Threats to Democracy – the Dictator’s Financial Game

January 23, 2018

Many of us have written about the threat to American democracy. Actually that list is extensive and goes back a number of years. When I wrote my own book about the Roberts Court, I drew on that literature and applied it to the behavior of the Supreme Court. My hope was that if enough of us wrote about the problem, it would begin to sink in that something has to be done.

Instead we have Trump and the Republican Party trying to shift as much wealth as possible from the majority of Americans to a small fraction of the wealthiest 1 percent – precisely one of the most powerful causes of the breakdown of democracy. And Trump has been attacking the bulwarks of democracy – a free press, independent judges and prosecutors, an independent FBI and Justice Department, nonpartisan election machinery, and protection against domestic and foreign interference in elections. He does all this in the service of the effort to shift more and more money from the masses to the wealthiest, reflected in massive shifts of money to those who already have most of it and talk of attacking entitlements, Social Security, Medicare and other programs which compensate ever so little for the government’s favoritism toward the rich.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita describes it in The Dictator’s Handbook but so does the story of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The more the dictator takes from the masses the less power they have and the easiest it is to control them. The more the dictator gives to the wealthiest, the more they depend on and support him. In other words, turning democracy into dictatorship is a process of robbing from the poor to pay the rich, weakening the masses and securing the loyalty of the wealthy.

Many scholars have mapped the process as one in which the wealthiest increasingly circle the wagons against the masses, gain control over the election machinery, and corrupt the entire system that used to be democratic. The more wealth becomes concentrated, the more impossible it is to allow anything approaching free and fair elections. The process builds on itself in a corrupt and corrosive way. The economically ordinary people whom Trump and his wealthy supporters have convinced that they should depend on him are the people who will be used, dumped and double-crossed. And their erstwhile support for the fraudulent leader will suppress the rest of us.

The last time the disparity got this bad it led straight into the Great Depression of the 1930s. They are not independent facts. By stripping wealth from the masses, the elites stripped out the consumer economy on which they depended. The situation was sufficiently drastic that many were urging Franklin Roosevelt to assume dictatorial powers, and indeed dictators like Huey Long in Louisiana were poised to make a run for the presidency, while racists commanded the airwaves. We were lucky. Roosevelt was a wealthy patrician who was committed nevertheless to democracy. He saw the threat and worked hard to avert it. The Supreme Court fought him then as it has been fighting to deepen the crisis now.

We were lucky. Scholars have shown that the behavior of elites in crises like this is crucial. We need people in Washington for whom the survival of democracy in America is more important than partisan politics or dreams of turning America into a wasteland of serfs propping up the great ones. That this country had Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt at crucial times is amazing. May our luck survive Trump.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 23, 2018.




Who We Work to Support

September 29, 2015

We’ve all seen bumper stickers that complain, “I work so welfare queens don’t have to” and other complaints about taking care of people in need. Conservatives, Republicans, Tea Partiers all tell us the problem is “entitlements.” And people are mad. They do not want to work to pay for other people’s entitlements.

Except it is impossible. The richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.[i]  And the top 20% of American households, whose average income was around a quarter million dollars get the majority of Americans’ yearly income from all sources.[ii] So, yes, we work for others, but not for the people who are poor, unemployed or disabled. We work to support the wealth of the people who get all the money. They claim not to need our help, but only because they already took our money.

They want us to believe that’s just “natural,” that they have that money because they sold us such useful things, and whatever the market does is perfectly proper. But actually it’s because of all the tax benefits they have, so that Warren Buffet properly pointed out that his secretary pays a larger percent of her earnings than he does. As Buffet understood, that’s not natural. It’s the kleptomania of the rich, the people who control the lobbyists for themselves and their businesses and who finance the political campaigns of the lackeys we call congressmen and senators.

Their forms of income are protected – the top tax rate is no longer high but they still get a break for capital gains, deductions for all the lobbyists and accountants they pay to make sure they don’t pay their share of the tax burden, and the privilege of moving their money to tax havens. Of course they will lend back to government, at interest, the money they aren’t investing in job creating activities, the money they have protected themselves from having to pay as taxes like the rest of us.

It’s also because they convince their lackeys that their companies shouldn’t be regulated either; they should be allowed to monopolize markets so we’d fill their pockets faster, and they should get government help for the very financial vehicles they used to wreck the economy, instead of helping the people that they took advantage of in scams called derivatives, credit-default swaps and subprime mortgages. It’s all rigged and it isn’t you and me that are taking advantage of the system.

But their lackeys say they’re the job creators – indeed even while they are sitting on money they don’t think it worth their while to spend. That’s called chutzpah!

What’s worse, this is a vicious cycle – the rich control the politics so they can get wealthier and control the system ever more tightly. When does it reach a point when we no longer have a democracy? Indeed, what kind of democracy is it if all the candidates have to get the blessing of the enemies of the people.  Is that the democracy we fought for? And can we get it back?

— commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 29, 2015.

[i] Nicholas Kristof, An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality, NY Times, July 23, 2014. See also Tom Kertscher and Greg Borowski (March 10, 2011). “The Truth-O-Meter Says: True- Michael Moore says 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined”. PolitiFact.
[ii] The Distribution of Household Income and Federal Taxes, 2011, Congressional Budget Office Report, November 12, 2014,

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