It isn’t just Trump: The American System is Broken

By Jeffrey D. Sachs | (Project Syndicate) | – –

NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump’s ravings against the 2015 Paris climate agreement are partly a product of his ignorance and narcissism. Yet they represent something more. They are a reflection of the deep corruption of the US political system, which, according to one recent assessment, is no longer a “full democracy.” American politics has become a game of powerful corporate interests: tax cuts for the rich, deregulation for mega-polluters, and war and global warming for the rest of the world.

Six of the G7 countries worked overtime last week to bring Trump around on climate change, but Trump resisted. European and Japanese leaders are accustomed to treating the US as an ally on key issues. With Trump in power, it is a habit they are rethinking.
But the problem goes beyond Trump. Those of us living in the United States know first-hand that America’s democratic institutions have deteriorated markedly over the last several decades, beginning perhaps as far back as the 1960s, when Americans began to lose confidence in their political institutions. US politics have become increasingly corrupt, cynical, and detached from public opinion. Trump is but a symptom, albeit a shocking and dangerous one, of this deeper political malaise.

Trump’s policies embody mean-spirited priorities that are widely backed by the Republican Party in the US Congress: slash taxes for the rich at the expense of programs to help the poor and working class; increase military spending at the expense of diplomacy; and allow for the destruction of the environment in the name of “deregulation.”

And, indeed, from Trump’s perspective, the highlights of his recent trip abroad were signing a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, berating other NATO members for their supposedly insufficient military spending, and rejecting the pleas of US allies to continue in the fight global warming. Congressional Republicans broadly cheer these frightening policies.

Meanwhile, Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress are trying to rush through legislation that would deprive more than 20 million people of health care, in order to cut taxes for the richest Americans. Trump’s newly proposed budget would slash Medicaid (health insurance for the poor), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food for the poor), foreign assistance (aid for the world’s poorest), funding for the United Nations, and spending on science and technology. Trump would, in short, gut the federal programs for education, training, the environment, civilian science, diplomacy, housing, nutrition, and other urgent civilian priorities.

These are not the priorities shared by most Americans – not even close. A majority wants to tax the rich, maintain health coverage, stop America’s wars, and fight global warming. According to recent polling data, Americans overwhelmingly want to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement, which Trump has pledged to leave. Trump and his cronies are fighting public opinion, not representing it.

They are doing this for one reason, and one reason only: money. More precisely, Trump’s policies serve the corporate interests that pay the campaign bills and effectively run the US government. What Trump signifies is the culmination of a long-term process whereby powerful corporate lobbies have bought their way to power. Today, companies like ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Continental Energy, and other mega-polluting companies no longer need to lobby; Trump has handed them the keys to the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Energy Department. They also hold senior congressional staff positions.

Much of the corporate money can be traced; the rest flows anonymously, as “dark money” that avoids public scrutiny. Supreme Court justices who themselves were frequently wined and dined by corporate donors gave the green light to keep these corrupt flows secret in their infamous Citizens United decision.

As investigative journalist Jane Mayer has documented, the largest source of dark money is the tandem of David and Charles Koch, who inherited the highly polluting Koch Industries from their father, a man whose business history included building a major oil refinery for Germany’s Nazi regime. The Koch brothers, with a combined net worth of some $100 billion, have spent freely for decades to take over the US political system, mobilizing other right-wing corporate interests as well.

When it comes to tax policy and climate change, the Republican Party is almost completely in the hands of the Koch brothers and their oil-industry cronies. Their immoral aim is simple: to cut corporate taxes and deregulate oil and gas, regardless of the consequences for the planet. To achieve these goals, they are prepared to try to remove millions of poor people from health-care coverage, and even more shockingly, to put the entire planet at dire risk of global warming. Their evil is chilling, but it is real. And Trump is their factotum.

Before Trump’s recent foreign trip, 22 Republican senators sent him a letter calling for the US to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Almost all receive significant campaign funding from the oil and gas industry. Most of them probably depend directly on donations from the Koch brothers and the lobbying organizations that they secretly finance. As the Center for Responsive Politics, a public-interest group, has shown, spending by oil and gas companies on federal candidates in the 2016 election totaled $103 million, with 88% going to Republicans. This of course includes only the funds that can be tracked to particular donors.

The rest of the world urgently needs to understand America for what it has now become. Behind the formal structures of a once-functioning democracy is a political system run by corporate interests with the cynical aims of cutting taxes on the rich, selling weapons, and polluting with impunity. In Trump, they have found a shameless frontman and TV personality who will do their bidding.

It is now the job of the rest of the world to say no to America’s reckless corporate greed, and of Americans themselves to reclaim their democratic institutions by pushing dark money and corporate malevolence from their midst. Given the small (52-48) Republican majority in the Senate, the Democrats and just three honest Republicans would be in a position to block most or all of the Trump-Koch agenda. The situation is therefore salvageable, though it remains highly dangerous. Americans – and the world – deserve much better.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. His books include The End of Poverty, Common Wealth, The Age of Sustainable Development, and, most recently, Building the New American Economy.

Licensed from Project Syndicate


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16 Responses

  1. The American system did not break just recently. It has been broken since at least 1963 if not since 1948 or 1942 or 1913 or 1890 or 1866 or 1838 or 1789 or 1776. It did not get fixed at any of those earlier times. Why is now different? Who is different now?

  2. American system is broken around the notion of “value paid for task performed” which fuels a Capitalist system of reciprocity. American system values money and property manipulation over human value. Labor is denigrated in its pay, yet “hard work” is championed. Education is valued but higher education is not a choice for families functioning at menial levels. Whenever Republicans talk of their “values” I hear them talking of exclusion. So much more to it…..

  3. I’m starting to think of Michael Parenti’s “The Assassination of Julius Caesar,” with Trump leading the Optimates of the Republican party.

