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Political systems are broken, not only in America, but also in every single country in the world today. The global nature of this “legitimation crisis,” which undermines political systems of all stripes, points to the necessity for a global solution that transcends mere piecemeal, case-by-case tinkering with them. A universal transformation has to occur, and it must be in civic society, which undergirds them. Their dysfunction stems from its atrophy.
Societies have known how to develop civic institutions that nourish and enrich the everyday intercourse among citizens. Freedom of expression and association, the rule of law, an unfettered press, education, and adequate representation are some of these: but no less important are, at the micro level, friendships, families, kinship, intergenerational and gender relations, and voluntary associations; through the middle levels of ethnic, regional, and national consciousness; and at the macro, or most inclusive level, in undertakings like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. Increasing prosperity have advanced these wholesome developments: for example, they were strengthened as, from 1947 to 1972, America achieved enviable gains in productivity, employment, and rising wages, as well as investments in education, development, and research. Eventually, the nation amassed 60% of global capital stock, and produced 60% of global output. Church, cathedral, synagogue (despite acrimonious sectarian differences and prejudices), school, the media, the arts, and sports disseminated the ideology of a homogeneous America with shared, foundational ideals –discrimination against blacks, women, GLBT persons, and imperialist wars notwithstanding –of equal rights, equal opportunity, justice, fairness, social responsibility, and ethical conduct.
However, stung by the near-insurrections of the 1960’s, when blacks and others fought for inclusion and their civil rights, and the War against Vietnam polarized the country, American lawmakers, financiers, and industry chieftains (the “1%”) sought to erode these incremental, historic gains. At first, they focused their attack on the economic foundation: they boosted European economies, transferring technologies, manufacturing knowhow, and capital to deliberately create rivals for domestic production, and reaped dividends from these investments. They also built up Japan’s industries, putting Toyota, Honda, and Mitsubishi in direct competition with Detroit. Then, turning politics into open warfare, they used their superior organization to exert outsize influence in Washington, while the middle class and other working Americans, lacking reliable, organized groups to represent them (attacked repeatedly, organized labor was suffering decline), began a feckless drift towards becoming a divided, fearful, ineffectual citizenry, unable to focus on vital issues, identify the common good, and act accordingly. The aforementioned apparatuses of civic life crumbled. Today, after the stratospheric rise of the financial sector, lawmakers, financiers, and industry chieftains have succeeded in co-opting politicians in both parties and auctioning elections to further their political and economic goals, such as deregulation, changes in industrial relations policies affecting labor unions, permissive tax codes, corporate governance policies that have allowed C.E.O.’s to set their own salaries and other compensation, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and an excessively punitive criminal justice system. Finally, as fewer than fifty mega-corporations came to straddle the globe like a giant octopus, dominating and controlling its entire GDP of about $70 trillion, their political model of relentless organized combat in their own behalf also took root abroad.
Recent popular initiatives, notably the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street in 2011, have demonstrated how citizens can help to significantly revitalize the bedrock institutions of civic society, thereby enabling it to redress the imbalances described above that have afflicted political systems. More of the same should be on the agenda in 2012, with a complete re-orientation as the ultimate goal. As Dr. Seuss remarked, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”