Ron DeSantis, it’s reported this weekend, is targeting giant corporations and billionaires for money in exchange for political favors: he’s essentially soliciting bribes. How the hell did America get here?
There are basically two models for social organization, regardless of all the names. They are “me societies” and “we societies.”
Russia, for example, is today a classic example of a “me society.” The nation is run by a small cabal of “me-me-me” oligarchs, who own or control basically every major company and, in most cases, entire industrial, commercial, media, and retail sectors. Each is owned by one or more morbidly rich individuals and their families, who are looking out for their own “me” interests (profits) with little regard for the public good.
The country’s leader glorifies the individual above society, arguing that governance by hyper-masculine elites (“me”) willing to use state violence against those advocating democracy and the welfare of the general population (“we”) is simply The Way It’s Always Been. (Putin refers to this as “Russia’s historic greatness.”)
And in that, Putin is right. The majority of post-agricultural-revolution history (the past 7,000 or so years) has been a narrative of what Jefferson referred to as the three great tyrannies: warlord kings, the morbidly rich keeping average people in squalor and ignorance, and violence-enforced theocracies.
As he noted in A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774):
“History has informed us that bodies of men, as well as of individuals, are susceptible of the spirit of tyranny.”
On the other hand, as I lay out in detail in my new book The Hidden History of American Democracy: Rediscovering Humanity’s Ancient Way of Living, the majority of those societies that emerged from tens of thousands of years of trial-and-error experimentation in governance were and are explicitly “we societies.”
Native American societies that informed and inspired this nation’s Founders and the Framers of the Constitution, for example, considered the accumulation of great wealth to be a dangerous mental illness, up there with forcible theft, rape, and murder.
People who hoarded food of other forms of wealth were disciplined and, if they continued, often banished from the tribe altogether (which could be a functional death sentence, as nobody else would take such twisted people in).
The Algonquin people had a word for this mental illness, as I describe in The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. In today’s English, we could loosely translate their word “Wétiko” as “greed.”
The late Professor of Native American Studies at UC Davis Jack Forbes told me, when I was writing Last Hours, that Wétiko literally means “cannibal,” and Forbes uses it quite intentionally to describe European standards of culture: we “eat” (consume) other humans by conquering them, seizing their lands, and consuming their life-force by enslaving them either physically or economically.
Last week I noted how so many of America’s billionaires are infected with this mental illness: today we call it “Hoarding Disorder,” considered a subset of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) until 2013 when the APA gave it its own specific descriptor in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).
Had they been born poor or not gotten a lucky break, they’d be living in apartments with newspapers and empty tin cans stacked floor-to-ceiling. There’s never “enough” for them.
Society has known about this mental illness forever. Dante, Shakespeare, Gogol, Balzac, and Dickens, for example, all wrote of wealthy characters who disrupted society and the lives of those around them because of their own Hoarding Disorder.
Many of the idealists who started this country explicitly rejected rule by the rich. None were dynastically wealthy: not a single one’s wealth lasted beyond a second or third generation, unlike today’s billionaires, whose families will carry their wealth for centuries to come.
The most outspoken in this regard were Franklin, Paine, Jefferson, and Rush: they were clear that they were trying — within the social limits of their time — to create a “we society.”
The Constitution refers to “the general welfare” of Americans twice, once in the Preamble, defining it as one of the basic reasons for the Constitution itself, and once in Article 1, Section 8, defining the powers of Congress to raise taxes and spend money “to provide for … the general Welfare of the United States…”
Over the centuries the concept of a “we society” expanded here in America, as the voting franchise and individual human rights were expanded and extended beyond wealthy/land-owning straight white men.
Abraham Lincoln enthusiastically signed the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862, giving each of the states 90,000 acres of federal land to use to fund and build 76 tuition-free land-grant colleges so young people could climb out of poverty through education.
But the “me society” rich of the day kept trying to corrupt politics to their own advantage. In his 1888 State of the Union address, President Grover Cleveland pointed out:
“We view with pride and satisfaction this bright picture of our country’s growth and prosperity, while only a closer scrutiny develops a somber shading. …
“We discover that the fortunes realized by our manufacturers are no longer solely the reward of sturdy industry and enlightened foresight, but that they … are largely built upon undue exactions from the masses of our people. The gulf between employers and the employed is constantly widening, and classes are rapidly forming, one comprising the very rich and powerful, while in another are found the toiling poor.”