    The republic is one or two breaths from being exclusively the agent (to use Roman context) of the landlords and grain sellers. Who will arise ex Popularibus to meet the challenge? Or is it – as I fear – too late already?

  4. Mark Schulman

    Of course, British monarchs often mounted the severed heads of their enemies upon pikes in central London. They went so far as to developing a solution to dip the head in that would prevent birds from pecking nibbling at the head.

  5. One important factor in the destruction of American democracy overlooked in this essay is the clever takeover of the news media by the corporatists, including print, television and radio. The extensive use of disinformation has a long history with totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (and present day Russia). Here in the US a truly free press is being gutted not by government, but by the corporations that have eaten it up.

    • “One important factor…”, that is the most important factor by far. The MSM manufactures the “facts.”

  6. “It isn’t just Trump: The American System is Broken.”

    Wrong. Trump and his tiny-minded, greedy, deplorable minions have greatly obscured any view of the system that remains, distended but intact.

    • The system also includes the civic indoctrination of the citizenry, which is true in any society. Once you create citizens who will not sacrifice their paychecks or comforts to stop what they fully understand is wrong, then you’ve broken the system. That’s more powerful than even fooling them into thinking that it isn’t wrong.

      Where we stand on that is yet to be seen.

  7. Yes, the Constitutional regime is exhausted, for the simple reason that we too long ago made it untouchable holy writ.

    What is wrong with Jefferson’s suggestion that we need a revolution every generation? Why do we so fear the necessary for the political freedom we so long ago forgot the content of no one in the US elites has a clue what it includes, because they can just buy it?

    And it is curious why only the GOP is responsible for having degenerated the regime to this point. The Ds have had the power about as much time since WW II (or the Civil War) as have the Rs.

    Perhaps the good professor could find a grad student somewhere in his vast university empires who could bring both more depth to the thinking presented, as well as show how the Democrats did and did not participate in reducing the 10th Federalist to a “pay to play” dogma for writing legislation: who doesn’t know the Wall Street banking lobbyists wrote Dodd-Franks; who doesn’t know the Health Insurers & Big PhRMA & Hospitals & Medical Equipment wrote the ACA; who doesn’t know that Obama did absolutely nothing about climate change until we gave him no alternative; etc.?). Even judicial appointments and appointments to the Executive branch and Congressional Administrative appointments – all of it is designer built for partisan reach; yes, the very most irresponsible billionaires are also the very most repugnant; which billionaires are not politically repugnant?

    One could go on.

  8. Reagan was the heavy hitter who started the deconstruction of our government with his statement that ‘government is the problem”. He was so popular – who wouldn’t like a handsome, articulate career cowboy riding his horse down Main street to rescue America – then his supporters, and even those who did not support him, began to thoughtlessly adopt his clever speechwriters’ sound bites into their worldview. Republicans have followed and expanded on Reagan themes ever since, including the failed notion of trickle down economics, which they still believe in even if they no longer use that name. Even Dems have been roped into the Reagan corral, mooing to the tune of their corporate masters who are milking Dems and Republicans alike, though some libs like to think their precious Dem party is still the liberal party they always wanted it to be.

    This is a good article, though it leaves out the dark money on the Dem side, and fails to recognize just how badly Clinton and Obama were saddled and ridden by corporate masters not so different from the Koch Bros. Remember Hope and Change? Those two were executed the day after Obama was elected, or maybe even before. Good liberal Clinton signed the incredibly short-sighted repeal of Glass-Stegall, and that repeal directly led to later financial scams and crises; his NAFTA bill added impetus to moving American jobs south of the border, not to mention its heavy cost in new pollution. His gutting of the welfare system failed to replace it with anything that truly helped the neediest among us, forcing them into minimum wage jobs with no benefits, and moving their children into greater insecurity of food, healthcare, clothing and shelter. Unfortunately, people continue to think hordes of welfare queens exist today, when in fact there is very little direct cash payments to any of America’s poor (that type of welfare money goes to corporations in the form of subsidies and tax abatements), and what does exist is not enough to support anyone even at a starvation level. Now, Trump wants to reduce or eliminate even the shreds of the social safety net that still exist, and use the ‘savings’ to reduce taxes on the rich.

    No one seems to recognize that the 1% who are driving our DC government have so much wealth that they need no more, and can hardly use the wealth they have now, except to amass more useless and stagnant wealth on paper. They could not spend themselves into poverty in ten generations without some foolishness like converting all their assets to cash and setting it alight on a huge bonfire. Dems and Repubs alike have gotten America into this mess; the only starting points to sanity begin with rolling back Citizens United, elimination of lobbyists influence, refusal of accepting any legislation written by industry, some form of campaign money overhaul, and restrictions on corporate access to politicians – no more golf outings, no more ‘free’ vacations, no more loans of corporate jets, just no more contact. The US needs a new sort of separation of church and state, call it separation of corporation and state.

    • What we really need is a way to automate the rich out of their “jobs” so they’ll be in the same boat as the rest of us.

  9. The Republicans are just acting like Republicans, It’s the Democrats, under control of the Clinton Gang, who have given control of the Government to the 1%.
    Trump bankrupted a casino, Hillary backs our oil wars that have killed a million people and caused the refugee crisis that is breaking apart the EU.
    We need a new Party without the corrupt Clinton gang.

  10. Sachs’ article is well-written, but it assumes that only the Republicans are to blame for this broken system. The Clintons were in the money game up to their hips and more…and even though the Democrats controlled the Congress, Obama refused to even put a single-payer option on the table for health care reform, as the insurance industry would never allow it. It wasn’t Republicans who bailed out Wall Street after the financial crisis, brought on in large part by the repeal of Glass-Stegall by Bill Clinton. Etc.

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