One of the leading political scientists, Martin Gilens, has done important studies of the relationship between public attitudes and public policy, based on polling data. It’s a pretty straightforward thing to study—policy you can see, and public opinion you know from extensive polling. In one study, together with another fine political scientist, Benjamin Page, Gilens took about 1,700 policy decisions, and compared them with public attitudes and business interests. What they show, I think convincingly, is that policy is uncorrelated with public attitudes, and closely correlated with corporate interests. Elsewhere he showed that about 70 percent of the population has no influence on policy—they might as well be in some other country. And as you go up the income and wealth level, the impact on public policy is greater—the rich essentially get what they want.
Polling data is not refined enough for him to look beyond the top 10 percent, which is kind of misleading because the real concentration of power is in a fraction of 1 percent. But if the study was carried up to there, it’s pretty clear what you’d find: they get exactly what they want, because they’re basically running the place.
The fact that policy doesn’t correspond to public interest shouldn’t come as a big surprise. This has been going on for a long time. Government policy is designed to implement state power and the power of dominant elements within the society. Here, it means mainly the corporate sector. The welfare of the population is secondary, and often not cared for at all. And the population knows it. That’s why you have this tremendous antagonism toward institutions—all institutions. So, support of Congress is often in the single digits; the presidency is disliked; corporations are disliked; banks are hated—it extends all over. Even science is disliked—“why should we believe them?”
There’s popular mobilization and activism, but in very self-destructive directions. It’s taking the form of unfocused anger—hatred, attacks on one another and on vulnerable targets. Really irrational attitudes—people mobilizing against their own interests, literally against their own interests. Supporting political figures whose goal is to harm them as much as possible. We’re seeing this right in front of us—you look at the television and the Internet, you see it every day. That’s what happens in cases like this. It is corrosive of social relations, but that’s the point. The point is to make people hate and fear each other, look out only for themselves, and not do anything for anyone else.
So take Donald Trump. For many years, I have been writing and speaking about the danger of the rise of an honest and charismatic ideologue in the United States, someone who could exploit the fear and anger that has long been boiling in much of the society, and who could direct it away from the actual agents of malaise to vulnerable targets. The dangers, however, have been real for many years, perhaps even more so in the light of the forces that Trump has unleashed, even though Trump himself does not fit the image of honest ideologue. He seems to have very little of a considered ideology apart from me and my friends.
He got huge support from people who are angry at everything. Every time Trump makes a nasty comment about whoever, his popularity goes up. Because it is based on hate and fear. The phenomenon that we are seeing here is “generalized rage.” Mostly white, working-class, lower-middle-class people, who have been cast by the wayside during the neoliberalism period. They’ve lived through a generation of stagnation and decline. And a decline in the functioning of democracy. Even their own elected representatives barely reflect their interests and concerns. Everything has been taken away from them. There is no economic growth for them, there is for other people. The institutions are all against them. They have serious contempt for institutions, especially Congress. They have a deep concern that they are losing their country because a “generalized they” are taking it away from them. That kind of scapegoating of those who are even more vulnerable and oppressed, along with illusions about how they are being coddled by the “liberal elites,” is all too familiar, along with the often bitter outcomes. And it’s important to bear in mind that the genuine fears and concerns can be addressed by serious and constructive policies. Many of the Trump supporters voted for Obama in 2008, believing the message of “hope and change.” They saw little of either, and now in their disillusionment they are seduced by a con man offering a different message of hope and change—which could lead to a very ugly reaction when the imagery collapses. But the outcomes could be far more hopeful if there is a real and meaningful program that genuinely inspires hope and does promise seriously to bring about badly needed change. The response instead is generalized anger at everything.
One place you see it strikingly is on April 15. April 15 is kind of a measure—the day you pay your taxes—of how democratic the society is. If a society is really democratic, April 15 should be a day of celebration. It’s a day when the population gets together to decide to fund the programs and activities that they have formulated and agreed upon. What could be better than that? You should celebrate it.
It’s not the way it is in the United States. It’s a day of mourning. It’s a day in which some alien power that has nothing to do with you is coming down to steal your hard-earned money—and you do everything you can to keep them from doing it. That’s a measure of the extent to which, at least in popular consciousness, democracy is actually functioning. Not a very attractive picture.
