Sunday May 09

Winter 2020

So Right, It’s Wrong

How to disrupt the strategic use of racism by the Right and their corporate overlords and build a progressive majority

Reviewed by James Mumm

            

BOOKS REVIEWED

Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
Rick Perlstein,
 Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980
Zephyr Teachout, Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money

 


“Make America Great Again”

-- Ronald Reagan

The parasites that control the Right’s corporate agenda have already moved on from their last host, Donald J. Trump, and crawled into new bodies. Even as a new hope spreads across the land after a period of resistance, the reality of what we’re up against is sobering.

Changing the guard in the White House, Congress, and local government is important. But creating structural change that shifts power from the wealthy and corporations to people and the public matters more. We have to get to root causes. In this review, we’ll take a deep dive into the roots of corporate power and structural racism in the United States, and their fundamental interrelationship. Because until you face the brutal facts, you can’t change anything.

Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980, is the fourth book in a sequence that rivals Robert Caro’s four-part series on Lyndon Johnson and Taylor Branch’s history of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement in scope and brilliance. Reaganland is the roiling tale of exactly how the New Right coalesced behind a covert corporate agenda in the 1970s, then found the perfect host for its anti-democratic playbook in the body of Ronald Reagan.

Zephyr Teachout’s Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money is an eye-popping teardown of the dangers of monopoly capitalism and corporate power. Teachout makes a powerful case that breaking up these massive corporations is both urgent and necessary. It is perhaps a kinder fate than these massive, soulless enterprises, whose tentacles envelop us all, truly deserve.

Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together propels us forward. McGhee forgoes a laundry list of policy proposals in favor of illuminating the bottom-up multiracial organizing and relationships needed to disrupt the zero-sum game of race and win a Solidarity Dividend for everyone.

First brutal fact: the Right outorganized the Left in this country for fifty years, laying a strong foundation for governing power in the 1970s that endures today. Central to the story in Reaganland is the obliviousness of the media and much of the Left to this seismic shift. Perlstein notes that “even as the nation chose a Democratic president” in 1976, “conservatives were mobilizing with a passion, creativity, and energy never seen before.”

Perlstein describes how the nascent New Right considered themselves “radicals working to overturn the present power structure in this country.” While Ralph Nader and friends were campaigning for consumer protection laws, and feeling good about their ability to exploit divisions in the business community, the nascent New Right was organizing to take over.

Reaganland is chock full of the origin stories of familiar right-wing warriors who have tortured the nation over the past fifty years: Roger Stone, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, to name a few - along with the intriguing origins of the less well-known central leadership cadre who did the real organizing.

Like good organizers, the New Right identified the constituencies they would need to build a Bigger We that would have the potential to win governing power. Then like great organizers, they figured out how to build a Bigger We at the same time that they dismantled the power base of their opponents: the Democratic Party and the labor movement.

The New Right’s recruitment of the white working class using strategic racism was nothing new. The effectiveness of this strategy was. The reaction by whites to government attempts to address racial discrimination in the 1960s was a kind of in-group conservatism that would rather reject the public goods offered to them by the New Deal and Great Society - which were, largely, built by white people for white people - if it meant sharing them with African-Americans. The New Right focused this inchoate discontent on government, using social triggers and dog-whistle politics to recruit wide swaths of the white working and middle classes to their ranks.

No one was better at this cynical game than Phyllis Schlafly. Persltein calls “crafting popular arguments for conservatism” her signature skill: “in politics, it is the rarest of gifts to be able to rouse an entire new population to throw themselves passionately into activism - especially so in a time of generalized political apathy.”

The suburban white women Schlafly rallied became a new pillar for the New Right coalition. They organized with a fervor that eventually killed the Equal Rights Amendment’s chances for becoming law, and prevented it from leaving its grave for fifty years and counting.

