Many Americans no longer vote and have otherwise withdrawn from political involvement. They apparently think those activities are unimportant and have little effect on their daily lives.
But history and contemporary events show that political activism is necessary to produce social progress and guard against oppression.
Progress is not inevitable
Some people take a cavalier attitude toward politics because they view social progress as being only a matter of time.
They point to gains in civil rights made by African Americans, women, and homosexuals in recent decades. They conclude that after enough time passes, those groups and others will enjoy complete economic justice and freedom from discrimination in the U.S.
Their complacency is dangerous. They fail to realize that dedication, hard work, and sacrifice are needed to bring about social progress – and not just the passage of time.
Martin Luther King Jr. was aware of the effort required. “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable,” he warned. “Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
John Stuart Mill observed that in the struggle for justice, there is no guarantee that right will prevail. “The dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat . . . but which all experience refutes,” he said. “History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed forever, it may be thrown back for centuries.”
A. J. P. Taylor put it this way: “Freedom does not always win. This is one of the bitterest lessons of history.”
An example of these points is the treatment of homosexuals in Western history. The ancient Greeks and Romans accepted, and in some ways valued, homosexual relationships.
But their tolerant attitudes were swamped and swept away by the superstitious ideas of the Dark Ages. As a result, homosexuality became an abomination, and gays were subjected to the death penalty and other forms of persecution.
Clearly, the history of homosexual rights has not been one of steady advancement. The rights that gays held in ancient times were lost and replaced by centuries of oppression.
The gay rights movement has only recently won back some of the rights. Still, many homophobes are working to bring about a reversal of the modern progress.
Political apathy is dangerous
Thomas Jefferson also knew that social progress requires hard work. “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed,” he said. He experienced the long and difficult fight the American colonists had waged to throw off the despotism of England’s King George III.
Martin Luther King Jr. explained why overcoming oppression is so difficult: “Something about evil we must never forget, namely, that evil is recalcitrant and determined, and never voluntarily relinquishes its hold short of a persistent, almost fanatical resistance.”
In U.S. history, the treatment of African Americans is an example of extremely recalcitrant evil. Powerful economic interests in America, Europe, and Africa supported slavery for centuries. This led to widespread popular acceptance of slavery and many rationalizations for its perpetuation.
Abolitionists had to work assiduously for decades to educate people about the wrongfulness of slavery – and hundreds of thousands died in a Civil War – before the chains that held African Americans could be broken. It is indeed true that slavery fell only after encountering “persistent, almost fanatical resistance.”
Full legal rights for racial minorities were not achieved for another hundred years. This advancement occurred because of the hard work and sacrifices of many additional activists and martyrs, who often encountered fierce resistance to the principle of racial equality.
Jefferson believed that citizens must stay involved in the political process not only to ensure social progress, but to prevent a democratic government from deteriorating into tyranny.
He maintained: “Unless the mass [of the people] retains sufficient control over those entrusted with the powers of their government, these will be perverted to their own oppression, and to the perpetuation of wealth and power in the individuals and their families selected for the trust.”
Jefferson expressed the same principle metaphorically by saying that if the people ever withdrew from political involvement, the ruling class would “become wolves” and, like most European governments in his time, prey upon the people as if they were “sheep.”
Or as Carl Sagan succinctly put it, history taught Jefferson that “the rich and powerful will steal and oppress if given half a chance.”
Modern American political apathy
Today’s rich and powerful have been given plenty of chances by those who don’t participate in the political process. A 26% decline in the voting rate has occurred since 1960. Some 25 million Americans who used to vote are no longer doing so. Presidential elections draw only half the eligible voters to the polls. Almost two-thirds – 115 million persons – don’t bother to vote in off-year elections.
Americans who need representation the most participate in politics the least. In 2000 the voting rate for persons making under $50,000 was less than half the rate of those earning more than that amount. Only 29% of eligible African Americans voted in 1998. In the same year, a mere 20% of persons ages 18 to 24 voted.
