Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Up The Republic!

What is the nature of a republic?

Well, broadly speaking, it could be described as a political system where each citizen has an equal say in governance.

A worthy aspiration but hardly the case throughout history! The vaunted Greek and Roman republics indulged in wholesale slavery. The first French Republic violently repressed its citizens. While the founding United States of America granted voting rights only to its male propertied class, and might not have come into existence had it confronted its own slavery issues.

And yet all three provide the DNA of our current republic which not only grants universal suffrage but allows us to “throw the bums out” on a regular basis.

Then why do so many people feel disenfranchised? From Tea Party to egalitarian dreamer there is a negative mood abroad concerning the efficacy, and even the need, of government.

Cynics can handily say, “You get what you vote for!” And with barely half the American electorate even bothering to pull a lever they have a point.

Money has corrupted the republic. It’s not just that this is the era of the permanent campaign where candidates step off the victory podium and immediately dial their donors; if you’re plain old Joe Blow from Jericho you can’t afford to run for congress.

66% of Senators and 41% of representatives are millionaires, whereas the general population boasts only 1%. Even in the great pitchfork revolution of 2010, the average worth of a newly minted senator was $4 million, that of a rookie representative $500,000.

1% of the population now owns 35% of the wealth of the nation while the top 20% possesses 85% of the national pie. So, where does that leave everyone else? You got it - buying Powerball tickets!

Such wealth distribution figures closely resemble those of the Gilded Age of 1870-1890. Thus, after 140 years of striving that gained universal suffrage, the right to collective bargaining, and a once expanding middle class, the country is in many ways back to square one.

That’s not to say that there have not been huge advances in health and education, although each is getting progressively more expensive, in some cases prohibitively so.

But not to worry, at our fingertips we have access to whole worlds of sports, music and celebrity gossip that would dazzle previous generations. Or is this just “bread and circus?” Keep the plebs occupied while you loot the treasury.

Take the current efforts to regulate the financial industry - one would imagine that the 80% of have-nots who suffered the brunt of the recent economic downturn would welcome any efforts to protect them.

Not so! By merely waving the banner of “over-regulation” financial industry lobbyists are merrily de-fanging this crucial legislation. In our 24/7 ADD cable culture, judicious sloganeering will always whack common sense.

In previous eras – both Republican and Democrat – the rising tide lifted all boats. Now only the yachts are rising.
Basic capitalism has been upended – where once profit was reinvested in industrial expansion and human capital, now many companies are sitting on huge cash reserves or paying outlandish salaries to top executives while making do with fewer workers.

Given the recent whiplash dips and jumps in stock prices does anyone have confidence in the integrity of stock markets now dominated by high-frequency trading programs? And yet a large percentage of the private retirement capital of the nation is at risk in these Wall Street casinos.

Surely it’s time for the federal government to offer some kind of well-publicized, tax-free retirement bond that could provide ballast to the current roller coaster mentality of the 401(k)?

But that would take a major initiative in a political culture beholden to big money; and that paralysis will likely continue until the bottom-feeding 80% of the population demands a more equitable share of the national pie in a reformed republic.

Unlikely, you might say, but there is a deep unease across the entire political spectrum. Many people feel that it’s finally time to get beyond the dumb slogans that pass for politics today before this “shining city on a hill” becomes just another banana republic.

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