Think you’re free? Take a close look at the choices you don’t have.
Absent a robust labor movement, ordinary Americans are increasingly alienated from the polity that governs them. Voters in 2006 and again in 2008 were clear that they wanted an end to war. The proxies they sent to Washington, D.C., gave us more war. For years, polls have indicated convincing majorities of Americans want a government-financed, Canadian or European-styled “single payer” health care system. Again, the political elite respond with a plan that will, if passed, only deepen the exploitation of working-class people by legally requiring them to buy lousy, overpriced, mostly unregulated insurance. Parents want better schools for their children and instead get an educational policy modeled on Wal-Mart, pruning labor costs and fattening corporations’ bottom lines. What’s more, argues educator and author Jonathan Kozol, our educational system now teaches children to obey rather than think.
And how has the Obama administration answered the majority of Americans who favor overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?”
With ordinary people—black, white, brown—reduced to peonage and largely irrelevant to their own governance, the body politic has become some feudal antique, with commoners paying tributes to the modern-day pharaohs. Wall Street bankers have rendered the economy dysfunctional by redirecting money to unproductive uses—namely their own pockets—and forcing workers to compensate for declining wages through more and more borrowing. Yet both Democrats and Republicans refuse to write down consumer debt, slash usurious interest rates on mortgages, credit cards, or student loans, freeze the rising costs of health care, energy or utilities, or provide any meaningful subsidies to public transit, job creation or health care.
Worse, there is an unmistakable “let them eat cake” quality to the public discourse. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama balked at providing substantive relief to homeowners who were swindled out of their homes for fear of inviting “moral hazard,” curiously, never raised when rewarding with taxpayer money the very banks who caused the financial meltdown. The administration considers inviolable Wall Street contracts calling for fat bonuses for bankers, while the auto industry’s contracts with its workers aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. New York Times columnist David Brooks urges the White House to hike taxes on the bottom 98 percent of income-earners, but calls to require Wall Street to pay even a modest tax on its transactions—similar to what most consumers pay on clothes, gasoline and food—are dismissed out of hand.
As ordinary Americans lose ground, we increasingly lose our liberty as well. The U.S. jails more of its citizens than any country in the world, and more, even, in absolute numbers, than China, with a population that is five times larger. The hoosegow is big business. Last year, two Pennsylvania judges plead guilty to taking kickbacks to send thousands of youths to a private, for-profit prison. State officials in Texas and Pennsylvania commit thousands more youths to mental hospitals—often against their will or that of their parents—as a result of protocols heavily influenced by multinational drug companies, which profit from the costly, untested psychotropic drugs that are administered to captive patients.
For many, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month to undo modest restraints on corporations’ ability to buy elections merely consolidated the ruling class’ power. Perhaps the greatest marker of average Americans’ social death is that for all the blustery rhetoric of hope and change, with an African-American major party nominee, and war and recession looming, more than 80 million eligible voters—40 percent of the American electorate—did not even bother to go to the polls in the 2008 presidential election.
What difference does it make to a slave who runs the plantation?
Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People (WW Norton) and, with Robert E. Pierre, the co-author of A Day Late and A Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama’s Post-Racial America (John Wiley and Sons) released last month.