By Ralph Nader
The progressive citizen groups, that in the sixties and seventies, drove through Congress the key environmental, worker, and consumer legislation, since unmatched, must feel nostalgic. Those were the years when legislation throwing cruel companies on the defensive was signed by arch-corporatist, President Richard Nixon, because he read the political tea leaves.
These bills included the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and environmental laws, the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for worker health and safety, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and worker pension protection, among others.
Alas, Richard Nixon was the last Republican president to be afraid of liberals. When grade B actor Ronald Reagan flew into Washington, he opened all doors to Big Business. A cruel man with a smile, Reagan gave an actor’s cover to the greatest collapse into the corporate power pits in American history.
Here is a checklist showing the takeovers of our government at all levels by the corporate supremacists for whom enough is never enough when it came to profits and power.
1. Regulatory agencies curbing corporate ravages were essentially shut down. Reaganites thought companies should regulate themselves when it comes to the health, safety, and economic well-being of the American people; which is to say, the corporate rule took over the rule of law.
2. Labor unions were weakened by timid leadership, anti-labor policies, acceleration of job exports, and the major shift by the Democratic Party to solicit money from rapidly expanding corporate political action committees (PACs).
3. Congress abandoned its role of checks and balances and gave much of its constitutional power to the imperial, autocratic presidency. This concentration of power and secrecy in the White House seriously weakened the power of civic groups that had been able to start their reform drives in Congress.
4. The consequences of corporatizing Congress allowed the tax system to be filled with escapes and lower rates for the super-rich and global corporations. It allowed presidents to get corporatist judges confirmed to dominate the courts. It permitted total inaction on the necessity of strengthening our federal corporate criminal laws, including antitrust enforcement and laws, so out of date that they became out of mind by the supposed enforcers in the Executive Branch.
5. A spineless Congress fell to its knees before the military-industrial complex so much so that the bloated unaudited ‘defense’ budget zoomed over 50% of discretionary spending by the federal government. The military empire grew without congressional oversight.
6. Meanwhile, the corporate giants became dominant in weakening the private pillars of American law. They turned freedom of contracts into fine-print consumer servitude, while coercing consumers into also giving up key rights and remedies under the law of torts should they incur wrongful injuries.
A manipulated credit economy took away consumers’ control over their own money, subjecting them to penalties, ultimatums, and punitive credit scores.
7. Without challenge to their marketing, corporations commercialized childhood, directly selling to kids junk foods and junk drinks that set off the deadly obesity epidemic and its health-damaging results. They sold violent programming and exploited the weaknesses of children, circumventing parental authority and discipline.
In the Internet Age, corporations can be described as raising our children, getting their personal information for free, and selling this collected data to advertisers. They are trapping these youngsters in the peonage of click-on contracts they never see through in their daily screen hours.
Whether in reality or virtual reality, corporations have become electronic child molesters with few pursuing sheriffs.
8. Corporate globalization has erected mechanisms such as corporate-managed trade agreements that operate to pull down our standards for workers, consumers, and the environment to the lower levels of developing countries, many of them under dictatorial regimes.
9. Decades after warnings by scientists of rising global warming, the fossil fuel giants, while on the defensive, still have the economy in their clutches, slowing their substitutes of conservation and renewable energy.
10. Corporate welfare is larger, more varied, and more automatic than ever. Subsidies, handouts, giveaways, and bailouts are now routinely enacted by little-challenged, government-guaranteed capitalism at the federal and state levels!
Big corporations even control the wealth owned by the people such as the public lands, public airwaves, and trillions of dollars in pension and mutual funds.
11. Voting rights and electoral accuracies are being undermined in many states by legislation.
12. Medicare is being corporatized (over 40% of elderly beneficiaries are under corporate plans). Billing fraud is greater than ever (reaching $360 billion in 2021 just in the healthcare industry). Traditional defined benefit pension plans are disappearing, with the unstable 401K as a replacement if workers are lucky enough to have any retirement savings plans at the workplace.
Clearly, the situation in our political economy is getting worse by the year. To be sure, progressive groups have maintained some successes such as the near abolition of most uses of deadly asbestos, lead out of paint and gasoline, safer cars, better labelling, more recalls, removals of unsafe or ineffective drugs, and reduction of air and water pollutants. Civil rights and children protection laws still have some teeth. But civic groups are winning some skirmishes, while losing the battle and the war to the entrenched corporate state. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Congress in 1938 – whenever private power takes control of the government, that is fascism.
These citizen groups and their supporters must now step back and develop a ten-year Plan to overpower the corporate state with a democratic state. The people, however passive now, are largely on their side. Originally, in their state chartering days of the early 19th century, corporations were expected to be our servants not our masters. The reverse is now true.
This plan will require thousands of new organizers, lobbyists, strategists, and all the skills used by big corporations. It will also require systematically connecting with enlightened billionaires, already worried about our country’s slide into the abyss, for a budget of at least $10 billion over ten years.
Otherwise, ongoing skirmishes will continue the lower the expectations by progressive civic groups to a point of self-delusion.