By Al Markowitz
Something that has always struck me about politics in our country is how often we confuse business with political leadership. Our own governor and Senator are “self-made” millionaire entrepreneurs. Part of the reason we see this is due to the power money has in our system, especially given the high cost of running for office. Related to that is the money power of businesses and business consortia in funding politicians friendly to their interests. Yet all the money in the world cannot, by itself, convince you or I to support a particular candidate.
Given the nastiness, cynical arrogance, and disregard for constituent interests shown by some of the characters we see in or running for office, one has to wonder why anyone votes for them at all? Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that in mistaking business success for public leadership, some of us misunderstand the very different skill sets involved and the very different roles of business and government.
Business exists for one reason. It does not exist to create jobs or provide services. Those are ancillary effects, not requirements. Business exists to make money, and the more the better, by any means necessary. Business is competitive and often a cutthroat affair. Jobs are often sacrificed or “outsourced” to places with the lowest wages in order to lower costs and increase profit. Services are reduced to increase the bottom line for owners and investors, often at public expense.
Government, on the other hand, exists first and foremost to serve and protect citizen interests. That is why governments were formed. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, governments are instituted to secure our basic rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our Constitution describes the purpose of government as providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare.
Government exists, not to make a profit off of us, but to provide the basic services and conditions for our physical security, and for the functioning of society. This includes basic infrastructure, which at the time of our nation’s founding consisted of roads and a postal service. Later it came to include public education, more advanced communication and utilities including water, sewerage and electric power. It also made commerce possible by establishing laws defining business and by printing currency. A vital role of government in a market system is to provide what business cannot, and to compensate for the negative effects of capitalism – unemployment, access to food and medicine for the poorest and insuring our ability to survive when we are no longer able to work due to age or illness, among other things.
The fact that a person has risen to the top of the corporate ladder or made millions does not necessarily reflect the social consciousness or dedication to the public good that we might want in a political leader. We can see this in corporate politicians like Mitt Romney or Donald Trump and in corporate toadies like Sen. Paul Ryan who seeks to cut Social Security and dismantle Medicare. We see it in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who caters to big business interests at the very real expense of his constituents, attacking public service unions and reducing wages and services. That is what we can expect from corporate politicians.
The opposite of corporate politics is seen in populist leaders. We have a long history of these as well. The difference in leadership is notable. Wisconsin Senator (and Governor) Robert La Follette was a good example in his support for labor and his opposition to the crooked dealings of big business trusts. Huey Long of Louisiana was a populist pushing for public works, old age pensions and even wealth redistribution back in the dark days of the great depression. He was a strong critic of big business and of the Federal Reserve. Other citizen-first leaders include, Paul Wellstone,Victor Berger, Jeannette Rankin, Thaddeus Stevens, Vito Marcantonio, Bella Abzug, Fiorello LaGuardia and Harold Washington as well as Presidents like Abe Lincoln and both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. In our local area, many of us can remember Henry Howell campaigning to “Keep the Big Boys Honest.” Howell fought for Civil Rights and for citizen interests against big business corruption and the “old boy” politics that still plagues us.
In our present build-up to the elections we have strong examples of both corporate and populist politicians. As iconic representatives of this, let’s compare business mogul Donald Trump to progressive populist Bernie Sanders.
Donald Trump is a denier of climate change, calling it a hoax. He wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency and thinks more development is good for the environment including more oil drilling and gas fracking. He scapegoats Muslim Americans and Hispanic immigrants and wants to deport them. He threatens to build a wall on our southern border. As a businessman, it isn’t a surprise that he wants to eliminate all taxes on corporations. He supports even more deregulation of banking, finance and business. He wants strong national debt limits that mean the kind of disastrous austerity inflicted in Greece, Spain and Ireland. He opposes raising the minimum wage and wants to limit food stamps and public assistance.
Trump is also a hawkish supporter of military industries and the national security state, saying, “All freedoms flow from national security.” He opposes the diplomacy that has worked with Iran and wants a more aggressive policy toward China and North Korea. He criticizes human right abuses in China only for holding back development but advocates our bringing back water-boarding and torture. Trump, in the tradition of fascism, sees big business as leadership and compromise or negotiation as weakness, believing in toughness and “two-fisted policies.”
