We taxpayers would contribute to campaigns, largely freeing candidates to debate the issues. And on election day we, the people, would decide our country’s direction.
That, however, was before the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling, opening the floodgates for frequently anonymous, unlimited contributions by wealthy individuals, corporations, and others. Our candidates became the beggars asking for “spare change” – but with a difference. I can pass the beggar with no harm done – but not political candidate asking for “spare change” – and we are talking major dollars here. If I contribute nothing while my opponent contributes tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, to whom is the candidate beholden? If elected, in whose favor will s/he decide competing interests?
The question became even more pronounced with release of June fundraising figures. Mitt Romney took in $106 million to Obama’s $71 million – huge numbers in themselves. And these numbers do not include Super Pac moneys, which eclipse all this, advantage Romney. What our country has yet to ask, however, is whether such vast contributions destroy public trust while transforming government from a consensual enterprise, to government by the rich, pursuing their own narrow interests? And how does this new dynamic affect us?
I came across the answer on a recent trip to South Africa, which elected its first black president – Nelson Mandela - in 1994. Post-apartheid riches, however, remained largely in white hands and a tiny proportion of the black population; nearly everyone else remaining dirt poor. Thus, slums like Soweto still have no electricity or running water, while beach communities around Cape Town boast plush, ocean view homes.
In short, racial apartheid gave way to economic apartheid – an inability to rise up the economic ladder, even with hard work. And the results of this inequality reverberate in a widespread deadness behind the eyes, an unwillingness to go out of one’s way to accommodate another. Thus, when I carried an open bottle of water into a food store, the cashier wanted to charge me for the water, no matter how often I explained that it was mine. Finally, the supervisor intervened, determining I should not be charged.
The cashier did not appear stupid. Rather, it made no difference to her if I, the customer, left happy or not. Economic apartheid dictated that the quality of her life. So why strain herself to accommodate a passing customer?
That same economic apartheid is growing in America. As New York Times columnist David Brooks reported on a study by Harvard political scientist David Putnam, the children of the affluent are now raised in starkly different ways from those of the less affluent, resulting in different opportunities. Over the last 40 years, affluent parents have increased how much they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like private tutoring, by $5,300 a year, while financially stressed lower classes increased their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation. College-educated, affluent parents have also quadrupled the time they read and talk to their kids, while high school educated parents with multiple jobs have only modestly increased time with their kids.
As a result, richer kids are twice as likely to play after-school sports, twice as likely to captain a team, and more likely to engage in extra-curricular activities such as theater, yearbook, and scouting. Meanwhile, wrote Brooks, “poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached” – not unlike the cashier.
As the gap between rich and poor grows further, will our entrepreneurial “can do” attitude change to a “can’t do” one? If the super-rich tilt the laws even further in their own favor – more tax cuts for them while the rest of us pay full freight - what happens to our country?
In South Africa, tour busses are no longer allowed into some of Cape Town’s wealthiest communities. How long before economic apartheid leads to this in America, too? And it does not stop there.
Most Americans no longer trust the Supreme Court to make fair, non-political decisions, a precipitous decline over the last two decades, when public trust in that court polled in the 80s. So won’t this distrust also extend to our lower courts, where we wonder whether the judge’s ruling was made on the facts, or on economic and political influence? (In many states, including Texas, judges run for office, their campaigns paid for by private contributors. When those same contributors later come before those judges, how many of us believe the scales of justice are not tilted in the contributors’ favor? And when we no longer trust even our system of justice, what is left?)
America has been the goose that lay golden eggs, our collective enterprise raising our national standard of living, making us more optimistic, believing that maybe, if we try hard enough, we can achieve the American dream. But now, many of the super-wealthy, starting with Mitt Romney, who pays a smaller percentage of his income in taxes than nearly anyone else, are looking to bend the rules further in their favor, looting our shared American enterprise. Anyone who wants to see what America would then look like needs only look at the faces of South Africans without hope, without any chance to make their lives better.
That’s the America Mitt Romney is offering us. To quote a line made infamous following the a Vietnam war massacre by American troops, “We destroyed the village in order to save it.” Substitute the word country for village, and you have Romney’s marching orders.
But is this the America we want?By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist