A Very American Coup: Hey brother, can you spare a democracy?

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

—“Brother, can you spare a dime?E. Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney

In the summer of 1933, General Smedley Butler (ret) sat in the otherwise empty dining room of the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia and tried not to let his jaw drop on the tablecloth. Gerald MacGuire sat across from him and spoke quietly about what it was that JP Morgan and Irénée DuPont wanted the General to do.

17,000 out of work WW1 vets and their families (43,000 people in all) camped outside the Capitol to get their wartime bonus. Instead they were burned out and at least 4 shot dead by police.

They wanted him to lead an army of veterans against the government of the United States. The vets were angry: they were jobless and hungry and their meagre bonuses were being held back in the midst of the Great Depression. Hoover had burned the “Bonus Army” out of their protest camp in Washington. MacGuire knew that Butler was popular with the vets and that they would follow him. Gen. Butler at the head of a such an army would provide the leverage the people he represented needed to force the President to step aside. They wanted FDR and his New Deal gone by any means possible and Butler was the means. “You’ll see,” said MacGuire. “They’re organizing things right now.”

And lo and behold, a few weeks later, the press announced the creation of an influential but secretive group called the American Liberty League who had made it their mission to protect the Constitution of the United States of America. Most of the money came from Irénée DuPont. Most of the influence came from JP Morgan, J Howard Pew, President of the Sun Oil Company, and Alfred P Sloan, head of General Motors.

Now, General Butler was no great fan of government either. But he was a patriot. And when the Congressional Committee on Nazi Propaganda and Un-American Activities formed in the fall of 1934, he told them about his meetings with MacGuire.

The media (encouraged by denials from the denizens of the Liberty League) dismissed his story as the self-promoting fantasy of a megalomaniac. But the Committee gathered enough circumstantial evidence to believe it.

When the story petered out in the press, Butler used his own public profile to try to raise the ire of Americans to what had nearly happened. But, with neither government indictments nor serious media investigation, he came off as a shrill Chicken Little.

Apparently FDR decided he didn’t want to prosecute members of the Liberty League. They were, after all, the monied aristocracy of America and besides, there probably wasn’t enough substantial evidence to do so anyway. So he made a tactical retreat and he fought the election of 1936 with words like these:

“The savings of the average family, the capital of the small-businessmen, the investments set aside for old age — other people’s money — these were tools which the new economic royalty used to dig itself in.”

“The privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.”

“In spite of our efforts and in spite of our talk, we have not weeded out the over privileged and we have not effectively lifted up the underprivileged. … Americans must forswear that conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well.

“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”

Roosevelt won that election in a landslide and carried Democrats into Congress on his coattails.

*****

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down …

—“For What it’s Worth,” Stephen Stills, Buffalo Springfield

In the summer of 1971, Lewis Powell looked around and saw that American capitalism was under attack. Protests against government and corporations and the Vietnam War were escalating. In the shadow of Silent Spring, tough new environmental regulations were becoming law.

Lewis Powell was a prominent board member of several corporations. He was also a lawyer and board member for the Philip Morris cigarette industry. He thought he knew what needed to be done, so he sat down and wrote a memo for a strategy session of the US Chamber of Commerce. Lewis thought of the Chamber as a kind of war council and what he wrote was a battle plan for big business:  “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years.” He urged corporations set up think tanks, foundations and front groups to shape their message and monitor the media; and, most significantly for the 2012 election, to build an activist Supreme Court that would set the table for political change in favour of corporate America.

Lewis Powell US Supreme Court Justice 1972-87

Six months later, President Nixon nominated Powell to the Supreme Court and the Senate confirmed his nomination 89-1. Within two years, the Chamber of Commerce had formed a task force of 40 executives to put Powell’s plan into play.

At the Supreme Court, Powell did what he could to open the door and set the table for corporations. They became “persons,” and they claimed for themselves the same constitutional rights as the rest of America’s citizenry. The precedents paid off.

In its 2010 decision on Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission, the Court re-imagined corporations as “disadvantaged persons” who should not be denied freedom of speech just because they were corporations. Free speech became paid speech, and the heirs of the American Liberty League threw open their vaults to the Republicans.

Charles and David Koch

At their semi-annual semi-secret strategy session in January 2011, the Koch Brothers anted-up some $60 million for the cause. By the time the Presidential election is over, conservative Super PACs will have spent $1 billion.

Republican VP nominee, Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget, adopted by the House (but not the Senate), would cut the tax rate for  the wealthy down to 25%, the lowest since 1932. To pay for that, Ryan’s plan would eviscerate Obamacare.

Parallels to the end of the Gilded Age are striking. The top 1% currently have 23.5% of the wealth in America. In 1928, they had 23.9%.)

The firepower of corporate lobbyists is overwhelming the need for regulation. The 47 Senators who voted to protect $24 billion in tax breaks for big oil had received over $23.5 million from oil corporations during their careers.

Well-funded Republicans in Congress have waged a filibuster war against every bill, every routine motion favoured by the President until Congress has become gridlocked and impotent.

Since 2006, and right through the 2008 financial meltdown, Wall Street spent $4.2 billion on politics. This election, employees at Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Bank of America are putting their money into the Romney campaign. 

As for Mitt Romney, he and his staff are waging a shifty propaganda campaign. In the debate he backed away from his more controversial statements, denied the real cost of his platform, prevaricated about how he would pay for it, misrepresented Obamacare and just plain lied about his own health care plan.

ALEC, the stealthy, corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (also inspired by the Powell memo) is like a fifth column worming the conservative agenda into state legislation. ALEC writes boiler-plate laws that will, for example, hinder blacks, the poor, Hispanics and students as they try to vote in November. Billed as necessary to stop voter fraud (of which there is virtually none) most of these laws will require certain kinds of voter ID that many of those in the targeted populations do not have. Or they place restrictions on the times that they traditionally vote. A dozen states, from Florida to Wisconsin have already passed this kind of legislation.

Attack ads are skewing political debate with propaganda. The Koch Brothers are helping run a $3.5 million campaign for big oil. They and JP Morgan, WalMart, Goldman Sachs, BP and Chevron recently unleashed an ad falsely accusing Obama of adding to the national debt.

Tea Party conservatives are their ground troops—sad sacks* conned by calls to arms to defend Liberty and the Constitution. Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch Brothers, helps them get out their vote.

The corporate coup against the White House failed in the summer 1933. But it could succeed in November 2012. It’s time President Obama took a page or two from the counter-insurgency tactics of President Roosevelt. He hasn’t yet, and time is running out.

Let Tommy Douglas, whom some people think is Canada’s greatest Canadian, instruct us further:
“Once more let me remind you what fascism is. It need not wear a brown shirt or a green shirt—it may even wear a dress shirt. Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy to gain economic democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and special privilege.”

© David McLaren, August 2012

*A revealing footnote:

Click here to listen to an old Sad Sack radio show, “Liberty Bell Party” from 1946 in which Sad Sack (the hapless vet from WW2 created by George Baker) runs for the  conservative Liberty Bell Party and almost wins.

The recording comes complete with ads for Old Gold cigarettes, made by the Lorillard Tobacco Co. who (it’s a person, after all) lost a $151 million suit for handing out cigarettes to children in urban housing projects in the 1950s. The plaintiff, Marie Evans (also a person), received some of these free samples. But she died of lung cancer before the verdict was rendered in December 2010, three months before Citizens United argued their case before the US Supreme Court.

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About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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