While voter participation falls, contributions to political campaigns are made by an extremely small percentage of the populace. At the end of the 1990s, candidates for federal office received 80% of their contributions from less than one-fourth of 1% of Americans. Merely one-tenth of 1% of Americans contribute $1,000 or more, and a quarter of 1% contribute $200 or more.
A study released in 2004 by the American Political Science Association found that 95% of donors who made “substantial contributions” to political activity were from households having yearly incomes of over $100,000. The report further declared: “The privileged participate [in politics] more than others and are increasingly well organized to press their demands on government. Public officials, in turn, are much more responsive to the privileged than to average citizens and the least affluent.”
The current situation presents most politicians with an almost irresistible motivation to do the bidding of their small cadre of wealthy financial backers – who exercise enormous influence over elections – rather than serve the interests of a public that largely doesn’t vote, participate in political campaigns, or educate themselves about politics.
No wonder a study by the Center for Responsive Politics found a direct correlation between campaign contributions and legislative votes. U.S. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin describes what is going on as “a system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion.”
Sheep being mauled
The results Jefferson predicted have occurred after massive numbers of ordinary citizens withdrew from modern politics. Wealthy and politically powerful interests have been able to exploit, for their own enrichment, the middle and lower classes even though those classes constitute the vast majority of citizens.
The statistics tell a sad story. Thirty-five million Americans are in poverty – about the same number as when the War on Poverty began in the 1960s. Never before have so many Americans been looking for affordable housing but unable to find it. Approximately 270,000 veterans are homeless.
Twenty-one percent of children are in poverty – higher by far than in any country in the developed world. Not since the Great Depression have as many children been homeless. Three million children are abused each year and 664,000 are in gangs.
Millions of good-paying American jobs have been outsourced to countries where workers – sometimes children – toil for ridiculously long hours in unsafe and inhumane conditions for outrageously low pay. Production costs in those counties can also be lower than in the U.S. because of bans on unionizing, minimal product-safety requirements, and uncontrolled industrial pollution of the environment.
American working men between the ages of 20 and 34 have seen their incomes, adjusted for inflation, decrease by almost a third since 1973. Persons in the bottom fifth of earners have experienced an $800 decline in real income since 1980. American workers are granted less vacation time than employees in every other industrialized nation.
The federal minimum wage is worth about 20% less than three decades ago. A minimum-wage job no longer enables a worker to keep a family out of poverty.
Twenty-five percent of workers received wages below the poverty level in 2000. A study of four Northwest states in 1998 showed that over half the available jobs paid less than a living wage.
The National Coalition for the Homeless reported in 1997 that in 29 U.S. cities, almost a fifth of the homeless were employed in full- or part-time jobs. In 1996 an average of 6.2% of the American workforce – 7.8 million workers – held two jobs.
The U.S. is the only industrialized country lacking comprehensive health care for its citizens. Over 46 million of them – one in six Americans – are without health insurance, putting them at risk of being financially ruined by one serious illness or injury. Of the workers making $20,000 a year or less, half have no medical insurance.
More than eight million of the uninsured are children. The U.S. ranks 42nd among nations in regard to infant mortality rates. As for immunization rates, the U.S. ranks 89th for polio and 84th for measles.
Many adults are also forced to go without needed medical care. The American Institute of Medicine estimates that each year 18,000 adults in the U.S. die because they lack health insurance.
Little wonder that life expectancy in this country is shorter than in at least 17 other nations. And American women are 70% more likely than European women to die during childbirth. Also not surprisingly, the number of middle-aged Americans with diabetes is twice as high as in Europe.
Making the tragic and disgraceful health-care situation worse, the ranks of the uninsured increase by about a million every year. And nearly a million poor people lost Medicaid coverage due to the 1996 changes in the law.
Even for persons having health insurance, a serious illness can leave them owing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, because of copayments or exclusions from coverage. Many people in these circumstances are forced into bankruptcy despite their insurance coverage.
Martin Luther King Jr. appears to have been correct in stating: “Of all the forms of inequalities, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”
Moreover, half of American workers don’t have a pension plan. The number of workers covered by guaranteed pensions declined from 47% to 20% in the last 25 years. The pension plans for numerous employees consist of 401(k) accounts to which they are expected to make most of the contributions.