The Christian Right, especially evangelicals and their single-minded focus on abortion as their base-building issue, were the next pillar. Then business owners, both small and large, were awakened by Louis Powell’s call to action to take power as seriously as they did the pursuit of profits.

Perlstein notes a fundamental political fact:

Movements become powerful enough to change history when they merge diverse tributaries: when people who would ordinarily blanch at sitting to dinner together...a corporate executive in a tailored suit and a middle-class housewife spouting conspiracy theories about gender-neutral bathrooms—decide that their interests align.

This garland of discontented groups - white women, blue-collar white workers, conservative Christians, white supremacists -- formed a discontented force larger than the sum of their parts. All of this organizing served a singular master whether its participants knew it or not: corporate power.

Perlstein explains:

According to the theories of Karl Marx, revolutions happen when a group of people in a similar position in the economic structure become a ‘class for itself”: when they become conscious of their collective grievances, stop fighting one another, and organize to fight their common oppressor instead. That was what was happening in America now. Only the class in question wasn’t the proletariat. It was the corporate executives.

One lesson Trump learned from Reagan was the strategic use of racism. Reagan, like Trump, rejected that race had anything to do with him.

Then, like a speck of dust dropped into supercooled water, Ronald Reagan catalyzed the New Right into a movement. With an unwavering tone of righteousness, Reagan named a new enemy for the discontented masses. For Reagan and his followers, it wasn’t racism or inequality and their complexities, it was “too much government.” His simple formula included a simple solution: slash and burn.

This solution miraculously aligned with a corporate agenda designed to maximize their power and profits: less government regulation and oversight, more government subsidies, and the freedom to use public goods for private gain.

Who was paying attention to this? Perhaps the “the hungry young killer” who Perlstein describes as “tall, lean, and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford,” whose first foray into corporate derring-do was to revive New York’s Commodore Hotel. Donald J. Trump absorbed the example of the New Right’s prophet, Ronald Reagan. Clearly, they shared a gift for reading the political moment better than the pollsters.

One lesson Trump learned from Reagan was the strategic use of racism. Reagan, like Trump, rejected that race had anything to do with him. Perlstein recounts how, “Ronald Reagan doted upon his lack of racism, even as he opposed anti-racist public policies.” He said that “it was the epitome of Reagan’s rhetorical gifts, that capacity to cleanse any hint of doubt regarding American innocence. That was the soul of his political appeal: his liturgy of absolution.”

White voters who “felt victimized by government actions that cost them the privileges their whiteness once afforded them,” Perlstein says, were the ones that Reagan’s campaign managers targeted. It was government bureaucrats, Reagan argued, not greedy corporate CEOs, who had taken white voters’ inheritance and squandered it, and gosh dang it, Reagan was going to do something about it. He presented whites as victims, underdogs, who needed to stick together and defend the values of Western civilization. You are heroes, he told them, and they believed it.

Reaganland ends in 1979, as Reagan wins a landslide victory with the help of major inroads among blue-collar workers, union families, and 21% of Democrats. The two thirds of evangelicals who went for Carter four years earlier switched to two thirds for Reagan. The big money went to Reagan too, as independent oil producers gave more to Republicans than was raised by all of the major Democratic fundraising organizations combined.


Zephyr Teachout’s Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money picks up right where Perlstein leaves off. The New Right’s organizers, with Reagan as their emblem, built their base and fractured their opponents in the process. They realigned organized money toward their side, and started enacting corporate America’s long-term agenda. She describes how Reagan and the New Right got to work immediately, gutting antitrust law with the appointment of hundreds of new right-wing judges, allowing for an explosion in corporate mergers.

Corporate monopolies helmed by “plutocrats,” as Teachout calls them,

...use racial identity as a wedge and then grant whites the right to use state power—on loan from the plutocrats—to pursue their dreams of racial power vis-à-vis nonwhite citizens, but only on the condition that white working- and middle-class people grant big business free rein in managerial affairs.

