Public Opinion: So What?
In a recent telephone survey of more than 1100 randomly selected U.S. adults, the New York Times recently reported, the paper and CBS found that the U.S. citizenry stands to the progressive and populist left on numerous key political-economic issues. Pollsters working for the two corporate media giants learned that:
- Two-thirds (66%) of Americans think that the distribution of money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among more people in the U.S.
- 61% of Americans believe that in today’s economy it’s mainly just a few people at the top who have a chance to get ahead.
- 83% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor is a problem.
- 67% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be addressed immediately, not as some point in the future.
- 57% of Americans think the U.S. government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S.
- “Almost three-quarters [74%] of respondents say that large corporations have too much influence in the county, about the double the amount that said the same of unions.”
- 68% of Americans favor raising taxes on people “earning” – the pollsters’ term (a better one would be “taking”) – more than $1 million per year.
- 50% of Americans support limits on money “earned” by top executives at large corporations.
- “Americans [are] skeptical of [so-called] free trade. Nearly two-thirds [63%] favored some form of trade restrictions, and more than half opposed giving the president [fast-track] authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could only vote up or down without amendments.”
These are noteworthy findings. Consistent with numerous surveys revealing a preponderantly progressive populace in the U.S. over many years, they show majority support for greater economic equality and opportunity, increased worker rights, a roll-back of corporate power, and trade regulation.
The U.S. economic power elite has a response to such popular sentiments: So what? Who cares? Public opinion is pitilessly mocked by harshly lopsided socioeconomic realities and coldly plutocratic politics and policy in the U.S. America is mired in a New Gilded Age of savage inequality and abject financial corporatocracy so extreme that the top 1 percent garnered 95 of all U.S. income gains during Barack Obama’s first administration and owns more 90 percent of the nation’s wealth along with a probably equivalent portion of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials.
Over the past three plus decades, the liberal political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) reported last Fall, the U.S. political system has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the U.S. majority and regardless of which party holds the White House or Congress. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last year, “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy” in the U.S. —what Noam Chomsky calls “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked.’”
A “Positive Legacy” of “Investor Protection”
Which brings us to the supposedly liberal and progressive U.S. President Barack Obama’s ongoing campaign to win Congressional approval for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a classically neoliberal so-called free trade agreement that has been under secret construction by multinational corporate lawyers and corporatist government officials for at least a decade. The measure has taken on what New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker calls “special meaning for a president eager to change the world. It [is] a way to leave behind a positive legacy abroad, one that could be measured, [Obama] hope[s], by the number of lives improved rather than [as with his military actions in the Middle East] by the number of bodies left behind.”
The TPP would join the United States along with 11 other nations along the Pacific Rim, including Canada, Mexico, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Australia in a “free-trade zone” covering nearly 40 percent of the world’s economy. The president is allied with Congressional Republicans and big business groups in claiming that the TPP will open up foreign markets to American goods and “level the playing field by forcing Asian competitors to improve labor and environmental standards.”
Labor unions, environmental groups, food safety activists, civil libertarians, civil rights groups, and a good number of Congressional Democrats know that’s all manipulative business propaganda. The measure isn’t really about trade or improved standards, they are quite aware. As the liberal economist Paul Krugman has noted, whatever benefits may nor may not befall the U.S. economy from “free trade” between the TPP’s projected signatory nations have “already been realized.” The real thrust and significance of the TPP is about strengthening corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards, something certain to discourage the enactment and enforce of such standards. It’s all about what the New York Times yesterday (I am writing on Thursday, June 25th) rather over-technically called “investor protection.” As the liberal economist Dean Baker explained last December:
“TPP and [the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Pact – TTIP] are about getting special deals for businesses that they would have difficulty getting through the normal political process. For example, oil and gas companies that think they should be able to drill everywhere may be able to get rules that prevent national or state governments from restricting their activities. This could mean, for example, that New York State would have to compensate potential frackers for the ban that Governor Cuomo imposed last week…Similarly, the financial industry will be looking to roll back the sort of regulations put in place through Dodd-Frank and similar legislation in other countries. Again, if governments want to ensure that their financial system is safe, they may have to pay the banks for the privilege….The pharmaceutical industry and entertainment industries will get longer and stronger patent and copyright protection. And the food and pesticide industries will be able to able to limit the ability of governments to impose safety and environmental regulations…Best of all [for big capital], these trade deals will set up a new legal structure that goes outside existing system in the United States and elsewhere. All the businesses that didn’t think German or British courts could be trusted to give them a fair deal can turn to the investor-state dispute settlement tribunals established as part of these trade pacts. These tribunals will effectively make their own law. The trade deals allow no appeal back to U.S. courts or the courts of any other country that is included….In short, these trade deals are a real bonanza for business.”
