Only a few months ago, President Barack Obama was at loggerheads with Republican members of Congress intent on destroying his administration. With bewildering speed, Obama has since turned against his own political base to form an alliance on trade issues with those same Republican members of Congress.
Obama’s most vigorous opposition now comes from progressives, including most of the senators and representatives of his own party, who only a few months ago were his most loyal political base. The few corporatist Democratic members of Congress who still support Obama face the threat of opposition in the 2016 primaries, as Democratic voters mobilize to defend democracy, workers, and the environment.
The goal of Obama’s surprise alliance is to finalize a series of international agreements—the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA)—each of which will strengthen corporate rights at the expense of human rights, democracy, economic justice, peace, and the healing of Living Earth.
Leaked text from the secret negotiations that are crafting these agreements reveals that contrary to the claims of proponents, virtually every provision would weaken democracy and undermine the ability of nations, people, and localities to shape their economic destinies. Americans from across the political spectrum have been stunned by the sudden emergence of this unholy alliance. In historical context, however, it may be less unlikely than it seems.
America’s bipartisan corporate political alliance
U.S. corporations have been actively advancing an agenda of corporate rule since at least 1971. That was when Lewis Powell, soon to be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, submitted his infamous memo “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System” outlining a grand strategy for a corporate takeover of U.S. politics. The resulting actions rapidly played out as a global corporate colonization of the world’s people and resources. I spell out this history in detail in When Corporations Rule the World, released this month (June 2015) in a 20th anniversary edition.
As the corporate agenda unfolded, the Republican Party quite proudly branded itself as the party of big business and, more deceptively, of small government. The Democratic Party became seen as the party of big government, corporate restraint, and social programs for those the corporate state excluded.
But there has long been more cooperation between the two parties in support of big business than either is inclined to acknowledge. Democratic President Carter began the deregulation of the airline industry. Democratic President Clinton rolled back welfare programs, expanded corporate rights with the passage of the WTO and NAFTA agreements, and sponsored the Wall Street deregulation that led to the financial collapse of 2008.
Democratic President Obama carried forward the bank bailouts started by Republican President George W. Bush, shielded senior bank managers from prosecution and prison, and made no effort to restrict the continued growth and consolidation of the biggest Wall Street banks. His campaign for fast-track authority to push through a series of new international corporate rights agreements removes all ambiguity as to where his true loyalties lie.
The public, however, is catching on. Awareness of accelerating consolidation of global corporate rule and its implications for peace, equality, and the environment began to emerge in the mid-1990s about the time When Corporations Rule the World first launched. For many people, that book helped them connect what they were experiencing with what they were beginning to suspect.
The issue a bogus debate obscures
For the past several decades, corporate interests have managed to define the political choice in America as between small government Republicans and big government Democrats. It was a clever misdirection. Because most Americans are properly distrustful of big government, they easily buy into the anti-big government argument. The result is to deflect attention away from the sins of big business—and the implications for government size.
The idea that government is essential to the function of complex societies should be immediately evident to any thinking person. It is similarly clear that letting money-seeking transnational corporations rule as best suits their financial interests has disastrous societal consequences.
Entirely missing from the debate is the extent to which it is the growth of corporate size and influence that creates the need for big government to limit corporate excesses, clean up their messes, subsidize their operations, and field the military and police forces required to protect their global and domestic properties. The subsidies include welfare for underpaid employees, unemployment for those whose jobs they outsource abroad or displace with robots and migrant workers, and medical insurance for those they fail to insure.
Without the burden that monopolistic and predatory corporations place on society, government, particularly national government, could be dramatically downsized and public debt largely eliminated.
An abstract debate over the size of government is a pointless distraction—as those who promote it are likely aware. We should instead ask, “Does our federal government represent the interests of the United States and its people and is its size appropriate to that task?” Tragically, the answer for the United State is no.
Although the American people pay the bills, it is a government of, by, and for the United Corporations of Planet Earth and their needs, not a government designed to meet the needs of our people. We could do nicely with a far smaller federal government, if we limited the size of corporations and structured their ownership to assure that they are accountable to the people of the communities in which they do business.
The essential work of our time
The institutional system of corporate rule is essentially a robotic system programmed to use its economic and political power to extract limitless short-term financial gain by whatever means available. It runs on autopilot beyond human control. And it values life only for its market price. It should be evident to any thinking adult not brain damaged by taking too many economics courses that peace, economic justice, and ecological balance will remain beyond humanity’s reach for so long as the rights of people are subordinated to the rights of the corporations that populate this system.
Hope for humanity requires a successful transition to democracy grounded in strong place-based communities and local economies. This transition is not just an ideal. It is essential to human viability.
President Obama and the Republican and Democratic corporatists currently allied with him have positioned themselves on the wrong side of history.
Fortunately, there may be a positive side to their betrayal of the human interest. It reminds us that true transformational leadership depends less on the empty promises of political leaders than on social movements of we the people. The public outrage now focused on their betrayal of democracy and the human interest lays the groundwork for what could be a seismic political realignment.
Possibilities of a transpartisan political awakening
Over the past 20 years, public awareness of the nature and consequences of the expansion of corporate rule has grown significantly. This awareness finds particularly visible expression in the public demand to overturn the Citizens United decision of a corporatist Supreme Court that removes most restraints on corporate funding of elections. And, most recently, we are seeing broad-based and increasingly vocal resistance to the current betrayal of America by Obama’s trade agenda.
Progressive voters are outraged by the assault on democracy, workers, the environment, and local communities entailed in the Trans Pacific Partnership. Conservative voters are outraged by the attack on national sovereignty.
The resulting political shock is shining a public spotlight on the extent to which corporate influence has corrupted our national government. It is a short step from here to a recognition that the failures and burdens of our national government are not inherent in government. Rather they are inherent in corporate control of government.
Two highly intelligent, articulate national leaders—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—are articulating a new message with the potential to redefine the debate and win broad support for steps to end corporate rule. Even voters who may disagree with their politics are drawn to their courage and integrity—qualities otherwise far too rare in American politics.
The moment seems ripe for the foundational political realignment proposed by Ralph Nader in his recent book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State and outlined in a recent YES! Magazine interview with Ralph Nader and Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative magazine. Fran Korten, publisher of YES! Magazine (and my wife) suggests we are experiencing a new populist moment.
Call it populism versus corporatism or democracy versus corporate rule. Either way it is a far more meaningful political division than the current division between two big-government political parties debating big versus small while both compete aggressively for corporate money and pursue variations on corporatist agendas.
The distinction between democracy and corporate rule is the issue that underlies most other issues. The task before us is to recognize and act on the potential for a momentous political realignment that can make our government truly “of the people.”
David Korten is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine and co-chair of the New Economy Working Group. He is the author of Agenda for a New Economy, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is principal author of How to Liberate America from Wall Street Rule, which shows how America can restore economic health and financial integrity by rebuilding a system of accountable local financial services institutions much like the one that financed the achievements that made America the envy of the world.