Middle-class families are mired in skyrocketing and record-breaking amounts of debt – over $6 trillion and growing. Between March 2001 and March 2002, a record 1.5 million Americans filed for bankruptcy. A large percentage of bankruptcies are caused by medical bills or job losses. About 70 million households have a net worth close to zero.
College tuition has become outrageously and prohibitively expensive. Many young people graduate owing tens of thousands of dollars on student loans. Some of them will be paying off the loans for their entire careers. But there is no guarantee they will have good jobs, partly because even white-collar jobs are now being outsourced to low-wage countries.
The availability of welfare benefits for the poor has been greatly reduced. Under the 1996 welfare reform, $50 billion was cut from federal welfare programs, and the states were permitted to slash an additional $40 billion over six years.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 9 million households have “uncertain access to food” and 3.7 million Americans suffer from hunger.
That’s the condition of those who aren’t rich and politically powerful. It’s a picture of poverty, homelessness, hunger, disappearing good jobs, declining real wages, long working hours, few vacations, unavailability of health insurance, lack of medical care, vanishing pensions, little or no savings, staggering levels of debt, increasing numbers of bankruptcies, inability to pay for education, and shrinking or nonexistent welfare benefits. Those sheep are getting a major mauling.
The situation of the wealthy and influential is entirely different, though. In 1980 the average CEO of a major corporation earned 42 times more than the average worker; by 1990 the amount was 85 times more; and by 2000 it was 531 times more. Between 1990 and 2000, the average pay of CEOs rose by over 440%. By 2000 many CEOs were earning more in one day than the average worker earned in a year.
Those trends make J. P. Morgan, who was once considered a symbol of capitalist greed, look like a champion of the workers. He had a rule prohibiting the CEOs of his companies from earning more than 20 times the compensation of the workers.
Other industrialized countries don’t have the same problem. For example, in Japan the difference in pay between CEOs and workers is 10 to 1, in Germany 11 to 1, in France 16 to 1, in Spain 18 to 1, in Italy 19 to 1, and in Britain 25 to 1
Even CEOs who perform poorly can make out like bandits. After operating their corporations at a loss, laying-off thousands of workers, causing the company’s stock to tank, and ruining the savings of thousands of shareholders, they sometimes receive tens of millions of dollars in increased compensation from compliant boards of directors.
When the boards are finally impelled to make changes in corporate leadership, the CEOs often walk away with millions more in severance packages. And unlike the workers, top corporate executives are usually provided extremely generous pension plans.
The total wealth of the Forbes 400 rose from $477 billion in 1996 to over $624 billion in 1997. During the same time, the earnings of average workers hardly kept pace with inflation.
Billionaires and millionaires now control almost half the nation’s personal wealth. For the entire top fifth of earners, real income increased by an average of $56,800 since 1980.
Also making the rich richer is that over a million individuals and corporations have obtained citizenship in Bermuda to avoid taxes. Although the IRS says this scheme costs the U.S. Treasury about $70 billion a year, the federal government allows it to continue.
Some tax-dodging corporations – the beneficiaries of generous tax exemptions from the government – pay little or no taxes despite being highly profitable and receiving millions of dollars in government contracts. The percentage of total federal taxes paid by corporations is below 10%. The amount was 27% in the 1950s.
According to a congressional study, 63% of U.S. corporations paid no income taxes for 2000, despite reaping $2.7 trillion in gross revenues. Those corporations benefit from many government services, such as roads, bridges, the education system, law enforcement, and military defense – all of which were paid for that year by the income taxes of others.
No wonder the hotel magnate Leona Helmsley once commented, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
Adding to its generosity toward the rich, the U.S. government doles out 80 to 100 billion dollars in corporate welfare each year. Attempts to rein in the problem are usually thwarted by corporate lobbyists.
The result of all this is that the U.S. has a wider economic disparity between the rich and poor than exists in every other industrialized nation. The difference is also more than in any Western democracy in history and is increasing.