The tendencies that we’ve been describing within American society, unless reversed, will create an extremely ugly society. A society that’s based on Adam Smith’s vile maxim, “All for ourselves, nothing for anyone else,” the New Spirit of the Age, “gain wealth, forgetting all but self,” a society in which normal human instincts and emotions of sympathy, solidarity, mutual support, in which they’re driven out. That’s a society so ugly I don’t even know who’d want to live in it. I wouldn’t want my children to.
If a society is based on control by private wealth, it will reflect those values—values of greed and the desire to maximize personal gain at the expense of others. Now, a small society based on that principle is ugly, but it can survive. A global society based on that principle is headed for massive destruction.
The Survival of the Species
I think the future looks pretty grim. I mean, we are facing really serious problems. There’s one thing that shouldn’t be ignored—we’re in a stage of history for the first time ever where we’re facing literal questions of species survival. Can the species survive, at least in any decent form? That’s a real problem.
On November 8, 2016, the most powerful country in world history, which will set its stamp on what comes next, had an election. The outcome placed total control of the government—executive, Congress, the Supreme Court—in the hands of the Republican Party, which has become the most dangerous organization in world history.
Apart from the last phrase, all of this is uncontroversial. The last phrase may seem outlandish, even outrageous. But is it? The facts suggest otherwise. The party is dedicated to racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life. There is no historical precedent for such a stand.
Is this an exaggeration? Consider what we have just been witnessing. The winning candidate calls for rapid increase in use of fossil fuels, including coal; dismantling of regulations; rejection of help to developing countries that are seeking to move to sustainable energy; and in general, racing to the cliff as fast as possible.
And there have already been direct consequences. The COP21 Paris negotiations on climate change aimed for a verifiable treaty, but had to settle for verbal commitments because the Republican Congress would not accept any binding commitments. The follow-up COP22 Marrakech conference aimed to fill in the gaps. It opened on November 7, 2016. On November 8, election day, the World Meteorological Organization presented a dire and ominous report on the current state of environmental destruction. As the results of the election came in, the conference turned to the question of whether the whole process could continue with the most powerful country withdrawing from it and seeking to undermine it. The conference ended with no issue—and an astonishing spectacle. The leader in upholding the hopes for decent survival was China! And the leading wrecker, in virtual isolation, was “the leader of the Free World.” One can, again, hardly find words to capture this spectacle.
It is no less difficult to find words to capture the utterly astonishing fact that in all the massive coverage of the electoral extravaganza, none of this receives more than passing mention. At least I am at a loss to find appropriate words.
We are heading, eyes open, toward a world in which our grandchildren may not even be able to survive. We’re heading toward environmental disaster, and not just heading toward it, but rushing toward it. The US is in the lead of accelerating these dangers under the pressure of business for in large part institutional reasons. Just take a look at the headlines. There was a report on the front page of the New York Times, a revealing report on the measurements of the Arctic ice cap. Well, it turns out the melting was far beyond anything that had been predicted by sophisticated computer models, and the melting of the Arctic ice cap has very substantial effects on the climate altogether.
It’s an escalating process because as the ice cap melts, less of the sun’s energy is reflected, and more comes into the atmosphere, creating an escalating, nonlinear process that gets out of control. The article also reported the reactions of governments and corporations. Their reaction is enthusiasm. We can now accelerate the process because new areas are open for digging and extraction of fossil fuels, so we can make it worse. That’s great.
This is a death sentence for our descendants. Fine, let’s accelerate it—hundreds of millions of people in Bangladesh are gonna be driven from their homes by rising sea level in the not-distant future, with consequences for the rest of us too. This demonstrates either a remarkable lack of concern for our own grandchildren and others like them, or else an equally remarkable inability to see what’s before our own eyes.
There’s another major threat to survival that’s been hanging over human life for more than seventy years—and that’s nuclear war. And that’s increasing. Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, around 1955, issued a passionate plea to the people of the world to recognize that they have a choice that is stark and unavoidable: they must decide—all of mankind must decide—to renounce war, or to self-destruct. And we have come very close to self-destruction a number of times. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has what it calls a “Doomsday Clock.” It started in 1947, right after the atom bomb was used. The clock measures the distance that we are from midnight—midnight means termination. Just two years ago the clock was moved two minutes closer to midnight—to three minutes before midnight. The reason is that the threat of nuclear war and the threat of environmental catastrophe are increasing. Policy makers are amplifying them, that’s the future that we’re not only creating but accelerating.