No Shift in the Power Base

Recent speeches by Ronald Reagan and Democratic politicians have brought Americans a sample of their thoughts about “getting this country moving again.” Big business executives also weighed in with their “Bipartisan Appeal To Resolve the Budget Crisis,” led by five former Secretaries of the Treasury and Peter G. Peterson, former Secretary of Commerce.

My attention was brought to these declarations because of their remarkable and overwhelming avoidance of one obvious issue: how, apart from mere urging, are these goals going to be achieved? Where is the different power coming from to do what the existing array of powers have not done or cancelled each other out from doing?

Mr. Reagan’s principal power base — the business community -­is not about to shift priorities and concede part of its station in order to support new directions. Consider Mr. Peterson’s Three-Part Bipartisan Appeal: (1) cutting the growth of entitlements programs such as social security, veteran’s benefits and civil service and military retirement payouts; (2) moderate slightly the expansion of the defense budget and (3) increase government revenues through “consumption-based taxes” and “user fees.”

I read through the Peterson Proposal and found no sacrifice placed on the shoulders of the wealthy and large business. Mr. Peterson was interviewed on television and used the word “grotesque” to describe the cost of living increases under social security. It seems that he might have been gracious enough to at least use that adjective to describe the graspings and tax shelters of his own elite economic class. It might have strengthened his case.

Two days later, Mr. Reagan went as far as suggesting that the entire corporate income tax should be abolished. So much for models of leadership by the incumbent rulers of our economic and political governments.

What about Walter Mondale whose speech at the California Democratic Conference in mid-January brought the most enthusiastic response of his career.

Quoting Lincoln’s phrase that “with public trust everything is possible–without it nothing is possible,” he launched into Ronald Reagan, to wit; “He praises human rights and brings dictators to dinner. He talks of self-reliance and then appoints a Legal Services board that puts its snout in the public payroll. He speaks of supply side, and David Stockman tells us it’s really trickle down. He speaks of sacrifice while his attorney general is getting rich off tax loopholes. No wonder Americans distrust their government.”

Mondale pledged to declare war on special-interest money in American politics, to restore a sense of community again, scale down the defense budget to reality, pressure the Federal Reserve Board to lower interest rates, bolster small business, toughen our trade policy, rebuild the educational system, cancel the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, secure an arms control agreement and fire James Watt and Ann Gorsuch.

Responding on television following President Reagan’s State of the Union speech, a dozen Democrats said much the same things. Senator Bill Bradley, for one, spoke of his “fair tax” proposal to eliminate unfair loopholes and lower tax rates for all Americans.

In all the statements, there was not a sentence on what strategies are needed to get There from Here. There was not a word that the existing distribution of power–with the few having too much and the many too little–needed to be altered before the politicians’ equitable proposals would have a chance of getting by the Powers-That-Be.

Yet what does American history teach? The foundations for the stages of progress in our nation were laid with shifts of power–first by the departure of King George, then by the Constitution, then by a variety of laws, including the great Homestead Act of 1863 that made possible a decentralized, farmer-owned agricultural system, then by the political reforms of the Populist-Progressive period, then by the labor, civil rights, environmental and consumer laws and court decisions. At each stage, some power was shifted to the people, some voice, some remedy, some defense of one’s rights.

In the period since World War II, a massive power matrix by multinational corporations has evolved over government, communities, education, media and markets. From money in campaigns to oligopolies and cartels, the corporate state and its values became highly leveraged. If as Ronald Reagan said off-camera, “the economy is in a mess” and if as Walter Mondale claimed, the people don’t respect their government and “don’t believe their leaders,” maybe it is time to give people more direct power in our democracy to do something about their woes.

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