January 21 marked the second anniversary of the 2010 Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission ruling that proclaimed corporations to be people “who” can spend unlimited amounts of money influencing our political elections. This assault against We the People and our democracy by five justices on the U.S. Supreme Court rates down there with the Dred Scott Decision (1857), which helped bring on the Civil War, and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which sanctioned “separate but equal” as the law of the land.
Citizens United was a radical ruling in that it was the culmination of a thirty-year effort to replace the American republic with an American plutocracy. It was also a reactionary ruling because it was intended to turn the clock back to the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s when the wealthy ruled without restraint. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the lone conservative on the Court and therefore the determining vote, sided with the four radical-reactionary extremists (Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas) for the 5 to 4 decision!
The election results of 2010 may be the first products of Citizens United, and the plutocrats got the best seats in the U.S House of Representatives, state governorships, and state legislatures that money could buy: Thus, (1) the Fox-Republican-TEA Party has gridlocked the U.S. Congress so that very little can be done to improve our transportation and communications infrastructure, improve the environment, or promote job growth; and (2) Fox-Republican-TEA Party state governments across the land have essentially declared war against the middle class.
Nevertheless, all is not lost. American laborers, public servants, and small business owners and employees must never give up. An Ernest Hemingway character, Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not, recognized that “No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody chance.” However, there is strength in numbers. And as Edward R. Murrow once said: “We are not descended from fearful people.”
Over 50 national, state, and local organizations representing various constituencies and issues have endorsed the passage of a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. Many cities – including NYC, Los Angeles, Boulder, Chapel Hill, and Missoula – have passed resolutions and ballot initiatives to do so. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has submitted his “Saving American Democracy Amendment,” and we need to encourage every member of Congress to be a co-sponsor.
When the newly-elected Gov. John Kasich, with his Republican legislative majority, pushed through his anti-worker/anti-middle class bill, Ohioans got signatures on petitions, brought that bill to a popular vote, and overturned it in the 2011 November elections. The usually arrogant Kasich seemed humbled and admitted that he should have listened to the people.
The courageous Wisconsin 14 blew the whistle on newly-elected Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda to take away the hard-earned rights of Wisconsin’s public workers. They were the minority Democratic legislators who refused to quietly let the Republican majority sabotage Wisconsin’s middle class. Realizing the only way to prevent it was to deny the required quorum for a vote, they left the state and publicized what the Republican governor and legislature were up to. The people were furious. The result was weeks of protests in the state capitol in Madison. Police, firefighters, teachers and their students, farmers, and others came together to prevent the passage of the punitive bill.
Walker and company didn’t care! The bill was passed and signed anyway. At the time, an apparently photo-shopped picture of a highway sign made the rounds on the Internet: “Welcome to Wisconsin – A Division of Koch Industries.” Billionaire David Koch had helped finance Walker’s election campaign, so everyone finally realized who Walker really represented. The governor all but admitted it in a hilarious, though scary, telephone conversation in which a blogger tricked him into thinking he was talking to David Koch.
The people of Wisconsin continue to be active. They got signatures on petitions, brought recall elections for several Republican legislators, and came within one seat of the Democrats’ regaining control of the legislature and overturning the anti-middle class law. They’ve now gotten over one million signatures –about 500,000 more than required – to force Gov. Walker himself into a recall election!
Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who also took office in Jan. 2011, signed a bill that increased the powers of emergency financial managers. Managers, with six-figure salaries, are able to renegotiate, modify, or void collective bargaining agreements and other contracts. These agents of the governor can sell public assets, merge cities or school districts, end public services, and even remove elected officials! Flint, Mich. – often cited as the birthplace of the American middle class because of a successful strike for workers’ rights that paved the way for others – is one of the bill’s victims. The people of Michigan are getting signatures to bring a referendum on this bill.
In the spring and summer of 1932, as the Great Depression approached its deepest point, 17,000 unemployed veterans from WWI and their families (43,000 in all) marched on Washington, DC, to demand the Congress pay in advance a bonus scheduled for 1945. They were known as the Bonus Army. Even though Republican Pres. Herbert Hoover ordered no violence against the demonstrators, Douglas MacArthur eventually led a military attack on the protesters and burned the marchers’ ramshackle encampment. Hoover accepted responsibility. In Albany, NY, Gov. Franklin Roosevelt was furious and asked, “Why didn’t Hoover offer the men coffee and sandwiches instead of turning Pat Hurley [Sec. of the Army] and Doug MacArthur loose?” There was a big difference between FDR and Herbert Hoover.
Today we have an Occupy Movement that is bringing attention to the vast discrepancies between the haves and have-nots, or the 1 % versus the 99 %. Director/producer Oliver Stone tried to warn about financial profiteering and abuse back in the Reagan Era with his movie Wall Street. He was disappointed that hardly anyone got the message and that most people seemed to admire the “greed is good” mentality.
That all changed with the economic meltdown, bank bailouts, unemployment, and home foreclosures. Occupy appropriately began on Wall Street and spread nationwide and overseas. Sadly, billionaire NYC Mayor Bloomberg sent in the police to drive the occupiers from “Liberty Square.” That incident and forced evacuations elsewhere, as in Seattle, are symbolically reminiscent of the fate of the Bonus Army, but the movement hasn’t died – and we can’t afford to let it die.
Probably the greatest literary document of the Great Depression was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Ma Joad was its strongest character. It was she who organized the family to start anew after losing the family homestead. Now we are in a Great Jobs Depression and the middle class is under siege. We need to remember what Ma Joad said to Pa: “But we keep a’comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published February 11, 2012, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.