Filthy Rich Capitalists Aid Progressives … Oops!

The American public has rejected filthy rich capitalists as personified by Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency. No other candidate in modern political history has embodied the precepts of consummate, rampant capitalism like Romney; he is the classic image of Rich “Uncle” Pennybags, aka: Mr. Monopoly, doffing his black top hat to passers-by but without the funny little white mustache. Unfortunately for Mr. Romney & Co., contempt for the political dogma of filthy rich capitalism has been exposed within the dark shadows of defeat. At the same time, and paradoxically, his campaign’s billions helped progressives… immensely.

Meanwhile, President Obama is the first president since FDR to successfully stand for re-election with an unemployment rate above 7.2%. Evidently people did not vote their pocketbooks, or, on second thought, maybe they really did!

Citizens United (the Supreme Court decision that “a corporation is a person”) may go down in history books as the principal 21st century catalyst for an anti-capitalism revolt, prompting a voter backlash that under any other circumstances would have witnessed removal of a sitting president from the oval office. Citizens United is the raison d’être for push back versus filthy rich capitalists by highlighting the dramatic wealth disparity in America, triggering the nation’s consciousness for how far off course democracy strayed; meanwhile, emphasizing the public’s pursuit of a better course. At the end of the day, Citizens United may be solely responsible for prompting a resurgence of progressivism, twilighting the late 19th century Progressive Era (1896 to 1916.)

The Progressive Era served as a checkpoint for the rapid social and economic changes brought about by the 19th century industrial revolution in America, similar to the rapid growth of the high technology revolution of today. The Populist Party, consisting of farmers, small business owners, and reformers led the way in the 1890s and were prompted, in part, by the Panic of 1893 (similar to the Great Recession of 2007), which involved massive overbuilding, a speculative bubble in railroads, shaky financing deals, 500 bank failures, and unemployment at 17%. The Populist Party platform of the day stated the following: “… corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress… The people are demoralized… The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled… our homes are covered with mortgages… and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists… the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few… From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.” One hundred years later, this sounds eerily familiar.

The intellectual tone for the era of progressivism was set by people like economist/author Henry George, who, in 1879, wrote: Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy, a best seller (over 3 million copies sold) wherein he proposed people should own what they create but everything found in nature belongs equally to all humanity, similar to the tenets of today’s Green Party. Writing about industrialization, he commented about the widened gulf in wealth, making the struggle for existence more intense for so many… “amid the greatest accumulations of wealth, men die of starvation… the worship of wealth, shows the force of the fear of want. The promised land flies before us like a mirage.”

Nineteenth century progressivism had a huge and profound impact on American society, correcting the course of capitalism by targeting factory working conditions, safety, wages, and job security, attacking abuses of the capitalist system in order to preserve it rather than replace it with socialist alternatives. A torrent of mainstream progressive measures reshaped the country, for example, a bill for assisting pregnant women with infant health care, right to vote for women, prohibition, an act mandating time and a half overtime pay for RR workers, antitrust acts, a graduated income tax, direct election of senators, job safety legislation, transparent contributions for elections, a Postal Bank system, prohibition of white slavery (sex across state lines), food inspection laws, an act protecting corporate whistle-blowers, child labor laws, outlawing “Yellow Dog” contracts which prevented workers from joining unions, and most importantly, the initiative, referendum, recall, and direct primary, as well as the founding of the Socialist Party.

The Progressive Era commenced during the apogee of rampant capitalism known as the Gilded Age, when a famous New York restaurant hosted formal horseback dinners for the NY Riding Club. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, when he visited the U.S., said the nation had gone from “a stage of barbarism to one of decadence — without achieving any civilization between the two.” But, that was nothing compared to today. All one has to do is search for ‘wealthy lifestyle’ and up pops www.wealthandluxury.com along with oodles of other sites, making luxury a breeze, choosing between first class or a private plane. Across the land, but mostly bi-coastal, ultra-rich mansions of 30,000 square feet spend $3 million per year on maintenance, including 8 butlers, 12 laundresses, 20 security personnel, and 30 housekeepers all for one family. According to one anonymous ultra-wealthy person, “Well, I do think it’s excessive. It is absolutely excessive. No question about it. But it’s amazing what you can get used to.”

