Now is the moment to turn our country around. As I write, our leading politicians–Republicans and Democrats alike–are enacting the most shortsighted, mean-spirited legislation of the past 60 years. The destructive consequences of their acts will be felt disproportionately by the young, the poor, and the elderly. Pain will also be inflicted on our cities, our environment, and our national soul.
One of the main reasons for the country’s recent lurch rightward from conservatism to social Darwinism is unchecked greed. Economic elites lacking a social conscience have captured American politicians with massive campaign contributions.
In this issue, we document the nation’s top 400 political contributors. In many cases, these donors’ aims are transparent. They want very specific returns on their investments: reduction of estate, corporate, and capital gains taxes; weak enforcement of anti-trust laws, particularly in telecommunications; no oversight of financial speculation; government sponsorship of overseas investment; erosion of the minimum wage; support for legalized gambling; subsidies for the agriculture and armament industries; lax environmental protection; and a thorough gutting of the government’s ability to regulate corporate behavior.
Mother Jones details these paybacks because major U.S. media outlets–never known for their investigative zeal–have now become actively complacent, if not complicit. When the country’s best news network (ABC) and best TV newsmagazine (“60 Minutes”) both cower before the nation’s most blatant corporate villain (the tobacco companies), you can only imagine how many other media punches are being pulled. (See expose.)
A recent Mother Jones business negotiation captures the media’s predicament. In the past year, we were approached to do a Mother Jones TV hour. As part of the business plan, our potential backer commissioned the country’s largest TV research firm to survey whether there would be a market for such a show. The test results were extremely encouraging. The research firm said it seemed possible that we could attract enough viewers–and hence advertisers–to warrant a time slot on a network.
When we started discussing potential segments, an executive at the firm said that exposing a corrupt politician a week would be a very popular feature. “Great,” I said. “But, you know, we’re more interested in exposing which companies are doing the corrupting and what they want in return.”
“Well,” the executive said, “now you’re talking cable.”
Most Americans aren’t fooled by this Congress. They know the fine print in the “Contract With America” rewards major campaign contributors. But Americans lack the faith that their engagement in the political process will make any difference. To understand why the times are so dispiriting, it’s worth taking a moment to examine our weakened faith.
I think we have lost our faith in the Good. There is a widespread loss of conviction that good acts will be rewarded in this life, and many of us are agnostic about whether there are consequences after death. Face to face with meaninglessness, different modern societies have responded according to their particular national characters.
As befits our Calvinist roots and our Enlightenment Constitution, Americans have filled the moral void with commercial activity. Our faith is simple: We’ll show everyone how good we are by how well we turn out.
In a growing economy with healthy institutions, the American attitude has produced as robust a character as any other nation’s. Conservatives would invert that idea, saying that each individual’s pursuit of success has created growth and vital families, churches, and schools. But to sustain this belief, conservatives ignore contemporary perversions. For example: What are the moral consequences when the economic gains are no longer distributed to most of the population? Or when reckless consumption permanently destroys natural resources? Or, more fundamentally, when the demand for growth prizes acquisitiveness at the expense of all other human values?
To commemorate its 50th anniversary, Commentary magazine asked 72 conservative intellectuals whether our national project was unraveling. George Gilder’s analysis was typical:
“From Harvard to Hollywood, the intellectual left has managed to capture and corrupt most of the commanding heights of American culture. Under the guise of third-world, multi-culturalist, feminist, and other fashions, bohemian values have come to prevail widely over bourgeois virtue in sexual morals and family roles, arts and letters, bureaucracies and universities, popular culture and public life.”
But Gilder isn’t worried. He brags that the national prospect thrives in defiance of such “plagues” as the gender revolution and “environmental panic.” Why? Because “bourgeois entrepreneurialism” will trump bohemian hedonism every time. This predominance, Gilder argues, “is not material but moral. It springs from thrift and discipline, patriarchy and sacrifice…. Capitalism works because the people who have demonstrated their ability to create wealth govern its further investment.”
As it happens, the people “creating” wealth whom Gilder and Commentary celebrate bear a more-than-passing resemblance to the robber barons of the late 19th century. Those “industrial statesmen,” as they preferred to be called, also succeeded in cornering the political and intellectual markets, vertically integrating them into their empires along with their coal, steel, copper, oil, railroad, and financial holdings. When necessary, they bribed politicians outright to ensure huge government subsidies or lax enforcement of unfavorable laws. Then, as now, establishment leaders labeled poverty a product of moral weakness. Labor demonstrators (including our own Mary Harris “Mother” Jones) were denounced as rabble, thereby justifying their suppression by the police, state militias, and the National Guard.
