Is it time to bring a monarchy to the United States? Or is it time to end one?
The New York Times recently ran a fascinating article by Leslie Wayne putting forth arguments from the International Monarchist League. Summarizing them, Wayne wrote, “Their core arguments: Countries with monarchies are better off because royal families act as a unifying force and a powerful symbol; monarchies rise above politics; and nations with royalty are generally richer and more stable.”
What the author misses is that we already have an aristocracy here in the United States: rule by the rich. In fact, much of American history is the story of the battle between the interests of the “general welfare” of our citizens, and the interests of the #MorbidlyRich.
Here’s where we are right now:
- A billionaire oligarch programs his very own entire television news network to promote the interests of the billionaire class, with such effectiveness that average working people are repeating billionaire-helpful memes like “cut regulations,” “shrink government,” and “cut taxes” – policies that will cause more working people and their children to get sick and/or die, will transfer more money and power from “we the people” to a few oligarchs, and will lower working-class wages over time.
- A small group of billionaires have funneled so much money into our political sphere that “normal” Republicans like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker point out that they couldn’t get elected in today’s environment because they’d face rightwing-billionaire-funded primary challengers.
- The corporate media (including online media), heavily influenced by the roughly billion dollars the Koch Network, Adelson, Mercers, etc. poured through their advertising coffers and into their profits in the last election, won’t even mention in their “news” reporting that billionaire oligarchs are mainly calling the tunes in American politics, particularly in the GOP.
- Former President Jimmy Carter pointed out on my radio show that the US “is now an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery,” in part as a result of the right-wing Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.
- Nobody in corporate media, even on the “corporate left,” is willing to explicitly point out how billionaires and the companies that made them rich control and define the boundaries of “acceptable” political debate in our country.
- Thus, there’s no honest discussion in American media of why the GOP denies climate change (to profit petro-billionaires), no discussion of the daily damage being done to our consumer and workplace protections, and no discussion of the horrors being inflicted on our public lands and environment by Zinke and Pruitt, the guys billionaire-toady Mike Pence chose to run Interior and the EPA. There’s not even a discussion of the major issue animating American politics just one century ago: corporate mergers and how they damage small business and small towns.
It’s been this way before in American history, though not in our lifetimes. The last time the morbidly rich had this much power in American politics was the 1920s, when an orgy of tax-cutting and deregulation of banking led to the Republican Great Depression.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt stepped up to challenge those he called the Economic Royalists, explicitly calling them out. In 1936, FDR said:
“For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—all undreamed of by the Fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.
“There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small business men and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit...
“It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself.
“They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property.
“And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.”
Roosevelt, then the president of the United States, even explicitly called for the “overthrow of this kind of power”:
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.
“Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power.
“In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for.
“Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”
The American people overwhelmingly agreed with FDR, particularly after they’d seen how badly “dictatorship by the over-privileged” worked out for us in 1929. The result was that from 1932 until 1980 American politicians knew how important it was for government, representing the best interests of both our nation and all of its people, to hold back the political power that the morbidly rich could marshal with their great wealth.
This was such conventional wisdom in both parties that Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote to his brother Edgar in 1956:
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.
“There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
And business knew it, too. Big corporations and wealthy businesspeople largely stayed away from politics from the 1930s onward, not wanting to draw the ire of the American people.
Until 1971. In August of that year, Lewis Powell, a lawyer who largely defended tobacco and the interests of Virginia’s upper classes, wrote an apocalyptic memo to his neighbor and friend who was the head of the US Chamber of Commerce. In it, he suggested that America itself was under attack from “leftists” and people on “college campuses.”
The solution, Powell proposed, was for a small group of very, very wealthy people to reshape American public opinion through think tanks, funding of universities and schools, and an all-out assault on the media. Take over the courts and at least one of the political parties, he suggested, and wrest control of our economy away from government regulation.
As I noted in The Crash of 2016:
Powell’s most indelible mark on the nation was not to be his fifteen-year tenure as a Supreme Court Justice, but instead that memo, which served as a declaration of war—a war by the Economic Royalists against both democracy and what they saw as an overgrown middle class. It would be a final war, a bellum omnium contra omnes, against everything the New Deal and the Great Society had accomplished.
It wasn’t until September 1972, 10 months after the Senate confirmed Powell to the Supreme Court, that the public first found out about the Powell Memo (the actual written document had the word “Confidential” stamped on it—a sign that Powell himself hoped it would never see daylight outside of the rarified circles of his rich friends). Although by then, however, it had already found its way to the desks of CEOs all across the nation and was, with millions in corporate and billionaire money, already being turned into real actions, policies, and institutions.
During its investigation into Powell as part of the nomination process, the FBI never found the memo, but investigative journalist Jack Anderson did, and he exposed it in a September 28th, 1972, column titled, “Powell’s Lesson to Business Aired.”
