May 31st 2017

America’s Broken Democracy

by Jeffrey D. Sachs

 

Jeffrey D. Sachs, University Professor at Columbia University, is Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.


NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump’s ravings against the 2015 Paris climate agreement are partly a product of his ignorance and narcissism. Yet they represent something more. They are a reflection of the deep corruption of the US political system, which, according to one recent assessment, is no longer a “full democracy.” American politics has become a game of powerful corporate interests: tax cuts for the rich, deregulation for mega-polluters, and war and global warming for the rest of the world.

Six of the G7 countries worked overtime last week to bring Trump around on climate change, but Trump resisted. European and Japanese leaders are accustomed to treating the US as an ally on key issues. With Trump in power, it is a habit they are rethinking.

But the problem goes beyond Trump. Those of us living in the United States know first-hand that America’s democratic institutions have deteriorated markedly over the last several decades, beginning perhaps as far back as the 1960s, when Americans began to lose confidence in their political institutions. US politics have become increasingly corrupt, cynical, and detached from public opinion. Trump is but a symptom, albeit a shocking and dangerous one, of this deeper political malaise.

Trump’s policies embody mean-spirited priorities that are widely backed by the Republican Party in the US Congress: slash taxes for the rich at the expense of programs to help the poor and working class; increase military spending at the expense of diplomacy; and allow for the destruction of the environment in the name of “deregulation.”

And, indeed, from Trump’s perspective, the highlights of his recent trip abroad were signing a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, berating other NATO members for their supposedly insufficient military spending, and rejecting the pleas of US allies to continue in the fight global warming. Congressional Republicans broadly cheer these frightening policies.

Meanwhile, Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress are trying to rush through legislation that would deprive more than 20 million people of health care, in order to cut taxes for the richest Americans. Trump’s newly proposed budget would slash Medicaid (health insurance for the poor), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food for the poor), foreign assistance (aid for the world’s poorest), funding for the United Nations, and spending on science and technology. Trump would, in short, gut the federal programs for education, training, the environment, civilian science, diplomacy, housing, nutrition, and other urgent civilian priorities.

These are not the priorities shared by most Americans – not even close. A majority wants to tax the rich, maintain health coverage, stop America’s wars, and fight global warming. According to recent polling data, Americans overwhelmingly want to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement, which Trump has pledged to leave. Trump and his cronies are fighting public opinion, not representing it.

They are doing this for one reason, and one reason only: money. More precisely, Trump’s policies serve the corporate interests that pay the campaign bills and effectively run the US government. What Trump signifies is the culmination of a long-term process whereby powerful corporate lobbies have bought their way to power. Today, companies like ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Continental Energy, and other mega-polluting companies no longer need to lobby; Trump has handed them the keys to the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Energy Department. They also hold senior congressional staff positions.

Much of the corporate money can be traced; the rest flows anonymously, as “dark money” that avoids public scrutiny. Supreme Court justices who themselves were frequently wined and dined by corporate donors gave the green light to keep these corrupt flows secret in their infamous Citizens United decision.

As investigative journalist Jane Mayer has documented, the largest source of dark money is the tandem of David and Charles Koch, who inherited the highly polluting Koch Industries from their father, a man whose business history included building a major oil refinery for Germany’s Nazi regime. The Koch brothers, with a combined net worth of some $100 billion, have spent freely for decades to take over the US political system, mobilizing other right-wing corporate interests as well.

When it comes to tax policy and climate change, the Republican Party is almost completely in the hands of the Koch brothers and their oil-industry cronies. Their immoral aim is simple: to cut corporate taxes and deregulate oil and gas, regardless of the consequences for the planet. To achieve these goals, they are prepared to try to remove millions of poor people from health-care coverage, and even more shockingly, to put the entire planet at dire risk of global warming. Their evil is chilling, but it is real. And Trump is their factotum.

