Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

John Atcheson: A Tragedy in Three Parts — Corporations, Coups, and Crazies

The silent coup and the roots of corporate tyranny.

Nearly 40 years ago, in his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Republicans and increasingly neoliberal Democrats agreed and told us the market was the source of solutions, and they worked assiduously to shrink government in size and power.

But as it turns out, government was the solution, and the market was the problem.

But the whole shrink the government routine was part of a sophisticated strategy launched by a few rich families and corporations in what amounted to a silent coup. Casting government as the cause of our ills was simply a pretext to shrink and weaken it so that corporations and the ultra-rich could get more economic and political power.

At first, things went smoothly for the plutocrats. With Democrats – and much of the rest of the world – essentially joining with Republicans by embracing neoliberalism, the trend in global politics was to endorse the same small government, market uber alles, deregulatory dogma as the Republicans, and the results for the ultra-rich and corporations were and are impressive.  For example:

But it hasn’t simply paid off in terms of money and wealth, it has given corporations and the rich unprecedented power, both politically, and in terms of economic influence.  Again, a few examples:

  • A comprehensive study of voter preferences vs. those of interest groups by Gilens and Page revealed that the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy (emphasis added);
  • In 2017, there were more than 11,500 registered federal lobbyists in the US, spending nearly $3.4 billion, both representing an increase over the previous years and reversing a long term trend of fewer lobbyists that had been happening since 2007, despite Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp.

Two studies show how effective this lobbying has been for corporations and the wealthy:

  • One, (appearing in the Journal of Law and Politics 25, no. 401 (2009): 401–57 by Alexander, Myer and Schultz) found that for every dollar spent on lobbying, corporations and others got back $220 in tax benefits;
  • The other states that “After examining 14 million records, including data on campaign contributions, lobbying expenditures, federal budget allocations and spending, we found that, on average, for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government,” adding up to a total of $4.4 trillion in federal business and support.

Finally, as deregulation proceeded, companies engaged in an orgy of consolidation, until today, consumers (aka citizens) are at the mercy of monopolies in virtually all aspects of commerce.  This wholesale consolidation keeps wages low, diminishes service and quality, allows for what amounts to price fixing, and it gives corporations yet more political power.

By purchasing the media outright; making “balance” more important than accuracy, context and truth; and by developing a sophisticated rhetorical campaign using fear, hate, blame and greed the corporate takeover of America became the greatest story rarely told.  To ratchet up the fear, hate and blame, the campaign used racism, jingoism, sexism, xenophobia and a host of other “isms” aimed directly at the limbic lizard brain, all with the aim of distracting us from their power and wealth grab.

How the coup went off the rails

Everything was going smoothly for the plutocrats, and their coup was going according to plan, until the inmates took over the asylum.  After using wedge issues for decades — brandishing the specter of scary black men, or lawless immigrants, or a host of “others” to frighten, distract, and divide us one against another, and to short-circuit reason – the monster they created took over their Party.

Always careful to preserve a façade of propriety, conservatives from Reagan to W. Bush used dog whistle politics to avoid charges of racism or prejudice against minorities.  Phrases like “strapping young bucks” or “welfare queens in Cadillacs” came close to breaching the façade, but there was always a claim of plausible deniability.  But although they’d avoided explicit hate mongering, the hate and fear they’d ignited with their implicit rhetoric smoldered beneath the façade, and was growing in strength and size.

Another ingredient that added to this explosive mix was the complete and utter failure of the supply-side, trickle down two-step to do anything other than rip-off the 99 percent.  But with reason gone, with blame and fear ascendant, and government as a solution discredited, the average white man – and often his wife — succumbed entirely to this fear and blame.  When fear takes over, reason is abandoned. The pre-frontal cortex is no match for the limbic lizard that resides within us.

So when a …gasp … black man … became President, the smoldering hate that they’d implicitly fed, exploded into flames and the divisiveness they’d carefully nurtured threatened to rip society asunder.

Now, there is one final ingredient to add to this tragedy: the complicity of the Democratic Party.  Had they championed an effective government; had they embraced New Deal policies that constrained corporations and fat-cats; had they run on a commitment to values, then the poor and middle-class people getting screwed would have had a champion they could go to.  But they didn’t.  They resorted to tactics and identity politics, and by embracing identity politics they unwittingly reinforced the “us vs. them” dynamic the plutocrats were pushing, and, ironically, made it more difficult to address racism and prejudice of all kinds.  By opting to pursue corporate money instead of embracing a progressive agenda, they marginalized themselves, and lost ground at virtually every level of government, winning only when the Republicans’ perfidy or stupidity was so extreme it cut through the fog of blame and hate.

Imagining that Trump is the cause of our complete dysfunctionality is folly.  He is merely a symptom –  the inevitable result of decades of corporate hegemony over our society, our government and our economy, and the political complicity that enabled it.


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John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track.

As it turns out, government was the solution, and the market was the problem.

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