Wolves want more
Politicians in Washington have assessed the nation’s problems and identified what they believe is the underlying cause: the rich are hurting and need more wealth to invest in the economy.
Thus, the large federal tax cuts in recent years have been heavily skewed in favor of the well-off, giving some of them millions of dollars more in annual income. Over half the cuts will eventually go to the top 1% of families.
According to politicians, providing aid to the rich is so imperative that it must be done even though the results are record federal deficits that future generations will have to shoulder. The need to pay this debt will mean, among other things, less government services available to them and lower living standards than they otherwise could afford.
And by competing with other borrowers in the credit markets, the federal government’s borrowing drives up current interest rates for consumers on items such as home mortgages, auto loans, and credit cards. It’s estimated that for every 1% increase in the federal deficit as compared to the overall economy, interest rates paid by consumers increase by 1%.
The huge federal deficits are projected to continue indefinitely into the future. Unfortunately, Adam Smith said that large, long-term public debt “always tends to enfeeble states” – a view shared by many classical economists.
But as politicians see it, the wealthy are in such dire straits that even the unborn must be called upon to sacrifice. Government leaders apparently expect our progeny to understand when reading about the travails of today’s affluent in their history books. Or possibly it’s just that children and the unborn can’t vote – and thus are even easier prey than nonvoters.
Either way, the coming generations won’t think highly of us for sending them our tax bills, lowering their living standards, and weakening their nation. This will especially be true if they remember an additional comment from Jefferson: “The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”
In judging the morality of that course, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words are relevant: “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it leaves to its children.”
Jefferson’s prediction was accurate. While large numbers of Americans have paid little attention to politics, a government controlled by a wealthy minority has become like wolves, preying upon those in the middle and lower classes as if they were sheep. It’s an economic slaughter.
Where are the mainstream media while this gouging of average citizens is going on? Generally they are reporting on violent crime, sex scandals, sports, entertainment, or the personal lives of celebrities. They are owned and controlled by the wealthy, and apparently have little interest in the economic and health problems affecting people’s daily lives – particularly the daily lives of the poor. Often they seem to be trying to divert people’s attention away from those problems.
For progress to be made on the real problems, persons who have dropped out of politics must become involved. Frederick Douglass said the limits of tyranny are set by how much the oppressed are willing to tolerate.
Martin Luther King Jr. similarly emphasized: “Freedom is never given to anybody! For the oppressor has you in domination because he plans to keep you there. And he never voluntarily gives it up. . . . Privileged classes never give up their privileges without strong resistance.”
The resistance King advocated, of course, was nonviolent political activism. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis also recognized the critical need for a politically engaged citizenry when he said the “most important office” in a democracy is “that of a private citizen.”
Political activism needs to include not just voting. It also requires paying attention to public affairs, protesting when government officials act against the public weal, joining public interest groups, making campaign contributions to candidates who represent the middle and lower classes, working on political campaigns, and organizing unions.
As Edmund Burke explained: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” And as the pioneering community-organizer Saul Alinsky stressed, only organized people can defeat organized money.
In her book Pigs at the Trough, Arianna Huffington says the attitude of most American politicians today is that “the only thing that trumps big money is big public outrage.”
The founders of the U.S. gave Americans the right to vote, receive information about public affairs, organize grassroots movements, and express their political opinions – and outrage – so that government will act in their interest. If there ever was a time when more Americans needed to exercise those rights, it’s now.
[Many of the statistics in this article are from Arianna Huffington’s superb books Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption Are Undermining America, and How to Overthrow the Government. Other sources include the books The Best Political Writing of 2002, edited by Royce Flippin; Sold to the Highest Bidder by Daniel M. Friedenberg; Into the Buzzsaw, edited by Kristina Borjesson; Seven Simple Steps to Personal Freedom by Gerry Spence; Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them) by Al Franken; Running on Empty by Peter G. Peterson; Take This Job and Ship It by Senator Byron L. Dorgan; and Train Wreck: The End of the Conservative Revolution (and Not a Moment Too Soon) by Bill Press. Another source is the newsletter The Hightower Lowdown, edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer.]