When Gordon S. Wood wrote The Creation of the American Republic, one of the most highly regarded1 accounts of the founding of the United States, he concluded that the framers’ most enduring contribution to constitutional theory was the concept of popular sovereignty. Liberated from both monarchy and aristocracy, America’s political framework could obviously no longer embody the three great estates, or orders of men, that had endowed the British constitution with its much-admired balance. Thus, the American political engineers of the 1780s invented a structure that, albeit partly as a result of compromises rather than pure planning, did its best to mimic the British system working with the raw materials available from among the common people. Yet, as Wood was well aware, the careful selection of these materials set up a tension between the theory of popular sovereignty and its practice. For while the preamble to the Constitution – and some of the propaganda deployed by the Federalists in order to sell it to a skeptical nation – paid lip service to popular sovereignty, the federal Constitution of 1787 was in many respects a profoundly aristocratic document.
Even for Madison, who we often cite as an opponent of concentrated wealth, it was an article of faith that one of the principal “vices” of the immediate, post-revolutionary political structure, with power dispersed among the states, was its tendency to allow the wrong sort of men to exercise powers for which they were not properly qualified. As James Otis had expected, when the pot boiled, the scum had risen to the top. Camouflaging his elitism in the high-sounding language of disinterested republican virtue, Madison went to work on a scheme that would ensure that only the best men would rule. Creating large districts for the House of Representatives and limiting its size made even the most democratic part of the new federal government a distant authority that rightly struck the antifederalists as a recrudescence of the British Parliament, in which ordinary people had no more than “virtual representation.” While this distancing from excessive democracy in the states eroded the legitimacy of the framers’ invocation of popular-sovereignty, it worked wonders for the security of property rights. The days when under-educated majorities in state legislatures would propose such threatening measures as depreciated paper money for the payment of debts were over. Beyond the speculators who would soon cash in on Hamilton’s funding of previously worthless state war debts, the wealthy elite as a whole had entered a new era of primacy.
Over two centuries later, it would seem at first glance that the United States Constitution continues to serve its primary purpose of insulating the American elite from the common people. In a country vastly larger than the fledgling republic of 1789, 400 American supermen own more property than over 150 million lesser Americans combined. The profits of corporations – entities whose immense power was unanticipated by the framers, but which serve the contemporary elite with spectacular efficacy – continue to break records. The American people remain at arm’s length from the center of power, granted little more than virtual representation despite apparent concessions to democracy like the direct election of the president2 and the Senate.3 The ability of the people to perceive these realities is blunted by incessant corporate propaganda lacking the redeeming literary quality of The Federalist. With entrenched political power and unprecedented wealth, it would appear that there has never been a better time to be a rich man in America.
And yet, there may be trouble ahead in the plutocrats’ paradise. The wrong sort of men – men the framers would most assuredly have dismissed as scum – have risen to positions of power for which they are not suited. Their limited understanding of public issues now threatens the smooth functioning of the great American wealth-concentration machine. Can such a situation be tolerated by America’s real sovereigns? Have the vices of the political system of the United States become so obnoxious as to require another constitutional coup d’etat from the owners of America?
Coups within Coups
In considering the debt-default crisis of 2013 (specification of the year being necessary to connote position in a series), we must first confront the proposition that the whole episode was a carefully orchestrated circus. One aspect of this argument, which we have found appealing in the past, is the notion that a contrived focus on the debt – with all institutional players, especially the corporate media, playing a role – helps to steer the country toward a massive “reform” of social programs described as unfunded entitlement liabilities. (It is worth noting in passing that we do not have similar battles about protecting the nation from the unfunded liabilities of climate change, biodiversity loss, groundwater contamination, or the environmental costs and moral damage of factory farming. The liabilities created by unfettered capitalism are not going to to be funded because they have not even been acknowledged as real.) The allegedly socialistic president, who is in fact the best friend America’s elite could ever have asked for, has repeatedly indicated a willingness to negotiate a “Grand Bargain” that will sell his party’s core constituencies down the river in the name of fiscal probity. Such a deal is likely to be Barack Obama’s main objective for the remainder of his presidency, and the more protracted the foreplay, the more satisfying the political climax will be for him. Forced by circumstances, he will “reluctantly” meet the aggressive right wing “in the middle” in an act of great statesmanship, healing the polity and fixing the budget in one fell swoop. (Whether he will be allowed to take the credit for it is another matter.)
