Guest post, Larry Zacharias, Retired Professor, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Following World War II, what remained of the civilized world took a look at itself and asked what it would take to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. The central problem to be resisted was the onset of totalitarian political regimes – both fascist and communist – that had taken root through a set of fragile political and economic circumstances along with the onset of modern propaganda techniques. Today, having forgotten the lessons of that earlier era, we seem to be headed back in that same, pre-WWII direction.
What postwar US policy-makers of the 1940s & 1950s contrived was the reinforcement of a set of checks on popular movements. A central feature was the “rule of law” dominated by the “legal process school” and “neutral principles” of constitutional law. Another feature was the wide distribution of decision-making power (what political scientists like Robert Dahl termed the “loci of control”) among major institutions, both in the public and private sectors, to preclude the sudden coalescence of power among a few, like-minded persons. Further, underlying the distribution of power was the notion of pluralism – that is, institutions in the various sectors of the polity and economy would be represented by differing and competing points of view; and to achieve changes in the system, the process would lead these plural views toward ongoing compromises and readjustments. This was a social vision born in an era of relativism, where seemingly everyone could learn to get along with everyone else.
So how did we get from there to the current political landscape of absolutism and polarization – of “winner take all” and “my way or the highway”? There were clearly many key events, beginning in the 60s with racial desegregation, the Vietnam War, the women’s movement and reproductive rights that rendered citizens more prone to taking absolute positions on single issues that shaped their political allegiances. The 60s also began a series of structural changes in the economy that began to undercut pluralism in the corporate sector – changes that favored shareholders over other corporate stakeholders, and that in ensuing decades would spread from the corporate sector to the polity as a whole. Where once corporate managers had seen themselves as “statesmen” mediating the interests of all the stakeholders in their corporations – workers, consumers, and “the community,” as well as the investors – the increase of aggressive corporate takeovers followed by the era of leveraged buyouts in the 70s and 80s altered CEO pay structures and realigned managerial interests with those solely of the shareholders. During that same period, labor unions representing workers’ interests shrank and became enfeebled, increasing numbers of consumers became beholden to debt, and the communities that had once been the bulwarks of corporate pride became the pawns of increasingly mobile corporate production centers. The kind of pluralism that had earlier ensured that CEOs would line up across all sides of the polity, or at least both sides of the older liberal-conservative spectrum, had by the 1980s dissipated, replaced with a new unitary alignment of business leaders who were anti-union, anti-public sector initiatives (at all levels – federal to local community), pro-tax cuts (especially at the top marginal income brackets) and pro-shareholders. The resulting skewing in income distribution from the 1980s onward, along with increasing corporate control of the polity, has given “the right” an economic base that’s relatively unwavering and free of fractiousness.
And just how can such a small minority of business interests appeal to the masses in a democratic polity? Well, this takes us back to populism and those single-issue allegiances that began forming in the 60s and 70s. Once the corporations had vanquished the older institutions for pluralistic, political education – labor unions, professional and social service groups, independently thinking political leaders – it was only a matter of time before they would master the propaganda techniques for aligning just enough of the population along “single issues” to achieve, at least for the time being, complete political control. It’s the story of Europe in the 1930s all over again, now that we’ve forgotten where it began.