Guest post by Camillus “The political parties are like Coke and Pepsi.” If I have heard that expression once, I’ve heard it a thousand times.
Camillus is a former Republican Party officer in the Northeastern United States. His writing has been featured on several blogs, including FrumForum.
I don’t think it’s an apt analogy though. It certainly serves to illustrates the limited range of political choices available to us- two products that are fundamentally similar and differ, principally, in aesthetic details and points of emphasis. But soda is a relatively benign product. Sure, we all know it isn’t nutritious, and that consuming too much of it will damage your teeth, but it’s not a particularly dangerous beverage.
Are our political parties today really analogous to soda? I think not.
The Democrats and Republicans are not Coke and Pepsi, and they are not selling soda. Today, they have become more like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. And what they are pitching is destroying our nation.
Over the past 30 years, America has witnessed an unprecedented concentration of wealth at the very top. This small group, the top 1%,* are the primary beneficiaries of the economic expansion that has occurred over the past three decades. They have grown fabulously rich. We can call this process “the Great Divergence.” They have separated themselves, in economic terms, from you, and me, and everyone else, by several orders of magnitude.
The Great Divergence has been, demonstrably, unhealthy for the nation. The same period has witnessed the gutting of our manufacturing base, and the hollowing out of the middle class. We’ve gone from being a nation that makes things, to a nation that consumes them. The emergence of the super-rich is inextricably entwined with the rise of celebrity culture and consumerism. And this process, the movement from a production to a consumption ethic, isn’t value neutral.
In America, the free market does not exist to advance social justice, or further the common good. It has become an end unto itself. In our society everything- human beings, the environment- literally everything- has been commodified and objectified. As a culture, we have adopted a selfish, Darwinian, survival of the fittest, approach to economics.
Success, winning, has become the only warrant we recognize. To illustrate this point, simply consider the similarities between the values and ethics displayed on “Survivor” and those of the top executives in the financial industry whose rapacious greed brought on the global financial crisis. In “Survivor” winning requires lying, cheating, ignoring the rights of others. Other people are not friends, they are objects to use, and suckers to be played and manipulated. The economic ethic of the market is the ethic of “Survivor”- win at all costs. Win by any means necessary. And like the winner of "Survivor," we watched our financial sector executives walk off the stage keeping their millions in bloated compensation and bonuses. They just don’t get a reunion show.
Meanwhile, the middle class has sunk into debt in an, ultimately vain, effort to keep up with the mega-rich Joneses. And this isn’t surprising. The lifestyles of the super-rich are on full public display, and we are constantly tempted to emulate them. And we have been sold a Great Lie- that the act of consuming, and the possession of material things, can give our lives purpose and meaning. But no house, or car, or shoes, or purse, ever fills the voids inside us, and like addicts, we are soon back out on the streets, looking for the next hit. The advertising we are bombarded with will always create new insecurities and anxieties to fill and new envies to feed- after all it has to keep us buying. And, by and by, we’ve bankrupted ourselves and our nation.
Inevitably, with great concentrations of wealth, come great concentrations of power. It is naïve to believe otherwise. The Great Divergence- which is continuing even today in the midst of the current crisis- is not in the best interests of our nation. Today, we are flirting with the permanent empowerment of an oligarchic class that will have total control of the media, the entertainment industry, the economy, and the government.
And neither political party will do anything to end the oligarchs’ lucky run at the public craps table. A lucky run totally dependant on the continuation of a Darwinian market ethic, consumerism, and our culture of consumption. This is why neither party puts forth proposals for systemic reform that would fundamentally threaten or reverse the Great Divergence and empower the middle class. Despite the hyper-partisanship, and despite the heated rhetoric that characterize our politics, very little in deed separates our two parties when it comes to how they treat the super-rich, and the Great Divergence. A cynic might rightly wonder whether the rhetoric isn't used to mask the absence of real choice in the system.
But our choices are not limited to the cold, cruel, Darwinian ethic of the unrestricted, unregulated free market, and the bankrupt policies of statist collectivism. The worst excesses of the market can be mitigated without impairing its dynamic and creative forces. If that were to happen, then its power could be made to serve the common good, and to advance justice rather than inequality.
However, at this juncture, expecting either party to proffer such a solution is akin to expecting Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds to have, on their own, decided to warn us all of the dangers of smoking.
Is it possible to reform the existing parties internally? If so, can it be done in time? Can one, or both, be transformed into an agent of constructive change? What needs to be done to effectuate this? Is this type of reform preferable to setting up a new political structure? Or is the idea of setting up a third party simply an unfeasible pipe dream? Third party or no, can the necessary alliances between reform elements on the right and left be forged across the ideological chasm? How can we foster such a process?
Those are the urgent questions all people of good will should be considering right now. Because if we do nothing, our two tobacco parties are going to kill this nation.
* Actually, calling it "the top 1%" masks the extreme nature of the wealth concentration. In many ways, we're really talking about the top decile of that percent here.