In a similar vein, there is a school of thought, well-articulated by Professor Michel Chossudovsky, that Wall Street uses these manufactured crises to make speculative profits, feasting off the insider information provided by its kept men. We should not expect the Associated Press to run feature articles on that topic any time soon; on the contrary, they are far too busy exulting that the world’s indispensable nation is back in business. But one has to wonder what Alexander Hamilton would make of such a situation. Seeing a union between finance and government as essential to the survival of a precarious republic, would he have approved of an industry that seems more than willing to play with fire and risk burning down the entire edifice? Or would he be delighted that, even under the political descendants of the Jeffersonians, his friends in finance have been able to rise to a position of potentially republic-breaking dominance?
These two, related arguments suggest that the Constitution is working within its design parameters. The emergence of the Tea Party – its promising seedlings fertilized by copious applications of corporate money, some of it visible and some not – has set the stage for a permanent rightward shift in the nation’s affairs, while creating a level of uncertainty that lends itself beautifully to (still essentially unregulated) derivatives trading. A system that was supposed to rise above factions altogether, or at least neutralize them, has found new uses for them in the service of the American elite. In a sense, we are witnessing a new coup within the old coup – a blatantly plutocratic gambit within a subtly plutocratic framework. But are the owners of America asking too much of their antique vehicle?
Monsters of Their Own Creation
The political philosopher Andrew Levine is not the only commentator to liken the Tea Party to Frankenstein’s monster. When even the Koch brothers urged their own pets to stop obsessing about Obamacare and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged Congress to increase the debt ceiling despite its members’ contributions to Tea Party candidates who swore never to do so, then we know that, unless we want to see such remonstrations as positively sublime theater, the experiment might be going terribly wrong. The danger is easier to perceive when we lift our eyes far beyond the grotesquely irregular confines of gerrymandered congressional districts and look at the ticking time bomb of American imperial decay.
One of the most lucid critics of the American empire, Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Treasury Secretary under Ronald Reagan, has been warning us for some time that the rest of the world is tired of living under Washington’s thumb. The confidence placed by the Associated Press in America’s preeminence – no doubt shared by the vast majority of partially informed Americans – is dangerously misplaced. Washington’s intra-mural dramas pour yet more fuel on a smoldering fire of international resentment toward a country that is now correctly seen as a rogue state, imposing its patented brand of war, espionage, and corporate profiteering on a world it thinks it owns. In this context, it doesn’t matter whether the United States actually struggles to pay its debts or not: the mere perception of risk, whether in the next episode of political brinksmanship or some other form of crisis (such as another Wall Street collapse, which itself could easily be provoked by mere uncertainty) may be enough to promote a flight from dollar-denominated assets, which ultimately means a flight from the dollar itself. As we have discussed before (see Only the Terrorists Can Save Us Now), safeguarding the primacy of the dollar has been a central aim of the American empire. Those who threaten to undermine it place the entire, elite-driven system at risk.
In discussing his fears (video below), Roberts laid out two interesting scenarios in the event that the debt ceiling were not raised by Congress. Ignoring the 14th Amendment, which Barack Obama seems unwilling to invoke, the most likely solution would be for the Federal Reserve, which has no qualms about lending trillions of dollars to the banks, to simply loan the government the money it needs. The second, and more malevolent option, is for the executive branch to invoke the emergency powers crafted during the Bush-Cheney years for deployment in the event of systematic terrorist attacks or other contingencies.
We would agree with Roberts that Barack Obama probably does not have the imagination to rule as a dictator under the Bush-Cheney emergency powers. (The legal basis for these powers is explained here.) But we would note the irony that while the Tea Party is a monster of the corporate elite’s own creation, a tyrannical American president could easily be the lasting legacy of the Tea Party’s own failure to understand how the game needs to be played. Its hysterical demonization of The First Black President could turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. In some respects, such an outcome appears to be the direction in which the United States is already headed. And perhaps, for the elite, such an arrangement would be perfectly acceptable; after all, it has worked just fine for so many of America’s client states, like Pinochet’s Chile and Suharto’s Indonesia. We could be like Singapore, but with much more litter.4 The only stumbling block is a need for legitimacy over the long-term, including some sense of historical continuity for a nation that derives its identity from the writings of a previous elite.