Before Trump’s recent foreign trip, 22 Republican senators sent him a letter calling for the US to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Almost all receive significant campaign funding from the oil and gas industry. Most of them probably depend directly on donations from the Koch brothers and the lobbying organizations that they secretly finance. As the Center for Responsive Politics, a public-interest group, has shown, spending by oil and gas companies on federal candidates in the 2016 election totaled $103 million, with 88% going to Republicans. This of course includes only the funds that can be tracked to particular donors.

The rest of the world urgently needs to understand America for what it has now become. Behind the formal structures of a once-functioning democracy is a political system run by corporate interests with the cynical aims of cutting taxes on the rich, selling weapons, and polluting with impunity. In Trump, they have found a shameless frontman and TV personality who will do their bidding.

It is now the job of the rest of the world to say no to America’s reckless corporate greed, and of Americans themselves to reclaim their democratic institutions by pushing dark money and corporate malevolence from their midst. Given the small (52-48) Republican majority in the Senate, the Democrats and just three honest Republicans would be in a position to block most or all of the Trump-Koch agenda. The situation is therefore salvageable, though it remains highly dangerous. Americans – and the world – deserve much better.


Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
www.project-syndicate.org
=


To subscribe to Facts and Arts' weekly newsletter, please click here.

To follow Facts & Arts' Editor, Olli Raade, on Twitter, please click here.

