Retired Des Moines Register Opinion pages editor Richard Doak, is not just making sense, but damn good sense:
I have voted proudly in every state and national election for more than 50 years. Voting fulfilled a civic duty and came with a sense of wonder at democracy in action. Election Day was always a good day to be an American.
Not so much anymore. I can’t remember a year when voting was so unsatisfying. Casting an early ballot in 2014 felt like a chore. There was no pride or enthusiasm. There was something close to indifference.
That might partly be due to a case of viewer PTSD from being carpet-bombed by attack ads, but the malaise goes deeper than that.
It comes from the realization that nothing much will change no matter which candidates win on Tuesday.
Say it again, nothing will change.
Oh, Republicans talk a good game of cutting spending and reducing the size of government, but they won’t. The last time they were in power they did the opposite.
They talk of replacing Obamacare, but they won’t, because they haven’t the foggiest idea how. Besides, the big health care corporations have a stake in Obamacare, and Republicans aren’t in the habit of crossing the corporations.
Democrats talk the talk of helping the middle class, but when they get a chance they only nibble around the edges.
Take college affordability, for instance. Democrats loudly proclaim they want to reduce the interest rates on student loans. Big deal. What middle-class kids really need is affordable tuition so they don’t have to borrow in the first place.
But making college more affordable would require replacing tuition revenue with tax revenue, mostly from the affluent. Democrats, for all their populist rhetoric, aren’t about to irritate the affluent by taxing them to pay tuition for middle-class kids.
Both parties are in thrall to the affluent and other powers that be, including corporations, CEOs, Wall Street financiers, free-market ideologues, business and trade associations. There is no handy label for this conglomeration of power. Call it the business lobby. Better, call it the plutocracy. Government is tightly in its grip.
Which is why nothing is going to change. At the moment, the rich and powerful seem to like things pretty much the way they are, so the nation will continue to have a do-nothing Congress and a feckless president.
It’s hard to pinpoint when America stopped being a popular democracy and became a plutocracy. It happened gradually, insidiously over several decades. Private power has penetrated every facet of government from a Congress that has been bought outright, to a Supreme Court that believes corporations are people, to a bureaucracy that is increasingly run not by public employees but by private contractors.
We have ended up with a government of, by and for commercial interests. No wonder that inequality of wealth has become the defining feature of life in the United States. That’s what the people with the power arranged to happen.
Under the circumstances, it doesn’t matter much which party is nominally in control of the government. Republicans happily do the bidding of the plutocrats they call job creators. Democrats are paralyzed by the fear of being labeled anti-business and try not to offend the powerful. Either way, the result is about the same.
When the lords of banking came within an eyelash of causing another Great Depression, Republicans rushed to their defense and opposed any efforts to rein in their excesses. Democrats demanded reform but were too timid to pass anything except watered-down regulation that really didn’t change much.
Nothing ever changes.
Then there is President Obama. He promised change, but didn’t deliver. Perhaps that is because in his major decisions Obama has been remarkably solicitous of the rich and powerful.
Obama’s Affordable Care Act, far from being a socialist takeover of health care, operates mostly through private sector health care companies. It strengthens the private sector by subsidizing the purchase of insurance. It locked in this country’s expensive reliance on the private sector to deliver health care and guaranteed health care executives would keep getting rich.
Obama also locked in something else — most of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. Those cuts were set to expire automatically, but Obama rescued most of them and made them permanent. That act left the government chronically short of revenue, and it guaranteed Obama’s presidency would be a lot like that of George W. Bush’s.
Obama has essentially been Bush-lite, which was probably bound to happen no matter who was president. Nothing much ever changes with the plutocracy in charge.
The pattern has been the same in state governments, with states falling all over each other trying to be the most generous in giving benefits to corporations and the wealthy.
There’s no indication that will change no matter who wins election on Tuesday.
A century ago, the United States was in a similar situation. The robber barons of industry and banking ran the government for their own benefit, presiding over an era of vast inequality. America appeared doomed to a future of the fabulously wealthy few ruling over the beaten-down many.
Then the public rose up and reasserted democratic rule. People voted for income and inheritance taxes to lessen the concentration of wealth and power. They enacted reforms such as primary elections and direct election of senators to take control of politics away from the party bosses. They enacted consumer protections and broke up monopolies. They built free public high schools so that working class kids could be educated beyond eighth grade.
The Progressive Era reforms and the later New Deal eventually created an unprecedented era of shared prosperity with a growing and thriving middle class, but today we’re back to robber baron levels of inequality and a stagnating middle class.
What’s depressingly different this time is that the public seems to have no inclination to rise up and reassert control. There is no mass movement to take the country back from the plutocrats and their politicians. There are no leaders capable of rallying the country to action, as Theodore Roosevelt did a century ago.
So the ballot offers no opportunity for real change. Voting becomes a rote act of civic duty exercised with little hope that the future will be any better than the present.
That’s the melancholy way it is for this voter in 2014.
— Richard Doak is the retired editor of The Des Moines Register’s opinion pages.