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Politicians aren’t as Incompetent as They Seem

Politicians aren’t as Incompetent as They Seem

By Linda Lewis
August 28, 2011

Just who’s pulling the strings?
I’m all tied up in you
But, where’s it leading me to?

–“Puppet on a String” (1967) by Bill Martin & Phil Coulter. Performed by Sandie Shaw.

American voters disagree on many issues but nearly all agree that government’s performance has been abysmal.

Americans’ satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States has fallen back to 11%, the lowest level since December 2008 and just four percentage points above the all-time low recorded in October 2008…The all-time low of 7% came in an Oct. 10-12, 2008, poll, conducted shortly after stock values plummeted following Congress’ passage of the TARP legislation in response to the September 2008 financial crisis. (Gallup.com, August 18, 2011)

The data show that public confidence fell most sharply when the President and Congress rejected majority public opinion on economic issues, namely bank bailouts and federal debt reduction. Those were not the only disappointments, by any means. On a variety of issues, from healthcare reform to credit card legislation, government officials have given lip service to the wishes of their constituents.

Political commentators and candidates for political office regularly attack government officials as inept. President Bush was labeled incompetent. President Obama is criticized as a poor negotiator. Democrats, in general, are described as weak while Republicans are viewed as cold-hearted. Unsurprisingly, that is how voters perceive the parties, also.

Few of these politicians were really incompetent. Many failed to produce the results voters said they wanted. But, that may be because the politicians were serving a different constituency: a wealthy corporate elite. With a coterie of lobbyists constantly tugging on their strings, political puppets are bound to appear clumsy. They know how to get what they want, though. Most freshman members of Congress are millionaires, after all.
The only downside for political puppets is the possibility of voter backlash at election time. Economically, however, politicians are well-insulated from public displeasure. Whether they are booted from office or decide to retire, they can look forward to cushy jobs with corporations, corporate lobbies, and corporate-funded think tanks.

Elected officials have another incentive to be responsive to corporate lobbying: their stock portfolios. For example, eight members of Congress hold $50,000 or more in Apple stock, reports OpenSecrets.org (August 25, 2011), and one of the eight (Nancy Pelosi) reportedly has Apple stock worth $1 million or more. Observers have noticed that Congressional investments out-perform the stock market and even out-perform investments held by corporate insiders.

Some outraged citizens have called for mass demonstrations. But, demonstrations against government policies tend to fail when the policies are profitable for corporations, observes psychologist Bruce Levine. In his book, Get Up, Stand Up, Levine writes:

Major corporate interests were at stake in the Iraq invasion, especially those of the energy-industrial complex and the military-industrial complex. Another role of the US government—along with deflecting criticism from corporations and putting down uprisings—is to wage wars deemed useful to the corporate elite. Despite the large demonstrations against the Iraq War, the resistance offered was not disruptive to a government that is dependent on the corporate elite rather than on the people it supposedly represents. (Levine, p. 184)

Some activists are taking their grievances straight to the corporations. When “done intelligently,” says Levine, even small protests have been effective (Levine, p. 186). But, most voters still don’t see beyond the smokescreen that protects the string-pullers from accountability.

The corporatocracy is most delighted to see demonstrations against government policies in which there are no corporate interests at stake—issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage. These are issues that divide Americans into distrusting camps so that they can be easily conquered on the issues that the corporatocracy does care about. (Levine, p. 184)

What corporations care about, of course, is making a profit. Americans hoping to regain control of government therefore need to find ways to influence corporations through the power of their collective purses. But, most Americans still think of political power only in terms of the ballots they cast on election day. And, anyway, the puppet shows are a great diversion.

*************

Linda Lewis is a policy analyst with degrees in emergency management and geosciences. Her experience includes 13 years as a policy analyst and planner for the U.S. government. During that time, she brought attention to serious deficiencies in government preparedness prior to the disasters that confirmed her analyses. Those included emergency communications (9/11 terrorist attacks), federal assistance (hurricane Katrina) and decision making (Columbia shuttle disaster).

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