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 12th 2024
EXTRACTS: "One of the more amusing exercises on the economic calendar is the International Monetary Fund’s annual review of the United States. Yet while everyone knows that the US government pays absolutely no heed to what the IMF has to say about its affairs, the Fund’s most recent Article IV review of the US economy is striking for one unexpected finding. Readers will be startled to learn that, in the IMF’s estimation, US government debt is on a sustainable path." ---- "What then could go wrong? Well, US institutions could turn out not to be so strong. Donald Trump has a personal history of defaulting on his debts. As William Silber has observed, Trump in a second presidential term could instruct his Treasury secretary to suspend payments on the debt, and neither Congress nor the courts might be willing to do anything about it. The gambit would be appealing to Trump insofar as a third of US government debt is held by foreigners. The damage to the dollar’s safe-asset status would be severe, even if Congress, the courts, or a subsequent president reversed Trump’s suspension of debt payments. Investors in US Treasuries would demand a hefty risk premium, potentially causing the government’s interest payments to explode."
Jun 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "An all-too-familiar specter is haunting Europe, one that reliably appears every five years. As citizens head to the polls to elect a new European Parliament, observers are once again asking whether far-right anti-European parties will gain ground and unite to destroy the European Union from within. To be sure, skeptics of this doomsday scenario have always argued that the far right will remain divided, because nationalist internationalism is a contradiction in terms. But it is more likely that specific policy disagreements – mainly over the Ukraine war – and drastically diverging political strategies will prevent Europe’s various far-right parties from forming a 'supergroup.' ”
Jun 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "While the dreadful legacy of his Conservative predecessors – the morally vacuous Johnson and the reckless Liz Truss – would make it extremely difficult for Sunak to offer a credible vision of a better future, many of his current problems are self-inflicted. For example, he supported Johnson’s bid for the Conservative leadership, a decision that reflects poorly on his judgment. Sunak has also been a Euroskeptic since he was a schoolboy and was an early supporter of Brexit."
Jun 8th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Why are so many young people attracted to far-right politics? Polls show that 36% of French people aged 18-24 support Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, while roughly 31% in the Netherlands back Geert Wilders’s nationalist, anti-immigration ..... 26% of Americans aged 18-29 prefer former US President Donald Trump over the incumbent Joe Biden." ---- "Center-left parties had become increasingly associated with urban elites who benefited from a globalized economy in which immigrants provided cheap labor and well-educated cosmopolitans could seek financial profit or intellectual stimulation wherever they desired." ---- "Trump does not have to convince many young people to vote for him. If enough of them refuse to vote for Biden, either because he is too old, too conservative, or too pro-Israel, Trump could win November’s presidential election. If elected, he will continue to shatter the norms and wreck the institutions that allow democracy to function."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACT: "That said, even if Europe were to improve its deterrence capabilities, it would be unwise to assume that leaders necessarily make rational decisions. In her 1984 book The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman observes that political leaders frequently act against their own interests. America’s disastrous wars in the Middle East, the Soviet Union’s ill-fated campaign in Afghanistan, and the ongoing war of blind hatred between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, with its potential to escalate into a larger regional conflict, are prime examples of such missteps. As Tuchman notes, the march of folly is never-ending. That is precisely why Europe must prepare itself for an era of heightened vigilance."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACTS: " Nathan Cofnas is a research fellow in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His research is supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. He is also a college research associate at Emmanuel College. Working at the intersection of science and philosophy, he has published several papers in leading peer-reviewed journals. He also writes popular articles and posts on Substack. In January, Cofnas published a post called “Why We Need to Talk about the Right’s Stupidity Problem.” No one at Cambridge seems to have been bothered by his argument that people on the political right have, on average, lower intelligence than those on the left." ---- "The academic world will be watching what happens. Were the University of Cambridge to dismiss Cofnas, it would sound a warning to students and academics everywhere: when it comes to controversial topics, even the world’s most renowned universities can no longer be relied upon to stand by their commitment to defend freedom of thought and discussion."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Word has been sent down from on high that there is room for only “good stories of China.” Anyone who raises questions about problems, or even challenges, faces exclusion from the public sessions. That was certainly true for me." ----- " But my admiration for the Chinese people and the extraordinary transformation of China’s economy over the past 45 years persists. I still disagree with the consensus view in the West that the Chinese miracle was always doomed to fail. Moreover, I remain highly critical of America’s virulent Sinophobia, while maintaining the view that China faces serious structural growth challenges. And I continue to believe that US-China codependency offers a recipe for mutually beneficial conflict resolution. My agenda remains analytically driven, not politically motivated."
Apr 11th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The insurrection began just after 8 p.m. on November 8, 1923, when Hitler and his followers burst into a political rally and held the crowd hostage. ---- The Nazi attempt to seize power ended the following morning, ---- After two and a half days in hiding, Germany’s most wanted man was discovered ----- Hitler was charged with treason, and his trial began on February 26, 1924. ---- .....the judge, having found Hitler guilty, imposed the minimum sentence....That miscarriage of justice was facilitated by the trial’s location in the anti-democratic south, and by the role of the presiding judge, Georg Neithardt, a conservative who was happy to allow Hitler to use his court as a platform to attack the Republic. ----- Like Hitler in 1924, Trump is using the courtroom as a stage on which to present himself as the victim, arguing that a crooked 'deep state' is out to get him."