Anderson wrote, “Shortly before his appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. urged business leaders in a confidential memo to use the courts as a ‘social, economic, and political’ instrument.”
Pointing out that how the memo wasn’t discovered until after Powell was confirmed by the Senate, Anderson wrote, “Senators…never got a chance to ask Powell whether he might use his position on the Supreme Court to put his ideas into practice and to influence the court in behalf of business interests.”
This was an explosive charge being leveled at the nation’s rookie Supreme Court Justice, a man entrusted with interpreting the nation’s laws with complete impartiality.
But Jack Anderson was no stranger to taking on American authority, and no stranger to the consequences of his journalism. He’d exposed scandals from the Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and later the Reagan administrations. He was a true investigative journalist.
In his report on the memo, Anderson wrote, “[Powell] recommended a militant political action program, ranging from the courts to the campuses.”
Back in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt had declared war on his generation’s Economic Royalists and booted the worst of them out of the nation’s political, economic, and cultural institutions. But now, two generations later, Lewis Powell was speaking of another war.
Powell’s memo was both a direct response to Roosevelt’s battle cry decades earlier, and a response to the tumult of the 1960’s.
He wrote, “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.”
When Sydnor and the Chamber received the Powell Memo, corporations were growing tired of their second-class status in America.
Even though the previous 40 years had been a time of great growth and strength for the American economy and America’s middle- class workers – and a time of sure and steady growth and increases of profits for corporations – CEOs felt something was missing.
If only they could find a way to wiggle back into the people’s minds (who were just beginning to forget the Royalists’ previous exploits of the 1920s), then they could get their tax cuts back; they could trash the “burdensome” regulations that were keeping the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat safe; and the banksters among them could inflate another massive economic bubble to make themselves all mind-bogglingly rich. It could, if done right, be a return to the “Roaring 20s.”
But how could they do this? How could they convince Americans to take another shot at what was widely considered a dangerous free-market ideology and economic framework and that Americans once knew preceded each Great Crash and war?
Lewis Powell had an answer, and he reached out to the Chamber of Commerce—the hub of corporate power in America—to lay out a strategy to reclaim their power with a strategy.
As Powell wrote, “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.” Thus, Powell said, “The role of the National Chamber of Commerce is therefore vital.”
In the nearly-6000-word memo, Powell called on corporate leaders to launch an economic and ideological assault on college and high school campuses, the media, the courts, and Capitol Hill.
The objective was simple: The revival of a Royalist-controlled so-called “free market” system.
Or, as Powell put it, using Royalist rhetoric, “[T]he ultimate issue…[is the] survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people.”
The first area of attack Powell encouraged the Chamber to focus on was the education system. “[A] priority task of business—and organizations such as the Chamber—is to address the campus origin of this hostility [to big business],” Powell wrote.
What worried Powell was the new generation of young Americans growing up to resent corporate culture. He believed colleges were filled with “Marxist professors,” and that the pro-business agenda of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover had fallen into disrepute since the Great Depression. He knew that winning this war of economic ideology in America required spoon-feeding the next generation of leaders the doctrines of a free-market theology, from high school all the way through graduate and business school.
At the time, college campuses were rallying points for the progressive activism sweeping the nation, as young people demonstrated against poverty, the Vietnam War, and in support of Civil Rights.
So Powell put forward a laundry list of ways the Chamber could re-retake the higher-education system. First, create an army of corporate-friendly think tanks that could influence education. “The Chamber should consider establishing a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system,” he wrote.
Then, go after the textbooks. “The staff of scholars,” Powell wrote, “should evaluate social science textbooks, especially in economics, political science and sociology…This would include assurance of fair and factual treatment of our system of government and our enterprise system, its accomplishments, its basic relationship to individual rights and freedoms, and comparisons with the systems of socialism, fascism and communism.”
Powell argued that the Civil Rights movement and the Labor movement were already in the process of re-rewriting textbooks.
“We have seen the civil rights movement insist on re-writing many of the textbooks in our universities and schools. The labor unions likewise insist that textbooks be fair to the viewpoints of organized labor.” Powell was concerned the Chamber of Commerce was not doing enough to stop this growing progressive influence and replace it with a pro-plutocratic perspective.
“Perhaps the most fundamental problem is the imbalance of many faculties,” Powell pointed out. “Correcting this is indeed a long-range and difficult project. Yet, it should be undertaken as a part of an overall program. This would mean the urging of the need for faculty balance upon university administrators and boards of trustees.” As in, the Chamber needs to infiltrate university boards in charge of hiring faculty to make sure only corporate-friendly professors are hired.
But Powell’s recommendations weren’t exclusive to college campuses; he targeted high schools as well.
