The Robber Baron's Party: Let's Bring Tea!
There's just been a celebration of their power in Washington, DC, where they help write the majority of legislation and hold captive all but a very few of our nation's legislators. The television networks they own are showing the party in all its pomp and ceremony. The newspapers and magazines they own are telling us what a fine time was had by all in Washington, DC on January 20. The radio stations, networks, and talk show hosts they own are reassuring us that they know what is best, that all will be well, that "freedom is on the march."
Every generation, it is often said, must relearn the lessons of history. This generation is getting a crash course.
Shall we have a government of, by, and for We, the People? Or shall we be governed by a powerful elite made up of the super-rich, multi-national corporations, and well-paid shills who do their bidding?
It seems that the shift from FDR's vision of We the People to Reagan's vision of corporate governance has only happened in the past thirty years--when Reagan, in his first inaugural address, declared war on We the People by saying: "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."
But it's really a battle that's gone back to 1762, when Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote "The Social Contract," and directly challenged--for the first time in nearly two thousand years--the idea that people must be governed by a powerful father-figure King, Pope, or Feudal Lord.
"Man was born free," Rousseau opened his book with, "and he is everywhere in chains." Those chains, he suggested, were forged by a belief that people's inherent nature was weak and evil, and people were incapable of governing themselves. Rousseau--and, following him, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Franklin, and others among our nation's Founders--rejected the belief that society would disintegrate without kings, popes, or rule by a rich elite.
But the need for an all-powerful ruling elite was a notion that was strongly ingrained in the mind of the Western World at the time of our founding.
Thomas Hobbes, one of history's most eloquent spokesmen for the Reagan/Bush/Imperial type of worldview, wrote in his 1651 magnum opus Leviathan that without a strong and iron-fisted ruler, "in every man is enemy to every [other] man...."
"In such condition," Hobbes added, "there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Thus, without a powerful father figure ruler, Hobbes suggested, "it may be perceived what manner of life there would be, where there were no common power to fear..."
Liberty, Hobbes believed, was a dangerous thing. It produced misery.
Liberty, Rousseau asserted, was necessary for the fulfillment of human potential, and could bring about a paradise on earth.
The Founders of our nation and Framers of our Constitution rejected Hobbes and embraced Rousseau. But how, they asked, to achieve that liberty?
The solution was found in flipping seven thousand years of history on its head. Instead of people being ruled in the Hobbesian fashion by kings, popes, or the rich (feudalism/fascism), they set up a form of government wherein the people themselves rule, through elected officials answerable solely to the voters.
But even in the day of the Founders, not everybody agreed.
The early Federalists largely shared Hobbes' point of view, as John Adams often pointed out in his letters to Thomas Jefferson and others. When the Democratic Party became corrupt during the 1900s, they embraced it. When the reformist Republican Party--brought to national prominence by Lincoln--degenerated into the party of the rich and the well-bred after Lincoln's death, it embraced it. Other than the misgivings of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republicans have held this view ever since the great split of 1772, when the reformers left the party over a platform battle and set out to form the populist and progressive movements.
Thus, we see, the real battle here is between those who believe that free people can govern themselves--and have the right to keep out powerful interests that would corrupt government--and those who believe that a powerful father-figure is necessary for governance, the people should be kept largely in ignorance, the rich know best, and that We the People will only behave well when, as Hobbes wrote, there is "a common power to keep them all in awe."
Today's real battles in Washington, DC, and in state capitols across the nation, are not just about privatizing Social Security, or turning Medicare into a feeding trough for the big pharmaceutical and insurance companies.
They're not only about drilling for oil in the Arctic while refusing to increase fuel efficiency standards for cars, doing away with the $100,000 tax break for purchasers of SUVs, or opening millions of acres of wild lands to loggers, miners, and developers.
They're not even about Bush putting one of the nation's worst polluters in charge of the Department of Energy, an insurance-industry mogul in charge of HHS and its Medicare program, or his appointing the former assistant director of the Cato Institute's Project on Social Security Privatization as Associate Commissioner for Retirement Policy at the Social Security Administration. These are just symptoms.
Today's real battles in the halls of government are about the survival of democracy itself.
Of course, conservatives aren't going to say so quite as bluntly. Ronald Reagan had to reassure the American people that he wasn't going to run us into debt and then turn our nation over to the multinational corporations. In his first inaugural, he had to add, "Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work--work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back."
But who was that "us" Reagan spoke of?
Clearly it wasn't recipients of what conservatives call the "socialist" Social Security or Medicaid programs. It wasn't those of us who are pleased to have the protection of unionized police and fire departments, public roads, clean air and water, safe food and drugs. It wasn't the people who had fallen on hard times as their jobs were shipped overseas and they found themselves in unemployment lines or needing government assistance to get back on their feet.
Reagan's "us"--as history clearly shows--was the feudal/fascist corporate elite. As was George H. W. Bush's "us." And many of Bill Clinton's DLC's "us." And, so ostentatiously today, George W. Bush's "us."
As we view today's ostentatious celebration of the corporate takeover of our government, We the People are faced with an historic challenge. As Franklin Roosevelt said in 1936, as the result of "new uses of corporations," a "new royalty" has emerged in America.
"It was natural and perhaps human," Roosevelt said, "that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself.... And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man."
And, as in the days of the Minute Man, today we find inspiration in the Boston Tea Party-like effort of Barbara Boxer to challenge the Ohio vote, or her principled stand, along with John Kerry and Robert Byrd, against the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice.
The Founder's ideals--although under siege--are still alive in America.
They live on in the many Americans who support progressive causes with contributions, send letters to the editors of their local papers, make calls to talk shows, attend protest rallies, pamphleteer by email, correspond with their elected representatives, and support progressive candidates for office.
They live on with those who mourn George W. Bush's coronation, who turn their back on him and his policies, who daily work for social justice, equality, and a world at peace.
But democracy will only survive in this nation if people like you and me continue to stand up, speak out, and keep bringing tea to the party.
Thom Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com) is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show; visit thomhartmann.com His most recent books are The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Unequal Protection, We The People, The Edison Gene, and What Would Jefferson Do?
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This story was published on January 22, 2005.