And what was causing this crisis for America’s 19th century working-class families? President Cleveland laid it out with a surprisingly blunt vehemence in the next sentence:
“As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel. Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”
The people — and Congress — were listening to this critique of the “me society” that was emerging with the industrial revolution. America was outraged at the way corporations and the morbidly rich were behaving, and President Cleveland had given voice to their anger. A mere two years later the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 was passed, criminalizing monopolies (called “trusts” back then).
The law opens with:
“Every contract, combination in the form of trust or other-wise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is hereby declared to be illegal.
“Every person who shall make any such contract or engage in any such combination or conspiracy, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction thereof, shall be punished by fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, or by imprisonment not exceeding one year, or by both said punishments, at the discretion of the court.”
A short two decades later, progressive Republican presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were using that same law to break hoarder John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust into almost 30 pieces.
Theodore Roosevelt was clear that he wanted to move America closer to the “we society” that he believed the Founders envisioned and the times demanded. On August 31, 1910, he told an audience in Osawatomie, Kansas:
“I stand for the Square Deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.”
Roosevelt was quite clear about what his “Square Deal” meant about creating a “we society” for average Americans:
“Now, this means that our government, National and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests. Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics.”
In that, Teddy Roosevelt essentially declared war on the “me society” morbidly rich of his day and the corporations that got them that way:
“The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being. There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done.”
During Roosevelt’s tenure, states and the US Congress began passing powerful laws to limit the corrupting power of “me society” money in politics.
In 1905, for example, Wisconsin passed a law (Section 4489a, Sec. 1, ch. 492, 1905) that explicitly said:
“No corporation doing business in this state shall pay or contribute, or offer, consent or agree to pay or contribute, directly or indirectly, any money, property, free service of its officers or employees or thing of value to any political party, organization, committee or individual for any political purpose whatsoever, or for the purpose of influencing legislation of any kind, or to promote or defeat the candidacy of any person for nomination, appointment or election to any political office.” (emphasis added)
The penalty included a substantial fine, years in prison for individual executives, and the political death sentence of the corporation itself — being forbidden from doing business in Wisconsin:
“Any officer, employee, agent or attorney or other representative of any corporation, acting for and in behalf of such corporation, who shall violate this act, shall be punished upon conviction by a fine … or by imprisonment in the state prison for a period of not less than one nor more than five years, … and … its right to do business in this state may be declared forfeited.”
Two years later, efforts to control “me society” bad behavior by rich people and corporations went federal with the Tillman Act of 1907. That law explicitly forbade any corporation nationwide from giving money to politicians:
“It is unlawful for any national bank, or any corporation organized by authority of any law of Congress, to make a contribution or expenditure in connection with any election to any political office…” (emphasis added)
By 1925, the Tillman Act had been incorporated into the Federal Corrupt Practices Act, further limiting money in politics, and in 1938 we got the Hatch Act which limited contributions from rich people to $5000 per candidate and $3 million per party.
Following the Agnew and Nixon bribery scandals we got another bunch of laws to regulate money in politics, including the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, and the 1974 creation of the Federal Elections Commission, which then promulgated rules further limiting “dark money” and other forms of political bribery.
These modern efforts to establish a “we society” had deep roots in Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency.
Expanding on the idea of that “we society,” in an August, 1912 speech in Chicago, Teddy Roosevelt called for a national minimum wage and government programs for social security, saying working people shouldn’t earn so little that they must steal food and couldn’t provide for their families, deal with illness, or have a safe, comfortable retirement:
“We stand for a living wage. Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide a living for those who devote their time and energy to industrial occupations. The monetary equivalent of a living wage varies according to local conditions, but must include enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living–a standard high enough to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to care for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during periods of sickness, and to permit of reasonable saving for old age.”
The fulfillment of his vision came a generation later when his distant cousin, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, became president and pushed through his New Deal. He legalized unions, passed a minimum wage law, and started Social Security, among other things.
Throughout the 1950s, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower expanded all of them and added massive national infrastructure projects with huge expenditures on highways, schools, and hospitals.
