|Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=31278"><span class="small">David M Goodman</span></a>|
|Sunday, 27 July 2014 03:33|
Whatever your opinion of Edward Snowden – hero or traitor – his release of classified NSA files and phone data changed the political landscape, perhaps forever. It also served as a chilling reminder that the threat of total surveillance in such iconic novels as George Orwell’s 1984 is more real than imagined. We now know Big Brother has been watching. We are reminded that truth is stranger than fiction.
Another iconic novel of the 20th- century, It Can’t Happen Here, may also have an important message for our times. In 1935, Sinclair Lewis wrote a cautionary tale about America’s slide toward extremism in the Great Depression. Published during the rise of fascism in Europe, this political novel describes a populist U.S. Senator who is elected President after promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and traditional values.
Once elected, this fictional President takes complete control of the government and imposes totalitarian rule under paramilitary units known as Minute Men. The administration of the government is turned over to prominent businessmen and Minute Men officers who quickly put in place a corporatist regime that enforces martial law and punishes dissent—and much worse! One of the first actions was to curtail the rights of women and minorities.
So, what can we learn from this Great Depression novel to inform our Great Recession experience? Three areas of comparison standout: The plight of the middle-class, the dysfunction of the U.S. Congress, and the rise of political extremism.
In both eras, the middle-class and ordinary workers are threatened and under siege. Sinclair Lewis simply had to portray the massive unemployment and economic collapse of the 1930’s to capture the desperation of Americans – all except for the very wealthy. Deprived of opportunity and hope, people grow desperate and, worse, apathetic and drop out.
Although our Great Recession may have officially ended, too many Americans do not feel a return to prosperity. Unemployment remains too high and job opportunities too scarce. People fear their standards of living slipping away. Today’s food pantries have replaced the soup lines of old. The social safety net is stretched thin and long-term unemployment insurance is cut-off. Almost all the gains from growth go to the top 1%. In 2012, economists reported the top 40 hedge fund managers and traders were paid a combined $16.7 billion, equal to the wages of 400,000 ordinary Americans.
Where are the political institutions to represent ordinary people, either in fact or fiction? In It Can’t Happen Here, one of the first acts of the President is to eliminate the influence of the U.S. Congress. He essentially shuts it down. If it seems impossible to imagine approaching this precipice now, remember despite public approval ratings of the U.S. Congress at all time lows, extremists in the House did not hesitate to shut the government down in 2013. Are we approaching a tipping point where a zealous minority in the Congress today can match the damage of Sinclair Lewis’ fictional dictator of the 1930’s?
Swirling around a fearful and confused public and a legislative branch that cannot demonstrate effectiveness are huge amounts of money that promote narrow self-interest and private advantage, most often to benefit the super wealthy. Super PACs, like Americans for Prosperity, and secretive 501(c)(4) social welfare groups are spending huge amounts of money to win elections that benefit their donors more and the general welfare of citizens less. Add to that the conclusion of seasoned political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein that one of our two major political parties has become “an insurgent outlier” all but declaring war on the government. Conditions seem ripe for something extreme. There is a deep and unshakeable belief that our representative democracy is in trouble.
Apathy, dysfunction, and the private purchase of campaigns and elections – all could be the breeding ground for false prophets promising to lead the American republic out of the wilderness but down a dangerous path. Similar conditions in the 1930’s were the background of Sinclair Lewis’ cautionary tale warning against political collapse.
Today, these conditions could be turned around and instead become a rallying point for citizens to end the downward slide and stop the corrupting effect of concentrated wealth and power on representative government. This is beginning to happen with popular movements like the MayDay citizen “Super PAC to end all Super PACs” (www.mayone.us) and the Anti-Corruption Act (www.anticorruptionact.org) gaining traction. Reforming the system and getting back on track requires people, whatever your politics, to stay involved and tell Washington, as well as governors and legislators in state capitals, “enough.” We want a government that represents us.
Perhaps, these cautionary warnings from Sinclair Lewis seem remote and even quaint as part of a distant past. But, until Edward Snowden revealed the depth of the NSA’s data mining, we may have comforted ourselves that Big Brother was just good fiction. It can’t happen here.
But, then, fast-forward to Lisa Graves’ 21st- Century account of Charles and David Koch and ask yourself, “Or can it”? (http://readersupportednews.org/news-section2/318-66/24715-focus-like-his-dad-charles-koch-was-a-bircher-new-documents)
David Goodman, Ph.D., is a team leader for the New Jersey Congressional District 12 Committee of Represent.Us, and member of the Restore Democracy Work Group of the North Jersey Public Policy Network.
|Last Updated on Sunday, 27 July 2014 11:33|