“While the first priority should be at the college level, the trends mentioned above are increasingly evidenced in the high schools. Action programs, tailored to the high schools and similar to those mentioned, should be considered,” he urged.
Next, Powell turned the corporate dogs on the media. As Powell instructed, “Reaching the campus and the secondary schools is vital for the long-term. Reaching the public generally may be more important for the shorter term.”
Powell added, “It will…be essential to have staff personnel who are thoroughly familiar with the media, and how most effectively to communicate with the public.”
He then went on to advocate that same system used for the monitoring of college textbooks be applied to television and radio networks. “This applies not merely to so-called educational programs…but to the daily ‘news analysis’ which so often includes the most insidious type of criticism of the enterprise system.”
This was not, of course, the first time that American oligarchs and their supplicants plotted to subvert American democracy in favor of a harsh capitalist-controlled “free enterprise” system that handed virtually all the spoils of business over to a wealthy few.
In the early 1880s, railroad barons funded six major attempts at the US Supreme Court to create, from the 14th Amendment, a “right of corporate personhood.” In 1886, although the Court rejected their theory for the last and final time, the Clerk of the Court, John Chandler Bancroft Davis, inserted into the not-legally-binding headnote of the Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case that the Chief Justice had, offhandedly, certified corporate personhood.
Reacting to that and the general rise of the men then called robber barons, Democratic President Grover Cleveland, in his 1888 State of the Union address, said:
“The gulf between employers and the employed is constantly widening, and classes are rapidly forming, one comprising the very rich and powerful, while in another are found the toiling poor.
“As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel.
“Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people's masters.”
From President Cleveland’s comments, you can draw a straight line to the trust busting and inheritance tax of progressive Republican Teddy Roosevelt in the first decade of the 20th century.
But the oligarchs fought back and, in the election of 1920, regained the power to cut taxes and regulations sufficiently that the rich got explosively richer, while the entire economy was set up for the Great Crash. (Warren Harding ran for president with two slogans – “More business in government, less government in business” [privatize and deregulate], and cutting the top tax rate from 90% to 25%...both of which he did.)
And Lewis Powell’s contribution to today’s problems is easily found in the 1976 Buckley v Valeo decision, which struck down many of the campaign finance laws that had been passed in the wake of the Nixon scandals. Money transferred from billionaires to politicians, he and his conservative friends on the court ruled, wasn’t “money” – instead, it was Constitutionally-protected First Amendment Free Speech.
Just in time for the Reagan Revolution, the morbidly rich could again own individual politicians, and with the 2013 McCutcheon case, the Court ruled that morbidly rich individuals could own a virtually unlimited number of politicians. Citizens United, in 2010, radically expanded corporate personhood and the rights of billionaires and corporations to influence politics.
Thus, here we are again.
We have a billionaire oligarch in the White House.
We have a man as VP who’s such a toady to oligarchs he actually promoted the idea in 2000 that tobacco doesn’t cause cancer, and today denies climate science on behalf of the petrobillionaires who have funded much of his political career.
We have an entire Republican Party that’s been captured by toxic-emissions corporations, petro-billionaires, and others among the morbidly rich. On the left, thanks to the DLC and its heirs, substantial parts of the Democratic Party are beholden to the banking, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries (although the Congressional Progressive Caucus is working to change this).
The Washington Post recently ran an article about how the very institutions of America are beginning to break down under the sustained assault of the oligarchs (although the Post doesn’t use that word). The main point of the article is that Donald Trump actually believes that both Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, committed major crimes, and that the attorney general and others in the Department of Justice covered up those crimes.
Where did Trump get such a wild idea? It seems certain that he got it from billionaire oligarch Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. And because he actually believes that previous presidents got away with committing major crimes both to win elections and to stay in office, he apparently thinks he should be able to as well.
It’s perhaps amusing to well-informed Americans when their friends and relatives spout the billionaire-enabling propaganda that Fox dishes out every day. But there’s nothing amusing about a president of the United States believing, based on what he learns in right-wing media, that he can easily get away with breaking the law. This is the result of the billionaire capture of our public spaces, driving a “profits over democracy” mentality.
To save our republic, we must acknowledge that the American aristocracy of the morbidly rich is destroying our country. And then overturn (via constitutional amendment) the twin policies of right-wingers on our Supreme Court that say that billionaires can own their own personal politicians, and that corporations are “persons” with human rights.
Once we reject America’s new self-appointed royalty, with their billionaire and corporate money fouling our system, our elected officials can restore protections for working people – and we can once again see our wages begin to rise like they did for 40 straight years before the advent of Reaganism.
Only then can we bring back rules to keep the oligarch’s poisonous money out of our political system, and begin to break up their control of American business and media so that small- and medium-sized businesses, unions, and local media can once again thrive. And, with them, we can return to something resembling a democracy.