In the 1960s, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson added Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, housing supports, and increased support for education.
America was not only on the path to becoming a “we society”: we were more than halfway there. By 1980 two-thirds of Americans were solidly in the middle class with a single income, healthcare was affordable, union membership was widespread, college was free or very inexpensive in most of the country, and the top income tax bracket on morbidly rich hoarders was 74 percent.
The rest of the world was imitating us, as northern Europe, in particular, expanded on the “we society” programs of TR, FDR, Ike, and LBJ. Even little Costa Rica provided healthcare to all its citizens with a Medicare For All type of program and nearly free college (maximum tuition $600/year) for anybody who can pass entrance exams.
But then came Ronald Reagan with his neoliberal “me society” sales pitch that “greed is good” and the only sure path to national and individual prosperity was to free corporations and the morbidly rich from the strictures of taxation and regulation.
With Reagan‘s help, the hoarder billionaires took over politics and looted the economy.
In the forty-two years since his inauguration, America’s middle class has shrunk from two-thirds of us down to around 45 percent of us, and even at that today it takes two incomes to match the lifestyle a single income could sustain in 1980. America’s richest people, however, reached a level of wealth never before seen in the history of the world, not even by kings, pharaohs, or popes.
I lay out how Reagan got there in detail in The Hidden History of Neoliberalism: How Reaganism Gutted America, but the main event that made the Reagan Revolution and Reagan’s neoliberal successors (including Bill Clinton) possible was the Supreme Court overturning the Tillman Act and legalizing political bribery in a series of decisions that started in 1976 and peaked when Clarence Thomas cast the tie-breaking vote in Citizens United in 2010.
As a result, we read in this weekend’s Washington Post how, for example, the DeSantis campaign is going after bribes from giant corporations to the tune of tens of millions of dollars:
“When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took office in 2019, his political team made a list of the state’s top 40 lobbyists and about 100 of their ‘Suggested Clients to target’ for political contributions, according to a fundraising document reviewed by The Washington Post.
“Next to the name of each lobbyist was a dollar figure, an ‘ask’ that the DeSantis team hoped they would raise based on their book of clients, whose names were also listed in the document and included large corporations such as Disney and Motorola, as well as sports organizations, billionaires, and interest groups with extensive business before the state.”
DeSantis, of course, is not unique in this. Since 5 Republicans on the Supreme Court changed the rules of the game of politics, both parties (and the Greens, Libertarians, and No Labels) welcome support from corporations and the morbidly rich (although members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus eschew corporate PAC contributions).
This betrayal of America’s “we society” values, described in detail in The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America, has caused our country to fall far behind most of the rest of the world’s advanced democracies.
In today’s America, people die because they can’t afford insulin; when President Biden and congressional Democrats tried to pass legislation that would have capped the cost of it at $35/month (it can cost thousands even though its inventors gave up the patent for $1), Republicans and a handful of bought-off Democrats blocked him and restricted the cap to Medicare recipients.
More than half of Americans (57 percent) are one $1000 expense away from disaster or homelessness, and life expectancy in this country has been actually declining while it’s going up in every other advanced democracy in the world.
Homelessness is a crisis, as corporate investors are buying up residential real estate to flip it into high-priced rentals across the nation. As I noted last week, we’re plagued by a lack of healthcare, student debt, illiteracy, and a gun-driven slaughter of our children: all problems that pretty much don’t exist in other advanced democracies.
While Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration have made some really significant steps away from the “me society” of Reaganism and toward a new “we society,” they’re constantly stopped by politicians who’ve been corrupted by giant corporations and the morbidly rich.
For America to fulfill her promise and become the nation the majority of our citizens want, voters and Congress must prioritize stripping out of law the Supreme Court-invented doctrines of “money is free speech” and “corporations are persons.”
In 2022, Democrats in Congress tried to overcome the power of the “me society’s” legalized big money bribery: the For The People Act passed the House (without a single GOP vote), but was killed in the Senate when Manchin and Sinema upheld a Republican filibuster.
Our job now, if we want America to become the “we society” that represents the highest outcome of democratic governance, is to get a large enough progressive majority in Congress that in 2025 we can actually pull it off.
Tag, we’re it!
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