No wonder Obama has done everything he can to keep the details of the TPP and TTIP under wraps. When you realize that the TPP would “affect the lives of millions of Americans, their jobs, their quality of life” (as Diana Johnstone recently noted on CounterPunch), the secrecy is astounding: U.S. Congress persons and some of their staff can see the TPP’s text only if they agree not to take notes or discuss the details in public!
It is also no wonder that Obama wanted Congress to give him “fast-track authority” to force a yay or nay Congressional vote on the TPP, with no time for careful consideration and no chance for revisions. Under fast-track rules, there’s no chance for delays or alterations. The pact must be voted up or down in a very short time-frame. “The idea,” Baker noted last year, “is that with the bulk of the business community promising large campaign contributions to supporters and threatening to punish opponents, most members of Congress would find it difficult to vote no.”
The Playbook Holds
Liberal and “progressive” activists and intellectuals got badly over-excited two weeks ago when US House Democrats succeeding in momentarily obstructing Fast Track (widely deemed essential for passage of the TPP) by voting against a usual liberal priority: a federal program for the retraining of workers displaced by global “trade.” This down vote on retraining was able to obstruct Fast Track because training and Fast Track were coupled together as essential parts of the same measure. It was an embarrassing “rebuke” for Obama, who lobbied hard for TPP along with corporate America. As the sage left-liberal commentator William Greider exulted, “After 25 years of losing out to Wall Street and corporate interests, the party’s faithful constituency base managed to take down their Democratic president and his sweetheart deal with the big money. The left-liberal policy groups and grassroots activists agitating for change stood their ground against the power elites and, for once, they triumphed.” Georgetown University labor historian Joseph McCartin (himself a onetime Obama enthusiast) enthused to The Guardian that “This is the first time Congress considered a trade deal since we as a country became much more cognizant of surging inequality and the crisis in middle-class jobs. “The old playbook,” professor McCartin said, “of the president being able to get the votes at the last minute doesn’t seem to apply anymore.”
But, to repeat: So what? Who cares? Sorry, but the “playbook” still applies. Greider’s “left liberal triumph” was all too predictably short-lived. While the national media and populace focused on a prison escape in upstate New York, a terrible racist gun massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, and a subsequent debate over calls for the removal of the Confederate Flag from the state capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, Obama and his big business and Congressional Republican allies came back for a second and better try, with a new parliamentary strategy. All Obama and his partners in arch-neoliberal rule had to do rescue TPP Fast Track was to decouple it from the training measure. A decoupled Fast Track bill passed through Congress yesterday. It is headed to the White House in what The Hill calls “a big second-term legislative win for President Obama after a months-long struggle.” Obama’s cherished TPP (truly a grand dream for a “progressive” president!) will pass despite the technically irrelevant opposition of most of the populace – and despite the death blow it may well land against prospects for a decent and democratic future.
Time for an Overdue Apology on Obama
Beneath progressive pretentions, Barack Obama the national political phenomenon has never been anything other than a tool of the United States’ corporate and financial ruling class. This is something that I (and a sturdy cadre of other researchers and commentators) have argued and documented at painstaking length from the beginning. But surely the TPP takes the cake when it comes to solidifying his legacy once and for all as a died-in-the-wool global corporatist. How any serious liberal or progressive could still cling to the notion of a “progressive” President Obama after his work with big capital, the Republicans, and fellow corporate Democrats to pass the arch-authoritarian, super-corporatist, anti-labor, and eco-cidal TPP over and against the opposition even of most of his party’s Congressional delegation is a chilling kind of mystery. Is this latest betrayal of his “progressive constituency” not a last and heavy final straw to break the back of the moronic, mass-marketed myth of a “progressive Obama”? Could we now finally get some former “Progressives for Obama” members to formally apologize for the abject foolishness they exhibited in support of this deeply conservative corporatist Democrat – and for the venom with which so many so-called left-liberals attacked those of us on the actual Left  who tried to warn U.S. citizens and activists and the world about the cold corporate and imperial reality of Obama, Inc. from the start?
The Bigger Point
Obama aside, let us remember again: Washington runs on corporate and financial cash, connections, reach, and propaganda, not public opinion. As the TPP’s imminent passage makes abundantly clear, in case anyone hasn’t been paying attention, the United States, the self-declared homeland and headquarters of democracy, is ruled by an “unelected dictatorship of money.”
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).
1. Please see the sub-section titled “Insistent Left Warnings” on pages 176-177 in the sixth chapter (titled “We Were Warned”) of my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2014)