettysburg, where bodies strewn across Pennsylvania farmland determined that this extraordinary experiment in self-governance "shall not perish from the earth." "A government of the people, by the people, for the people" was not a slogan concocted by political consultants, paid for by PAC money. It was a statement rising from the extraordinary mind of one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, and it was paid for with the blood of thousands.

Now, removed by over a century from the struggles of the Civil War, we face what Abraham Lincoln himself considered the greatest threat to the United States at the end of that war: the rise of corporate power. In Lincoln's words:

"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless."

Since the Civil War, America has recreated a virulent economic dynamic the likes of which, in part, we fought a War of Independence to be free of: A veritable aristocracy that, in keeping with its own self-declared entitlement, takes for the most part whatever it wants, and leaves the rest to us.

At a time in our history when gargantuan financial interests are allowed to flood political campaigns with contributions that dwarf the ability of average citizens to match, it is thoroughly reasonable both to question this unfortunate turn of events, and to take vigorous action to change it. If we're going to renegotiate our basic social contract from government "of the people, by the people, for the people," to government "of a few of the people, by a few of the people, for a few of the people," then at the very least this change should be accompanied by vigorous debate. For such a change, should it indeed become permanent, marks the end of the great democratic experiment that our ancestral geniuses bequeathed to us and for which so many have struggled and died.

The undue influence of financial interests -- both corporate and personal -- on the government of the United States is a cancer that underlies all other cancers. Euphemistically called "special interests," many are corporate entities whose bottom line is the short-term interest of their shareholders and management only. That of itself is not the argument here, for it is the purview of corporate America itself to address its internal ethics; indeed, such questioning is already alive and well in certain circles. The pertinent issue here is not how corporations operate per se, but rather how they exert undue influence on the United States government, thus affecting the lives of the vast majority of ordinary Americans.

Every American citizen is affected when health insurance companies, reaping more than $14 billion in annual profit, for all intents and purposes prohibit the consideration of universal health care in congressional committee; when oil companies, reaping more than $88 billion in annual profit, limit our problem-solving options in the face of global warming; when gun manufacturers, reaping an annual profit of $1 billion, fight fiercely even the most moderate proposals for gun safety; and when defense contractors, often against the counsel of our own military leaders and reaping an annual profit of more than 14 billion dollars, promote the increasingly obsolete contention that an outsize defense budget is in direct relationship to the degree of our safety.

Meanwhile, those without financial leverage see their political influence continue to wane. America's children, for instance, who obviously wield no financial leverage whatsoever, are increasingly at the effect of the unsustainable and perniciously unjust influence gap in Washington, D.C. America's child poverty rate -- at 23.1 percent -- is so high that it is second only to Romania among 35 industrialized nations. One in four American children are "food insecure." We lack air quality safety standards in our public schools. A "cradle-to-prison pipeline" now makes the lifetime likelihood of incarceration for an African-American male 1 in 3, a Latino male 1 in 6, and a white male 1 in 17. Indeed, our private prison industry, reaping annual profits of more than $3 billion, gains economic benefit from the scandalously high incarceration rate in the United States. With 2.4 million of our citizens now imprisoned -- compared to 300,000 in the 1970s -- we now have the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, or even in history. We incarcerate more African-American men today than were slaves in 1850. The amount of unnecessary suffering that lies behind these statistics -- the sheer despair of so many Americans now burdened by our imbalanced scales of social justice, is a wake-up call to the conscious heart. For no one is more of a "citizen" in the United States than is anyone else, and large groups of desperate citizens should be everyone's concern... if for no other reason than that desperate people do desperate things.

All of the issues mentioned above -- plus, as well, the difficulty faced by far too many young Americans trying to get a higher education; an opportunity gap that begins the first day of kindergarten, as the economically advantaged among us send our children to nursery school and the rest of America's public school children lack educational stimulation until age five; a lack of paid maternity and paternity leave that in other countries has proven to reap social benefits for decades; and an issue that truly does affect us all: the corruption of America's food supply and its infiltration by genetically modified foods -- time and time again the average American is left to accept the diminishing returns of a rampantly unjust economic system.

To many Americans, this information is not new. What is new, perhaps -- or maybe I'm just dreaming -- is how many of us understand that if any of this is going to change, really change, then it won't be because our current crop of leaders change it. For how can a system that derives its survival from money be the system that cuts off the money supply? If the buying and selling of the American government is ever going to change, it won't be because the political status quo voluntary changes it. It will be because we, the people of the United States, having realized how dire the situation has become, create a new, nonviolent political movement out of which emerges political candidacies that make the public financing of all federal campaigns, plus a Constitutional Amendment overriding the effects of Citizens United and prohibiting the undue influence of moneyed interests on our politics, the cornerstone of those campaigns.

America has basically two choices at this point: to do the above, or to continue to water the leaves of a dying plant. If our wish is to water the roots of the plant -- and there is still time to save it, for every two years half of the Congress of the United States comes up for election -- then we had best get moving. Candidates who will run such campaigns as I've described will certainly not be the best funded, at least initially. But there are enough organizations to train candidates and elucidate the issues I've mentioned, that though the hour is late, Americans may still yet rise up and do the right thing -- the "right thing" being something "Americans can always be counted on to do," according to Winston Churchill, "after they have first exhausted all other possibilities." This time, it's not so much that all our options are exhausted, as that we ourselves are exhausted... not so much by effort as by lack of effort. Internally, it is our failure to engage that exhausts our souls. For we are currently abiding the incremental dismantling of American democracy, and surely somewhere inside ourselves we are sick at the realization. We need more than the audacity of hope this time. We need the audacity of courage. We need the audacity to wield power. We need the audacity to act.

And if we don't, things will continue as they are. Echoing again the words of Lincoln as he speaks to us from the grave, "the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed." Lincoln prayed that his "suspicions prove groundless." Whether or not they do, is up to us.