Apr 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "If Kennedy’s emphasis on healing suggests someone who has been through “recovery,” that is because he has. Following the trauma of losing both his father and his uncle to assassins’ bullets, Kennedy battled, and ultimately overcame, an addiction to heroin. Like Kennedy, Shanahan also appears to be channeling personal affliction. She describes grappling with infertility, as well as the difficulties associated with raising her five-year-old daughter, Echo, who suffers from autism," ----- "Armed with paranoid conspiracy theories about America’s descent into chronic sickness, loneliness, and depression, Kennedy has heedlessly spread lies about the putative dangers of life-saving vaccines while mouthing platitudes about resilience and healing. To all appearances, he remains caught in a twisted fantasy that he just might be the one who will realize his father’s idealistic dreams of a better America."
Mar 18th 2024
EXTRACT: "....the UK’s current economic woes – falling exports, slowing growth, low productivity, high taxes, and strained public finances – underscore the urgency of confronting Brexit’s catastrophic consequences."
Mar 18th 2024
EXTRACTS: Most significant of all, Russia’s Black Sea fleet has suffered significant losses over the past two years. As a result of these Ukrainian successes, the Kremlin decided to relocate the Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk on the Russian mainland. Compare that with the situation prior to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 when Russia had a secure lease on the naval base of Sevastopol until 2042." --- "Ukrainian efforts have clearly demonstrated, however, that the Kremlin’s, and Putin’s personal, commitment may not be enough to secure Russia’s hold forever. Kyiv’s western partners would do well to remember that among the spreading gloom over the trajectory of the war."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "As the saying goes, 'It’s the economy, stupid.' Trump’s proposed economic-policy agenda is now the greatest threat to economies and markets around the world."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "Russia, of course, brought all these problems on itself. It most certainly is not winning the war, either militarily or on the economic front. Ukraine is recovering from the initial shock, and if robust foreign assistance continues, it will have an upper hand in the war of attrition."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "...... with good timing and good luck, enabled Trump to defeat [in 2016] political icon Hillary Clinton in a race that appeared tailor-made for her. But contrary to what Trump might claim, his victory was extremely narrow. In fact, he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes – a larger margin than any other US president in history. Since then, Trump has proved toxic at the ballot box. " -----"The old wisdom that 'demographics is destiny' – coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte – may well be more relevant to the outcome than it has been to any previous presidential election. "----- "Between the 2016 and 2024 elections, some 20 million older voters will have died, and about 32 million younger Americans will have reached voting age. Many young voters disdain both parties, and Republicans are actively recruiting (mostly white men) on college campuses. But the issues that are dearest to Gen Z’s heart – such as reproductive rights, democracy, and the environment – will keep most of them voting Democratic."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACTS: "How can America’s fundamentalist Christians be so enthusiastic about so thoroughly un-Christian a politician?" ---- "If you see and think outside the hermeneutic code of Christian fundamentalism, you might be forgiven for viewing Trump as a ruthless, wholly self-interested man intent on maximizing power, wealth, and carnal pleasure. What your spiritual blindness prevents you from seeing is how the Holy Spirit uses him – channeling the 'secret power of lawlessness,' as the Book of 2 Thessalonians describes it – to restrain the advent of ultimate evil, or to produce something immeasurably greater: the eschaton (end of history), when the messiah comes again."
Mar 1st 2024
EXTRACT: "The lesson is that laws and regulatory structures are critical to state activities that produce local-level benefits. If citizens are to push for reforms and interventions that increase efficiency, promote inclusion, and enable entrepreneurship, innovation, and long-term growth, they need to recognize this. The kind of effective civil society Nilekani envisions thus requires civic engagement, empowerment, and education, including an understanding of the rights and responsibilities implied by citizenship."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Despite the widespread belief that the global economy is headed for a soft landing, recent trends offer little cause for optimism."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: " Consider, for example, the ongoing revolution in robotics and automation, which will soon lead to the development of robots with human-like features that can learn and multitask the way we do. Or consider what AI will do for biotech, medicine, and ultimately human health and lifespans. No less intriguing are the developments in quantum computing, which will eventually merge with AI to produce advanced cryptography and cybersecurity applications."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The implication is clear. If Hamas is toppled, and there is no legitimate Palestinian political authority capable of filling the vacuum it leaves behind, Israel will probably find itself in a new kind of hell." ----- "As long as the PLO fails to co-opt Hamas into the political process, it will be impossible to establish a legitimate Palestinian government in post-conflict Gaza, let alone achieve the dream of Palestinian statehood. This is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it serves Netanyahu and his coalition of extremists just fine."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACTS: "According to estimates by the United Nations, China’s working-age population peaked in 2015 and will decline by nearly 220 million by 2049. Basic economics tells us that maintaining steady GDP growth with fewer workers requires extracting more value-added from each one, meaning that productivity growth is vital. But with China now drawing more support from low-productivity state-owned enterprises, and with the higher-productivity private sector remaining under intense regulatory pressure, the prospects for an acceleration of productivity growth appear dim."