Bamboozled Nation and the Power Elite

C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite (1956) writes: "The higher members of the military, economic, and political orders are able readily to take over one another’s point of view, always in a sympathetic way, and often in a knowledgeable way as well…. This conjunction of institutional and psychological forces, in turn, is revealed by the heavy personnel traffic within and between the big three institutional orders, as well as by the rise of go-betweens as in the high-level lobbying."

The power elite as defined by Mills was a stool with three legs: the corporate elite, the military elite, and the political elite. Subsequent history indicates that the corporate and military elites have become ascendant and interlocking, controlling the political elite through various intermediaries and stratagems. This has patently been the case for decades with Congress and the presidency, regardless of which political party is officially in power.

What Mills called the "warlords"—a combine of the U.S. military and its private-sector suppliers—have infiltrated all aspects of the U.S. economy, society, and culture. They now dominate a wide array of nominally civilian institutions from top to bottom, including the mass media, Congress, the presidency, and the federal budget.

Reflective of their ascendancy is the swollen revenue stream flowing to establishment television and print media, which run glitzy, patriotic commercials sponsored by the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy, and suppliers like Northrop-Grumman—all paid for with taxpayer dollars. The fawning genuflections of the press corps to the military, its invasion of sovereign nations, and its fallen heroes seal off most Americans from any informed discussion of the military and its subversion of the polity along with the corporate elite.

An increasingly prominent wing of the corporate elite has been the banking sector, followed closely by the expanding health care and pharmaceutical industries, their lobbyists, and politically connected henchmen. The largesse of these sectors to the people’s supposed representatives has been truly breathtaking. A few examples of their high-return spending on politicians will suffice:

  • According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Wall Street gave $464 million in 2007-2008 to political campaigns through individual and political action committee donations, compared to $164 million from the health-care industry and $76 million from energy companies. Individual and PAC donations from Goldman Sachs Group alone totaled $31 million. And Citigroup was not far behind with $26 million in contributions. Needless to say, a hefty chunk of Wall Street’s largesse landed in candidate Obama’s coffers. His confidant and now White House chief of staff from Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, was described at the time as one of the biggest recipients of Wall Street money in Congress, raking in $1.5 million from the investment industry for his own congressional re-election campaign in 2006.
  • The drug industry is the biggest-spending lobby in Washington and laid out $47 million in the first three months of 2009 to buy access and influence. The American Hospital Association and individual hospitals expended $18 million on lobbying in the first quarter, compared to $10 million spent by all labor unions on a variety of issues.

Upton Sinclair writes in Oil! (1927): "The affairs of the country had to be run by the men who had the money and brains and experience; and since the mass of the people had not sense enough to grant the power freely, the mass of the people had to be bamboozled. ‘Slogans’ must be… hammered into their heads, by millions, yes, billions of repetitions…."

A majority of the voters were thoroughly bamboozled by Barack Obama’s campaign of hope, change, and faux populism as he marched to the presidency. One of the many myths surrounding his campaign was that it was fueled by tens of thousands of small contributors. As the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute has reported, however, only 26 percent of the $745 million raised for Obama was from people giving less than $200 (same proportion as for Bush in 2004), with almost half of Obama’s donors giving $1,000 or more.

Now that he is in office, the manufactured Obama pixie dust clouds the eyes of the public with symbolic gestures on marginal issues and vacuous statements about the economy, banking, health care, and the environment. Meanwhile, he backs away from one basic campaign position after another, outsources decision-making to Congress, and quietly rewards the corporate elite who have bankrolled him from day one.

Let us now count a fraction of the ways that he is swindling those who voted for him and is stealthily rewarding his true benefactors:

  • When the stimulus bill’s provision for Medicaid coverage of newly unemployed workers was stripped from the legislation by the Senate to appease so-called "moderates," President Obama made not a peep. His administration’s cost-saving proposal to force veterans to use private health insurance for their combat injuries created a firestorm of opposition that quickly killed this effort.
  • His "outrage" and "unease" about the notorious bank bonuses quickly dissipated as Congress did his dirty work behind closed doors and killed the bonus reform legislation it had touted.
  • Amid rumblings from the White House and its allies about how the "entitlements" of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are going to bankrupt the country if not "reformed," it was recently announced that Social Security will not increase its monthly benefit payments in 2010 or 2011.
  • Whispers from the White House and its allies are circulating about raising revenue by taxing health benefits. This, of course, was a proposal McCain made during the election, for which candidate Obama roundly denounced him as insensitive to the needs of working Americans. Also forgotten by the president was his pledge to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the rich and use the revenues to help fund expanded health care coverage.
  • The New York Times reports that an amendment in Congress that would have allowed modification of residential mortgages in bankruptcy court—a provision Obama supported during the election—was defeated in the Senate by a coalition of 12 Democrats and 39 Republicans. A Times editorial said: "When the time came to stand up to the banking lobbies and cajole yes votes from reluctant senators—the White House didn’t. When the measure failed, there wasn’t even a statement of regret."
  • An entitlement that the corporate and political elites never call a force for bankrupting the country is the sacred Pentagon budget and its military-related expenditures in other agencies, altogether totaling a cool trillion dollars a year. And what does the president’s promised "line-by-line review" of the military budget get us in cost reductions? The grand sum of $8.8 billion in savings on many hundreds of billions in weapons spending.
  • Counties suffering the most from job losses stand to receive the least help from Obama’s plan to spend billions of stimulus dollars on roads and bridges, according to the Associated Press. The government expects to spend 50 percent more per person in areas with the lowest unemployment than it will in communities with the highest. So much for economic planning by the Administration’s "best and brightest."
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seemed poised to limit the shearing of mountaintops for coal mining, but then shifted gears, saying it believed that most of the proposed coal projects would "not raise environmental concerns."

Then there is Obama’s weaseling on prosecution of government officials for clear violations of U.S. and international laws on torture, forgetting about labor and environmental protections in pending free-trade agreements, moving to revive military commissions for dealing with "high-value" detainees, maintaining Bush claims of "state secrets" in various court cases, neglecting to cut the $10 billion spent monthly on the Iraq occupation that he constantly talked about during the campaign, failing to fight for renewal of a ban on assault weapons, indicating that the card check for helping unions to organize is not a priority now, and—well, you get the picture.

But all is not lost. On May 8, the Obama administration announced to wide media coverage that the Statue of Liberty’s crown, closed to the public since 9/11, will reopen this summer. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was quoted as saying, "On July 4, we are giving New York a special gift. The economic times we’re going through really call for hope and optimism."

Thanks, Ken, to you and the Obama administration. It is comforting to know that noblesse oblige is alive and well in Washington, DC.


George H. Strauss holds a PhD in political science from New York University. He is the author of Welcome to the Bozo Club, and runs a non-political communications firm.