I found in an edition of The Wizard of Id, a satirical daily comic strip launched in 1964, a quote that I can’t get out of my head. Titled The Golden Rule, the cartoon shows a buffoonish king asking his subjects, “What’s that?” to which they reply, “Whoever has the gold, makes the rules!” Now of course we all know that the real Golden Rule states “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; but in our increasingly broken culture, where so many traffic in cruelty as a ladder to power and the game is rigged in favor of the already powerful, the cartoon version feels more relatable.
What strikes me about any rules-based country–that is, one that adheres, or purports to adhere, to democratically agreed-upon laws and regulations–is how different the average person’s experience of those rules can be compared to that of a person with influence. For most of us, when faced with a law or policy we don’t like, our options are to comply with it, or, failing to do so, risk fines, imprisonment, job-loss, and ostracism. But for the powerful, it’s very different: they can comply, sure, but they can also lobby to change the rules, bend them, or simply ignore them–and rarely face consequences.
There’s no better example than Trump and his allies, who, despite decades of defecating on the law and then attempting a coup to remain in power, are unlikely to suffer for it. Is there a greater indictment of our political system than that? Whether it’s local, state, or federal policy; paying taxes; or breaking the law, we are awash with examples of how people like Trump get away with it. In Rhode Island we just failed, for the tenth year in succession, to eliminate payday lending, despite a poll showing that voters support doing so by a 50-point margin. Why did we fail? Because every year the payday industry, which in the state charges an average APR of 261%, pays the former speaker of the RI house, Bill Murphy, around $30,000 to make a few calls and kill the bill. Literally. This year, in fact, we learned that the chair of the relevant Senate committee spoke to the senate president about bringing the bill up for a vote, and he told her not to do it. While I can’t prove definitively that it was because of Murphy’s influence, I have no doubt that he’s why Rhode Islanders will continue to get fleeced by predatory lenders for at least another year.
Or consider taxation. ProPublica did a fascinating exposé of how the wealthy avoid paying taxes–legally, thanks to loopholes they and their lobbyists helped write into law. One of the stunning findings is that between 2014 and 2018, the 25 wealthiest Americans paid a “true tax rate” of just 3.4%–far below what middle-class families pay. Similarly, many of America’s largest corporations–FedEx, Nike, Amazon–often pay zero in federal taxes. Again, this is not an accident. It results from a political system that allows people with money to buy lobbyists and advertisements and Super PACs, all with an eye toward influencing legislators and, in turn, legislation.
And it works. In this month’s California primary, two ballot measures that would have upgraded “environmental reviews on oil drilling” in Ventura County, where I live, failed by about 5,500 votes (or 5 percentage points). The measures were arcane and technical; but more importantly, the oil and gas industry spent millions of dollars to ensure their defeat.
This last example speaks to a basic issue. We live in a complicated world, are pulled in a million directions at once, and have countless people and companies competing for our attention. There is no way for us to stay abreast of every issue or current event, let alone tease out the truth from the marketing spin. This is the most fertile of soils for propaganda: well-paid experts leverage massive advertising and lobbying dollars, combined with a deep understanding of human psychology, to get what they want. Yes, this has always been the case, but the Internet / smartphone / social media age has accelerated these trends in ways that can be hard to appreciate.
Perhaps the complexity of the world around us, and the extent to which we are constantly bombarded with information, has made us more susceptible to black and white thinking, to avoid trading in nuance. Moreover, our breaking-news-obsessed media landscape encourages all of us to digest the world in tweet-sized bites, formulate a hot take, press send, and then revel in the dopamine hit of agreeing or fighting with those who engage in the “conversation.” Powerful people love this, because while we are caught up in superficial arguments, they are rewriting the laws in their favor.
The trend of getting stuck in endless debate about surface-level issues–such as whether to call it Defund the Police or something else, what pronouns to use, etc.–has been especially damaging to progressive causes, as highlighted by an article in the The Intercept titled The Elephant in the Zoom. The article talks about how, in the wake of George Floyd’s assassination and the subsequent protest movement, progressive groups have been caught up in “knock-down, drag-out fights” that have resulted in the “progressive advocacy space across the board” almost ceasing to function. Groups like the ACLU, Sierra Club, Sunrise Movement, and others have been facing internal strife over things like “botched diversity meetings” and “Slack wars…healing sessions [and] grappling with tensions over hierarchy, patriarchy, race, gender, and power.” As one executive director noted, “So much energy has been devoted to the internal strife and internal bullshit that it’s had a real impact on the ability for groups to deliver.”
It’s not that issues of language and representation aren’t important. But it is the case that while people on Twitter and Slack and Zoom are fighting amongst themselves, the powerful are rigging the game even more in their favor. For instance, as I write this, in mid-June 2022, Congressional Democrats have just a few weeks to hammer out a deal to pass climate legislation via reconciliation. This may be our last chance for years, if not decades, to do something about the climate crisis, and yet organizations like the Sunrise Movement appear to be MIA: I’ve seen no calls for action from them, and in fact their recent newsletters have been about supporting immigration reform and advocating for a progressive candidate in a Southern Texas House race (she lost by a couple hundred votes to the centrist Democrat). Oh, and they are about to release a new strategy and vision for the organization based on a months-long process that I’m sure was very inclusive…And I’m sure Big Oil is happy to hear that, well after the climate bill fails, one of America’s most important climate advocacy groups will debut a new plan!
We now find ourselves in a dangerous spiral. The more people across the political spectrum distrust the system, the more apt they become to disengage or want to burn it all down, which is a wonderful situation for corporate and wealthy interests. On the political right, politicians have mastered using the culture wars–attacking the LGBT community, or pretending the Critical Race Theory is the biggest danger the nation faces–as cover for enacting policy that harms working-class families. And on the left, well, we do the damage to ourselves: we are more apt to go bananas over whether or not to refer to Hispanics as Latinos or Latinx or Latin@ than mobilize for immigration reform, in part because it’s easier to rage-tweet over the former than do the lengthy organizing work to do something about the former. Here’s the thing, though. Folks being deported by ICE don’t care what terminology we use to describe them; they care about a fair immigration system that doesn’t result in their deportation.
I remember being furious that, in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, hardly any bankers went to jail for their crimes. This lack of accountability weighs on the electorate because humans are deeply offended by a lack of fairness. Today we find ourselves in an especially fraught moment, with the entire Republican party in the thrall of a psychotic criminal and the movement of lies and hate he has unleashed. The good news is that, after the first three hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the Capital, “58% of those surveyed believe Trump should be charged with a crime for his role” in the insurrection. That so many of us doubt he will be held to account for attempting to end our Constitutional order is telling, and troubling.
We barely survived the grift, lawbreaking, rule-bending, and hate of the Trump administration. But it wasn’t just about Trump: too many powerful people and companies were all too happy to jump on the gravy train, such as by crafting Trump’s “big beautiful tax break” to benefit them, or helping to stack the courts with pro-big-business judges. If the Department of Justice fails to hold Trump and his cronies to account, it may be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Should that happen, however, we must recall that for decades the pressure has been building on our shoulders; that while we went about our lives, the rich were getting richer, the powerful more powerful, and all of us angrier, poorer, less free, and meaner. Throwing Trump in jail wouldn’t fix that, but it would be a sign that, at least for the most egregious of offenses, we are sometimes willing to fairly apply the laws of the land.