A Plutocratic Remedy for the Diseases Most Incident to Plutocratic Government
Madison’s solution to the vices he perceived in the 1780s stripped the states of key powers and implemented a deliberate enlargement of federal electoral districts, ensuring that only “distinguished men of virtue” could be elected. The local blacksmith – yesteryear’s equivalent of Joe the Plumber, all fired up about ‘big gummit’ – might have had a chance of winning a seat in the state assembly, but could never make it to the new U.S. House and would not be able to legislate in the areas of most concern to the moneyed elite. This point is completely and utterly lost on contemporary right-wing pundits like Mark Levin, whose proposed Liberty Amendments return a tremendous amount of power to the states in an attempt to escape the big, bad federal government. Levin sells this Tea-Party fantasy pack of eleven constitutional amendments 5 as a way of honoring the intent of the framers, but it is nothing of the kind. While he may indeed be channeling their desire to empower property owners, he has failed to recognize their utter disdain for the poor quality of governance at the state level and the poor character of the men who operate at that level. Of course the elite would be happy to dominate state houses across the land; we see this now through the good offices of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). But it is far more efficient to impose uniformity from a higher level – national and, as under the NAFTA, the GATT, and the TPP, supranational. In other words, the trend in plutocratic thinking is to take Madison’s geographic refining process to its ultimate, perverted extreme and leave the citizen further away from real power than any antifederalist could ever have imagined in his worst nightmares.
Tragically, the Tea Party’s membership, embodying to some extent the antifederal impulse that never really died, is vaguely aware of this loss of popular sovereignty but clueless about the real nature of the threat. While they fret about black helicopters from a quasi-communist United Nations – empowered after a deliberate sabotaging of the U.S. economy by scheming Democrats – their wealthy benefactors complete an insidious imposition of corporate sovereignty through structures in which even corporate shareholders have little more than virtual representation. And, fittingly, the current elite project is just as secretive as the Federal Convention of 1787.
That said, the national scene remains of vital importance so long as the owners of America themselves hold most of their wealth in dollar-denominated assets. That property must be protected, and the manner of protection must retain some semblance of legitimacy in order to prevent the masses from reclaiming it. Cooler heads – those who understand that the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and more recent reforms like Nixon’s EPA, far from handicapping capitalism, bestowed upon it a needed mantle of social acceptance – have a battle on their hands persuading enough of the rest of their class to avert catastrophe. One would think that nothing commands attention quite like the prospect of red ink, but after the Great Heist of 2008, in which history’s greatest ever financial criminals rose above the rule of law, it appears that cooler heads are few and far between.
Surely the simplest, and the fastest, solution to the Tea-Party-as-Frankenstein problem would be for the owners of America to stop funding these people. While the resentments and racism exploited by the Tea Party would not disappear, they would be neutralized just as effectively as the bleeding hearts of the progressive Democratic caucus or the Greens. This solution does not require any constitutional or statutory changes. Secondarily, though more difficult, gerrymandering and primary elections could both be reformed or eliminated, thereby minimizing the viability of fringe candidates. Such reforms would be far easier to sell to a disgusted public than, for example, a Madisonian enlargement of Congressional districts (a reform Mark Levin would propose if he really understood what the framing was all about). Since both political parties belong to the elite anyway, it should not be beyond the bounds of possibility for a Great Compromise to be reached, in which the financial and extractive supermen recognize that their continued rule requires a return to the smooth-riding, reliable vehicle of bipartisan consensus. Perhaps, after one last push to secure the Grand Bargain, they will drop the Tea Party like a stone and go back to exploiting the people and the land the old-fashioned way – quietly.
However America’s owners resolve their self-imposed dilemma, we can be sure of one thing: the consequences will be ghastly for the rest of us. We the People can look forward to even smaller shares of the nation’s wealth and income, even less democracy, and an even more degraded environment to bequeath to our children. The blessings of liberty accrue only to those for whom the Constitution was really ordained.
- Considering the implications of his work, it should come as no surprise that Wood is regarded by some on the right as a typical leftist historian. ↩
- Pace the vestigial electoral college ↩
- Ironically, the Tea Party faction that now represents itself as the voice of the people would repeal the 17th Amendment and turn the clock back to the time when state legislatures appointed federal senators. This is presented as a way of honoring the intentions of the framers, but it seems more likely to honor the wishes of moneyed interests who would find state legislatures eminently biddable, just as they did in the Gilded Age. ↩
- Indeed, Cal Thomas wrote a paean to Singapore last year. The thought has definitely crossed our owners’ minds. ↩
- These include – predictably – repeal of both the 16th and 17th Amendments. But there is also a stunningly retrograde attempt to undo the Constitutional Revolution of 1937, in which the Supreme Court began to interpret the Commerce Clause as reaching activities previously regarded as strictly intrastate. And, though he disingenuously denies it, he includes what is effectively a Nullification Clause – just in time for Obamacare – allowing the states to turn the framers’ Supremacy Clause upside down if a sufficient number dislike a federal law. This, more than anything else, marks Levin’s proposal as profoundly antithetical to the framers’ goals. ↩