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Is U.S. no longer a true democracy?

Hal Sundin
Hal Sundin
Staff Photo |

The common perception in our country is that we are living in a democracy. But is that perception any longer valid? According to the dictionary, a democracy is “a state having a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.”

The dictionary also identifies a democracy as “a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges and the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions and privileges.”

This immediately raises the question of whether we are any longer living in a democracy and still have a truly free electoral system. Over the past three decades, the equality of rights and privileges has been supplanted by arbitrary, largely hereditary, class distinctions and privileges based on wealth.

Corporate wealth, pyramiding in the hands of the wealthy class, has taken over the election process thanks to the Supreme Court’s gift to corporations and the wealthy in its misguided decisions in 2010 giving corporations the power to finance election campaign advertising and in 2014 removing limitations on the amount wealthy individuals can donate to election campaigns.

In these two decisions, the Supreme Court has given the moneyed class a huge advantage in the election process. We have lost our free electoral system. The effect of this concentration of power in the hands of corporations and the super-rich is a serious threat to the functioning of our democracy. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned, “We may have democracy or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Through their control over Congress the wealthy have managed to get their top bracket tax rates, which ranged from 70-90 percent from 1943 until 1981, reduced to 35 percent (recently raised to 39.6 percent). It is also a fact that many of the charitable deductions claimed by the wealthy, such as donations to operas, symphony orchestras, theaters, and colleges and universities serve the wealthy far more than they do the poor.

In its zeal to reduce taxes for the rich, Congress is busy cutting “discretionary” spending — funding for programs such as education, infrastructure, and basic research, which amounted to 12 percent of gross domestic product in the 1970s and is now less than 3 percent of GDP.

An educated public is essential for a viable democracy; education and basic research are crucial to our success in a competitive world economy; and our society cannot survive without a functioning infrastructure. Congress for the wealthy (not for the people) seems bent on cutting taxes on the rich by cutting or eliminating programs that benefit the poor and the struggling middle class — Robin Hood in reverse. It has even gone so far as to relieve corporations, and the wealthy who own them, of the cost of paying their employees a living wage by keeping the minimum wage below the subsistence level, resulting in one out of four children now living in poverty (one out of three with parents younger than 30), and dumping the cost of food stamps and supplemental income payments for the poor onto the middle class.

Meanwhile, corporate profits are at an all-time high and tax breaks from a cooperative Congress shrink the taxes corporations actually pay to as low as zero in some cases, such as GE.

A cornerstone of a true democracy is equal opportunity for advancement for everyone, which has been stifled by rising inequality of income. Those in power have prioritized low tax rates and tax shelters for the wealthy and corporate subsidies over a minimum wage capable of providing proper shelter and nutrition for working families and funding for the education of all children to break the cycle of poverty.

The trite saying that “a rising tide raises all boats,” implying that a portion of the benefits of a thriving economy will trickle down to reach everyone, fails to recognize that only the wealthy have boats. And since the Supreme Court has declared that corporations are “persons” and have the same rights as citizens, corporations should therefore also be obligated to behave as decent citizens by conducting their operations for the good of the entire public instead of solely for the purpose of creating huge profits for corporations and their wealthy stockholders.

Congress should also act like decent citizens, and do the same.

Hal Sundin’s “As I See It” column appears on the first Thursday of the month.


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