Sunday, May 07, 2006

Another Kennedy?

My first (and pretty much only) reaction to hearing that Representative Patrick Kennedy got in a car wreck last Thursday was discomfort to hear that there is another Kennedy in office. Not because I have something personal against the Kennedys, but simply because I am weary about what appears to be the growing de facto system of aristocracy we have within government. If your name is Kennedy, you can get elected, somewhere. And does anyone seriously believe that George W. Bush would be president if his name was anything other than George Bush? Or what about Hillary Clinton? Would she have gotten elected to office in New York if she was not the wife of a former President? Or how about wife of presidential candidate Bob Dole, Elizabeth Dole?

In the '08 election we've heard talk of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton running for president. If either were to win that would mark 32 consecutive years of having a Clinton or Bush as president/vice president. As Kevin Phillips remarked about the election of the son of defeated president 8 years after losing office, this "trespasses, at least spiritually, on the governance framed by Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison. Hereditary rulers were to be feared, the founders knew, even when, like the fifteenth-century Medicis of Florence, they initially chose to keep the framework of the Republic in place."

“There artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents.... The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provisions should be made to prevent its ascendancy,” said Thomas Jefferson, who also said, "there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents." America as the founders envisioned it, was supposed to be a meritocracy, where ability and achievement were what determined who became the elites of society. This is essentially, the American dream, that with hard work and persevance, anyone can get ahead in the land of opportunity.

But meritoracy is now on the decline in America. We are seeing less and less rags-to-riches Horatio Alger stories, and a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Social mobility is on the decline. An article from The Economist noted

Most Americans see nothing wrong with inequality of income so long as it comes with plenty of social mobility: it is simply the price paid for a dynamic economy. But the new rise in inequality does not seem to have come with a commensurate rise in mobility. There may even have been a fall.

The most vivid evidence of social sclerosis comes from politics. A country where every child is supposed to be able to dream of becoming president is beginning to produce a self-perpetuating political elite. George Bush is the son of a president, the grandson of a senator, and the sprig of America's business aristocracy. John Kerry, thanks to a rich wife, is the richest man in a Senate full of plutocrats. He is also a Boston brahmin, educated at St Paul's, a posh private school, and Yale where, like the Bushes, he belonged to the ultra-select Skull and Bones society.

Mr Kerry's predecessor as the Democrats' presidential nominee, Al Gore, was the son of a senator. Mr Gore, too, was educated at a posh private school, St Albans, and then at Harvard. And Mr Kerry's main challenger from the left of his party? Howard Brush Dean was the product of the same blue-blooded world of private schools and unchanging middle names as Mr Bush (one of Mr Bush's grandmothers was even a bridesmaid to one of Mr Dean's). Mr Dean grew up in the Hamptons and on New York's Park Avenue.

The most remarkable feature of the continuing power of America's elite and its growing grip on the political system is how little comment it arouses. Britain would be in high dudgeon if its party leaders all came from Eton and Harrow. Perhaps one reason why the rise of caste politics raises so little comment is that something similar is happening throughout American society. Everywhere you look in modern America in the Hollywood Hills or the canyons of Wall Street, in the Nashville recording studios or the clapboard houses of Cambridge, Massachusetts you see elites mastering the art of perpetuating themselves. America is increasingly looking like imperial Britain, with dynastic ties proliferating, social circles interlocking, mechanisms of social exclusion strengthening and a gap widening between the people who make the decisions and shape the culture and the vast majority of ordinary working stiffs.
Bill Moyers, inspired partly by the same article, gave a speech last summer saying that

A profound transformation is occurring in America and those responsible for it don't want you to connect the dots. We are experiencing what has been described as a "fanatical drive to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that have shaped public responsibility for social harms arising from the excesses of private power." From public land to water and other natural resources, from media with their broadcast and digital spectrums to scientific discoveries and medical breakthroughs, a broad range of America's public resources is being shifted to the control of elites and the benefit of the privileged. It all seems so clear now that we wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs at the time. Back in the early l970s President Nixon's Attorney General, John Mitchell, predicted that "this country is going to go so far to the right that you won't recognize it." A wealthy right-winger of the time, William Simon, President Nixon's Secretary of the Treasury, wrote a polemic declaring that "funds generated by business...must rush by the multimillions" to conservative causes. Said Business Week, bluntly: "Some people will obviously have to do with less...It will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more."

We've seen the strategy play out for years now: to cut workforces and wages, scour the globe in search of cheap labor, trash the social contract and the safety net meant to protect people from hardships beyond their control, make it hard for ordinary citizens to gain redress for the malfeasance and malpractice of corporations, and diminish the ability of government to check and balance "the animal spirits" of economic warfare where the winner takes all. Streams of money flowed into think tanks to shape the agenda, media to promote it, and a political machine to achieve it. What has happened to working Americans is not the result of Adam Smith's benign and invisible hand but the direct consequence of corporate money, ideological propaganda, a partisan political religion, and a string of political decisions favoring the interests of wealthy elites who bought the political system right out from under us.
"Bought the political system right out from under us." That's what I see as one of the most significant problems facing us today - dollars count more than votes. I'm not sure what's to be done, but Moyers makes a suggestion I can't help but approve of, that we should learn and remember our democratic heritage.

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