Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer that people do not revolt because they are poor and miserable. If that there the case, the world would be in a constant state of revolt. No, Hoffer wrote, people revolt when something to which they think they have a right is taken away from them, or when hopes are raised that things will get better. Having a lot of highly educated young people without jobs is a spark that sets off the tinder.
If that is the case, the American people are ripe for revolt right now. Although we are wealthier and more free than much of the world’s population, our economic security and political rights are being eroded. The younger generation knows it is worse off than the generations that came before. And the hope of change generated by Barack Obama has proved to be an illusion.
Historically the powers that be in the United States headed off revolt by responding to the discontented and bringing them into the system. This happened with the labor movement in the 1930s and the civil rights protests of the 1960s. But I think this time is different.
The electoral process is being altered to increase the power of money and to shut out minority groups, poor people, young people and others who might upset the status quo. The legislative process is being altered so as to give veto power to the opponents of progressive reform. The administration of government is becoming interlocked with corporations and shielded from public view.
Protest and dissent are being criminalized. The U.S. government has the legal and institutional basis to impose a police state. And the United States is being locked into NAFTA-like trade agreements which give corporations rights that override national law.
The power of money to distort politics is growing. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson said corporate donors regard politicians as investments. Unless the politicians are personally wealthy, they cannot run for office unless they can satisfy donors that they are a good investment. The Citizens United decision removed some of the existing weak limitations, and the Supreme Court is now hearing arguments as to any limitation on campaign spending should be declared unconstitutional..
Voter ID and other restrictions are being enacted to make it more difficult for poor people, racial minorities and young people to vote. While these laws are ostensibly neutral, African American voters in poor neighborhoods sometimes have to stand in line for hours because of a lack of sufficient number of voting machines and polling places. Touch-screen voting machines are still in widespread use, despite evidence they can easily be hacked.
Enacting a law in the United States has long been difficult compared to countries with a Parliamentary system, but it is being made even more difficult. We accept that 60 votes are needed for the Senate to pass a law, and that a party that controls one branch of Congress can threaten to disrupt the government and prevent it from paying its bills if it doesn’t get its way. Our political conflicts are not over how to make things better, but to what degree and in what way things will be made worse.
The executive branch of the government interlocks with Wall Street and the big corporations. President Obama plays golf with bankers, not with labor leaders, consumer advocates or environmentalists. Regulatory agencies are staffed by people whose career goal is to get a job with the regulated industry later on.
The First Amendment to the Bill of Rights affirms a right to free speech and a right to peacefully assemble for redress of grievances. Now peaceful protest is criminalized. Police infiltrate protest groups and sometimes try to instigate violent action. During major political events, independent expression of opinion is restricted to so-called free speech zones. Dissenters who travel by air can expect to be searched and interrogated and have their property confiscated.
The President claims the right to sign a death warrant to anyone he deems a threat based on his own judgment. He claims the right to commit acts of war, to keep people in prison who have not been charged with a crime, to conduct warrant-less surveillance and to make it a crime to reveal what is being done. I think it is naive to think that you can create a system of secret and arbitrary power, and not expect it to be used against domestic dissenters.
I don’t say the United States is a dictatorship. I do say that if a dictator were to take power, the dictator would not need an Enabling Act as Hitler did. All the legal and governmental basis for dictatorship is now in place.
The final obstacle to change is the international treaties such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. These treaties have little to do with enabling people in different countries to freely buy and sell goods and services. Rather in they limit the power of government to protect their people from corporate misconduct. So even if Americans took back their government from the ruling elite, they still would have to deal with treaties that give an international elite the power to overrule them.
A lot of disparate things are falling into place that whose purpose is to prevent Americans from rising up against the system, peacefully or otherwise. I am not interested in arguing to what degree this is the result of a thought-out plan and to what degree it is the result of people acting independently for the same ends. It doesn’t matter. What matters is what happens next.