Although this “survival of the fittest” ideology brings to mind Charles Darwin, the phrase was coined by Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher whose ideas dominated American social thought for the last third of the 19th century. As the eminent historian Richard Hofstadter detailed, Spencer and other social Darwinists used evolutionary theory to advocate ruthless neutrality on the part of the state–asserting that there should be no laws to protect the poor, no state-supported education, no regulation of housing conditions. Man- kind’s natural progress depended on the elimination of the unfit. According to Spencer, “The whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better.”
Then, as now, the free-marketeers placed their faith in economic salvation. If the prosperous secretly manipulated free markets, that was probably best for the nation. It was as unnatural to fetter the rich as it was hopeless to uplift the poor. Like Newt Gingrich, the social Darwinists proclaimed that the superior form of man emerging in the new industrial era was certain to be altruistic once the government stopped all of its social meddling.
In capitalist societies, conservatives have several inherent advantages. Not only are wealth and power usually on their side, no ideology of opposition has proved it can deliver. In particular, the failure of Marxism is likely to tarnish the efforts of all other reformers for a long time.
Marx made many errors, but his observation that those who owned capital would be driven to seek the least and cheapest labor possible still holds true. And the consequences of this logic–that most employers will not naturally share the fruits of increased productivity–may be more on the money now than in Marx’s day.
Upon these observations, however, Marx built an inadequate religion. He married the worst of English economics with the German will to power. Marx was certain that the ennobled workers of the world would seize the means of production and usher in utopia. Actually, Marx regarded morality as a bourgeois construct, and so it didn’t ultimately matter to him who ushered in the new age or how it was done. In the coming classless society, moral discussions would be obsolete. The good would follow the goods.
But in addition to its economic failures, the central command economy failed to account for human evil. No safeguards were built in to protect the masses from their liberators.
In their own ways, both Spencer and Marx were wrestling with the loss of a supernatural, intervening God. Each replaced the deity with new certainties and preordained destinies. As bad as it was, American social Darwinism proved far less destructive than Marxism. By glamorizing free markets and the individual, the social Darwinists made American capitalism inherently less totalitarian, and hence open to reform.
By the end of the 19th century, the American middle class came to see that its fortunes weren’t improved by giving strength to the already powerful. Speculative collapses, widespread economic misery, and popular riots (quickly suppressed) helped drive the point home. The ruling elite didn’t yield easily. But the prospect of broader domestic uprisings drove them to the bargaining table. There they were forced to loosen their outright control of America’s politicians.
Suffrage laws, open primaries, the direct election of senators, recall mechanisms, lobbying reforms, and the popular initiative and referendum were instituted. Anti-trust laws were passed and periodically enforced. The conservation movement was born. The efforts of muckrakers to expose primitive working and living conditions led to the national regulation of business practices and laid the foundations for the New Deal.
Today these safeguards are being dismantled. Their reconstruction may not begin until we’ve again suffered through economic misery and social unrest.
Our elites have built large external and internal walls to defend themselves against feeling other people’s pain. But ultimately their walls won’t hold. Americans can accept unequal outcomes, but not a contemptuous aristocracy. Exposing the distorting power of economic elites helped end the last Gilded Age a century ago. We should try this tactic again. Putting a few corrupt politicians and their bribers (the “criminal rich,” as Teddy Roosevelt called them) in jail wouldn’t hurt, either.
American excess has periodically been checked by pragmatism. We believe in the right to realize freely our full potential, but traditionally we have also thought that this potential should in some way contribute to the national good. That’s why patriotism is crucial to a progressive revival. Americans are idealists as well as competitors. We want our system to produce private profit and public pride.
Progressives can take the moral lead by defending the country’s essential integrity. All Americans should be as free as possible to find their fortune provided they don’t try to rig the market on their own behalf. Or destroy opportunity for future generations. Political distortion–anything that gives one voter more power than another–should be exposed and corrected.
Moral regeneration is obviously necessary in other realms as well. A tough progressivism–one that demands contributions from all economic classes–would find many followers in a free political marketplace. Voters would rally behind a tough progressive leader who stated aloud that contributing to the common good was an essential American value that needed to be reinstitutionalized in our tax codes, schools, and professions.
Simultaneously, with or without the government’s help, all of us need to combat nihilism. The absence of a widespread belief in an intervening God puts more burden on humans to generate and sustain virtue internally. As many religions suggest, we should embody the changes we’d like to see. That means valuing service in our communities, cohesiveness in our families, and integrity in our personal lives. From this moral core, a new progressive movement can be born.