Conspicuous overindulgence has a way of turning one’s stomach, and Citizens United is the 21st century’s pre-eminent symbol of political overindulgence, not dissimilar to how political office was purchased during the Gilded Age, e.g., political kingmaker Mark Hanna of Ohio. But, today’s citizenry, while quietly incensed, took out their frustration by mocking incognito money in the voting booth. Otherwise, according to all the odds of political history, Obama would’ve, should’ve lost the election. Remarkably, unlimited spending was not able to buy public office, but it did effectively serve as a superlative motivational force for voting against America’s wealthiest. Citizens United branded Romney as a behind-the-scenes operator beholden to moneyed interests and the Tea Party-types and their ilk, like Adelson and the Kochs, who are lampooned as modern-day Mark Hannas, the political masters behind the empty suit.

Thus, Citizens United serves as a springboard for rebirth of a new progressive era, in part, because political trends do run in cycles, and Gilded Age II + right wing Republicanism already has three decades under its belt. It’s had a long run. And, more importantly, the election of 2012 exposed a ‘ceiling’ for money buying political office; thus, emboldened progressives take charge and advance where a pathway of right wing vulnerability has suddenly exposed money’s fatal weakness, which is the raw intellect and instinct of the voting public. Thanks to the Koch brothers, progressives and independents are emboldened like never before, and thanks to conservative Supreme Court justices American progressivism once again has a swagger.

According to City Beat, November 7, 2012: Election Results 2012, Democrats, Progressives Make Gains All Around Nation, “The big takeaway from election night at a federal level… billions of dollars were spent to change almost nothing… In other states, gay marriage and marijuana were legalized. Minnesota voted against a same-sex marriage ban. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin also became the first openly gay candidate to win election for the U.S. Senate. Overall, the night was a big win for progressives all around the country.”

Progressive Democrats of America (“PDA”), a mushrooming progressive coalition within the Democratic Party, is young, founded in 2004 and vigorously fighting for (1) End Corporate Rule (2) Clean, Fair, Transparent Elections (3) Economic and Social Justice (4) End War and Occupation, Redirect Funding (5) Healthcare for All/Single Payer (6) Stop Global Warming/Environmental Issues. PDA is the polar opposite of the Tea Party. During the 2006 election cycle, PDA staff and activists backed progressives in dozens of Congressional races. Notable “near-wins”—with Christine Cegelis in suburban Chicago, and Donna Edwards and Kweisi Mfume in Maryland — against concerted efforts by the national Democratic establishment gained PDA grudging respect from the party elite. PDA is effectively working from inside to effectuate progressive policies within the Democratic Party.

PDA candidates today include Elizabeth Warren, Donna Edwards, John Conyers, Barbara Lee, Keith Ellison, Dr. David Gill, and Alan Grayson, and the organization is bursting forth, growing like a weed, and aligning with other progressive organizations like United for Peace & Justice, and sponsoring grassroots empowerment tours like “Organize, Mobilize, and Deliver the Progressive Vote,” in California, Arizona, Ohio, NY, Pennsylvania, and MA, and aligning with California Nurses Association, Physicians for a National Health Program, and National Nurses Organizing Committee, and War is A Crime, and CODEPINK. The ultra right wing threats against Social Security and Medicare have galvanized PDA into greater action with new coalition partners, including Jobs with Justice, United for Peace & Justice, U.S. Labor Against the War, the New Priorities Network, Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare, and Job Party.us.

Thus, progressives all across America from grassroots organizations in cities and counties to a national front within the Democratic Party are coalescing behind policy initiatives for the nation as a whole, a return to the wide-open legislative days of LBJ and FDR versus right wing Republican Party coalescing behind secretive closed-door machinations to gain, and keep, more profits for a select few so the Gilded Age II can perpetuate within its hollow, artificial shell of morality, making select, token donations to humanitarian causes to gain smart-looking optics for bookshelves while contriving to undermine the sanctity of governmental programs that effectively support an entire country. Whew!

It is really not at all remarkable or surprising that the country voted against the dictates of Citizens United, the Supreme Court, and a select handful of ultra right wing operatives lurking behind a campaign that stood for lowering taxes on the rich, increasing defense spending, and axing the country’s social safety net.

After all, so far, it’s still a democratic republic… Stupid!

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.