Representing the populist tradition, Bernie Sanders, citing the science and the public risk, puts addressing climate change at the top of his agenda. He wants to create jobs rebuilding and adapting our crumbling infrastructure. He supports raising the minimum wage and equal pay for women. He wants trade policies which, unlike the TPP, put the interests of American working people ahead of those of multinational corporations. He wants to increase access to education. He supports a single-payer, “Medicare for all” system that gets the insurance companies out of medicine. Sanders is calling for a long overdue re-regulation of the finance industry including a break up of “too big to fail” banks as well as demanding reform and accountability from the Federal Reserve. Sanders recently stated, “The sad reality is that the Federal Reserve doesn’t regulate Wall Street; Wall Street regulates the Fed. It’s time to make banking work for the productive economy and for all Americans, not just a handful of wealthy speculators. It begins by making the Federal Reserve a more democratic institution, one that is responsive to the needs of ordinary Americans rather than the billionaires on Wall Street.”
Sanders calls for taxing Wall Street transactions to help pay for public policy. He calls for raising corporate taxes to where they were before Reagan reduced them and for raising the cap in income deductions to Social Security, which he intends to not only shore up but expand. He wants much needed electoral reform that gets the big money out of politics, limiting corporate influence. Sanders also prefers diplomacy to the use of force, though he supports shared military efforts to confront terrorism. Sanders’ website states, “Senator Sanders is committed to keeping America safe, and pursuing those who would do Americans harm. We must work with our allies to root out terrorist funding networks, provide logistical support in the region, disrupt online radicalization, provide humanitarian relief, and support and defend religious freedom. Moreover, we must begin to address the root causes of radicalization, instead of focusing solely on military responses to those who have already become radicalized.”
In putting citizen interests ahead of big business agendas, Sanders stands in good company with historic populists like the Roosevelts. His focus on looking deeper at causes and root issues makes him an exception to the politics as usual we have come to expect.
That former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is considering running for President as an independent is evidence that Wall Street financiers are becoming unnerved by the popularity of Senator Sanders. So, too, the attacks on him by corporatist liberals like Paul Krugman and mainstream media pundits like former producer at NBC Nightly News Sandy Goodman and Times columnist, Thomas Friedman. Those tied to big money and a crooked system have a vested interest in preserving it. As economist Robert Reich writes, “This election is about changing the parameters of what’s feasible and ending the choke hold of big money on our political system. I’ve known Hillary Clinton since she was 19 years old, and have nothing but respect for her. In my view, she’s the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have. But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have, because he’s leading a political movement for change. The upcoming election isn’t about detailed policy proposals. It’s about power – whether those who have it will keep it, or whether average Americans will get some as well.”
A big part of corporate political agendas, reflected in policy, is the privatization of public services and infrastructure, selling it off to well-connected corporate interests. This is what drives efforts to undermine and privatize our Postal Service and to cut back or eliminate Social Security and Medicare. We saw this locally with the selling of our tunnels to a foreign business consortium and we see it with charter school programs. The effect of this is consistently that we all pay more and get less.
Back to our state. Though Terry McAuliffe is probably one of the best Governors we have ever had, the fact that he sits on the board of the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, a secretive organization put together and largely run by the fossil fuel industry to promote offshore drilling, affects our state government’s policies in ways that counter citizen input.
Senator Mark Warner, reflecting his corporate background, has supported efforts to reduce Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age. He has advocated means-testing for Medicare and reducing benefits to seniors. Warner also supports the offshore drilling and is a strong supporter of corporate friendly trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP. Warner has, to his benefit and ours, supported the EPA against attacks and supports increasing the minimum wage. Like many corporate Democrats, including Clinton, he is socially liberal, though fiscally conservative in the mold of old-style, rational Republicans. They represent corporate and military-industrial perspectives and agendas.
The philosophical ideal that our country was founded upon was a government of, by, and for citizens; a Representative Republic. In many ways American history is a crooked trail of progress and setbacks toward that ideal. We’ve had eras or rampant corruption and eras of reform and of progress. If we are to roll back corporate domination of our government and restore citizen representation, we need to address the problem at the root, starting with electoral reform which eliminates the need for vast fortunes to run for office. Limiting corporate influence will not be done by business leaders and corporate politicians.
We, as citizens, need to recognize the diametrically opposed roles of business and government. We need to be aware of the bias of powerful media corporations in their coverage of candidates. Rather than allowing media ads, pundits and campaign rhetoric to influence who we vote for, we should look instead at the records of those running as well as on who is financially backing them. It is in our best interest to be informed and to support populist citizen leadership rather than corporate cronyism.