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January 21, 2016

An oligarchy has broken our democracy. It must be dislodged

Mike Lofgren

Source:  The Guardian

Each new election year promises change. We will choose a new president and new
representatives in Congress; fresh faces will make their appearances in Washington
DC, while old ones disappear. But what about the people who stay in power, one
election after another, less exposed to the public eye?

The concept of a ‘Deep State’ has been around for a while, but rarely to describe the
United States. The term, used in Kemalist Turkey by the political class, referred to an
informal grouping of oligarchs, senior military and intelligence operatives and
organized crime, who ran the state along anti-democratic lines regardless of who was
formally in power.

I define the American Deep State as a hybrid association of elements of government
and top-level finance and industry that is able, through campaign financing of elected
officials, influence networks and co-option via the promise of lucrative post-
government careers, to govern the United States in spite of elections and without
reference to the consent of the governed.

These operatives use their proximity to power and ability to offer high-paying jobs to
government officials to achieve outcomes foreclosed to ordinary citizens. As professor
Martin Gilens of Princeton, who studied the correlation between American popular
opinion polls and public policy outcomes, concluded: “[T]he preferences of economic
elites have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of
average citizens do ... ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their
government does in the United States.”

America’s growing income disparity is not the inevitable result of impersonal forces
like globalization or automation. It is the outcome of hundreds of trade, tax and
regulatory measures that achieved the preferred outcome – enrichment – of
economic elites who contribute to politicians.

Since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, big money dominance of
politics has gone into overdrive. Over half the money given to presidential candidates
in the 2016 campaign comes from just 158 families.

The result is that middle class incomes have continued to stagnate even as America
saw its first hundred-billionaire family. Income inequality has reached crisis
proportions. Today, hedge fund managers often pay a lower federal tax rate than
public school teachers or firemen.

Greed is the prerogative of American elites. Their behavior was described by political
scientist Harold Lasswell, who said a society’s leadership class consists of those
whose “private motives are displaced onto public objects and rationalized in terms of
public interest”.

Consider that in 1992, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney privatized much of our
military’s logistics. A decade later, Halliburton, a company he headed from 1995 to
2000, received $39.5bn in logistics contracts to support operations in Iraq, while
Cheney, having been elected to the vice presidency, was receiving deferred
compensation from his old firm.

A tell-tale sign of the Deep State’s involvement in policy is the use of fear to make
Congress compliant. In 2008, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke helped panic
Congress into approving a virtual no-strings bailout of Wall Street by claiming that if it
didn’t approve the measure immediately, there would be no economy left. Since he
left the Fed, Bernanke has made a profitable career giving speeches, mainly to
financial services firms, at around $200,000 a talk.

Likewise, when there are economic incentives for war, fear becomes the Deep State’s
weapon of choice. In 2002, the Bush administration (and well-paid operatives in the
military-industrial complex) hinted at nuclear mushroom clouds to stampede Congress
into authorizing an invasion of Iraq in search of nonexistent weapons of mass
destruction. During the last 15 years, elites have tried to keep us on the edge of
hysteria about terrorism.

But lately it looks as if they did their job a little too well. People are now so conditioned
by fear of threats that many support a political candidate who ignores the
euphemisms of the political class and openly appeals to xenophobic fascism rather
than a status quo of oligarchy camouflaged by pro forma elections.

The calculus of the Deep State has been upset by Donald Trump, a narcissistic
pseudo-populist billionaire, who, ironically, is a symptom of all the pathologies within
the Deep State. His followers may be misguided, and Trump is all too ready to offer
them scapegoats, but they instinctively sense that there is something deeply wrong
with the status quo.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Bernie Sanders has overthrown the current
model of elite financing of candidates. Tens of thousands of his energetic followers –
Sanders’s average contribution is under $30 – actively seek a return to the New Deal
and the Great Society.

The Deep State may yet reassert itself through money and fear, but the 2016 election
looks to be the first ballot of a longer-term national referendum on what it has made of
our society.

Mike Lofgren is a writer and former staff member in the US Congress.