Friday, November 04, 2011

The Only Answer

On the cover of the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, the magazine asks "Is America Over?" That question is gnawing at nearly every American these days. The anxiety this pondering produces is what the Tea Party and Occupy movements have in common.

It has dawned on most everyone that for the first time in our nation's history, we have a generation of parents who no longer can find reason to believe their children will be better off than they are. The belief in the next generation's reach exceeding the grasp of the previous generation always has been at the core of the American Dream. The core has rotted.

The impulse of Tea Party types is to look for a rewind button that could return the country to an earlier time when parents could rest assured their kids were going to have it better than they did. Their search is doomed. What is past is past. Change is inevitable. Their yearning for a return to some nostalgized yesteryear is disfiguring the Republican Party and warping the country's future.

Those drawn to the Occupy movement also are seething over the stolen dream. But their response to the anxiety they share with the tea partiers is totally different. They are putting their finger on what George Packer calls the "Broken Contract." Americans used to grow together. Now we are growing apart.

The battle cry of the occupiers is "We are the 99%." This brilliantly reduces to bumper-sticker length the fundamental truth of the broken social contract in America. For the last 30 years, the top 1% has cleaned up and most of the rest of the population has been set adrift. The reason is simple. The top 1% has commandeered our democracy over the past three decades. They've bought the politicians and now own our government. Which permits them to rape and pillage the country while the masses are left with an unsteady present and an even more uncertain future. All 99ers instinctively understand that.

There is only one answer. Recriminalize bribery.

You have to go back more than a century, to the age of the robber barons, to find comparable social and economic conditions in America. The opulence of the Gilded Age led to the Panic of 1893 and a deep economic depression. It is no coincidence that bribing public officials was legal in places like Wisconsin at the time.

Wisconsin became a state in 1848. Bribery was perfectly legal for the first half-century of statehood. It was not outlawed until 1897. That reform was followed in short order by another in 1905 banning corporate campaign contributions and election spending. Congress followed Wisconsin's lead in 1907 with the Tillman Act.

The 1897 and 1905 political reforms in our state paved the way for the remarkable 1911 legislative session. The feature article in this year's Wisconsin Blue Book says this: "The year 2011 marks the centennial of what was almost certainly the greatest legislature in Wisconsin history, quite possibly in any state."

Wisconsin's reputation for progressive policy innovation was established by that legislature. The actions of 1897, 1905 and 1911 made Wisconsin a beacon of clean, open and honest government. All of this was our inheritance. An inheritance we have squandered, largely because we have allowed bribery to become legal again.

Oh, they aren't called bribes anymore. That's a big part of the reason why they are so accepted. Now they're called campaign contributions. Makes this grimy business sound philanthropic. Downright charitable. But the game's exactly the same as it was back in the days of the robber barons.

If we are going to Occupy Democracy again, we have to do in our time the equivalent of what was done back then. Make legal bribery a crime.


theotherjimmyolson said...

I can't believe this has no comments, distilling as curtly as possible exactly what ails us and exactly what we must do to rectify our problems. Bravo

ParadigmShifter said...

Maybe the lack of "comments" is because few can find something to disagree with or find inaccurate in the article. Or maybe it is more like "preaching to the choir", i.e. those who might disagree with what Mike wrote are busy blogging where they find comfort with non-progressive thinkers? I also liked how he brought to light how these campaign contributions can get spun around from being bribery to looking like charity.
Excellent history lesson - thank you!

Joel Raney said...

Mike, thank you for your post. It puts the recall in its proper historical perspective. I'm baffled by those who claim the recall is wrong because Gov. Walker has committed not crime. We've reached the point where companies are literally writing the rules that their businesses will adhere to (ALEC). Let's focus more attention on one of WI's biggest robber barons, John Menard. In June the Kochs thanked him for being one of his biggest donors, contributing over $1 million to their cause. John Menard has zero respect for workers, unions, and the DNR. His company is the number one violator for DNR offenses. Yes, we need to rewrite laws to protect workers, not corrupt billionaires. Thanks again for your brilliant work. I loved your speech at BobFest in Chippewa Falls.