That’s the real grand bargain here, and it’s why the front man can change -- Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Trump - while the powers behind the throne grow.

Teachout explains: “The combination of systemic racism, financial concentration, and corporate monopolization has led to power being wielded predominantly by white people, and this is justified by a corporate system designed to appear neutral and to foster indifference to social consequences.” The gaslighting is intentional.

Teachout drives our attention to the root cause with ringing clarity:

The moral of the story is not that anti-monopoly is a panacea for deeply embedded racism, or that anti-monopolists have always been right. It is that race and corporate power are totally intertwined, and while fighting the local fights against voter suppression and similar issues is vital, we cannot ignore the corporate structures behind them. We play into the monopolists’ game if we attack local racist politicians but fail to strike at the root of their funders’ power.

This is why Perlstein and Teachout are best read together. Break ‘Em Up describes how corporate monopolies divide workers as part of their operating manual in farming and agriculture, transportation, fossil fuels, health care, banking, big tech, and other sectors. In each, Teachout draws out the logic of monopoly capital, how they repurpose the institutions of democratic life for private gain, and the true cost of continuing to do business this way.

Facing the brutal facts also means understanding the game being played by the plutocrats. Teachout explains how the “monopoly-predation-subsidy-capital cycle” works:

  1. The promise of monopoly power attracts excess capital investment;
  2. With that investment, the company can engage in predatory pricing to push out competitors and win subsidies;
  3. Only the biggest companies win individual company subsidies, which they use to push out remaining competitors and reinvest in politics;
  4. They then use the investment in politics to block antitrust and influence the tax code;
  5. Without being subject to antitrust and having to pay taxes, they can promise more monopolistic behavior and attract more capital investment.

Break ‘Em Up has two bright lines that weave throughout the book. The first is Teachout’s ability to define the problem in clear and simple terms. Monopoly is tyranny, she says: “no democracy can survive for long once a few corporations have amassed governmental power in such a massive form and scale.”

The second is strategy, and a call to “organize an antitrust movement for our time.” Teachout calls in her friends on the Left. For decades, she says, “the left has failed to understand the magnitude of the concentration problem, how it limits freedom in so many areas of life, how it drives inequality and empowers racism.”

Teachout is not shy about laying out the structural reform agenda for us: “stopping mergers, breaking up big corporations, regulating aspects of big tech as a public utility, enabling cooperatives, changing the way we fund elections, banning forced arbitration, strengthening unions, and demanding that states and the federal government use their existing power to regulate and investigate the corporate usurpers.”

Folks, we can do this. Teachout exhorts organizers to

begin with a sample list of companies that should no longer exist in their current form two years from now. If you read nothing else, tear out this page and tack it to your refrigerator: Amazon Google Monsanto/Bayer Spectrum Pfizer Uber Visa Unilever Verizon Exxon Bank of America Citibank Common Spirit Health Disney CVS Nestlé UnitedHealthcare Blue Cross/Blue Shield Comcast Boeing Walmart.

Let’s start at the top. If you think Amazon is done with its monopoly spree, think again. Teachout explains the terrifying reality: “Amazon is not just a store. It is not just an internet company. It is not just a platform. It is not just a transportation system. It is a vast infrastructure machine with an ambition to take over the body and soul of the country: the postal service, the trains, the trucking operations, the places we store our data, and our politics.”

Do you think the billionaires who want to go to the moon or Mars are joking? That is true frontier capitalism, not just a pipe dream or a metaphor. Free from the shackles of Earth’s gravity and rules, they eye a solar system full of resources to exploit.

Soon enough, Teachout warns, we’ll be watching as “corporations and billionaires start creating their own political parties and infrastructure.” That’s one step closer to corporate self-governance on Earth, and the sky's the limit if they pull that off.

I love Teachout’s proposed principle - it has the ring of a new organizing universal - that it should be “easier to organize people and harder to organize capital,” and that it should be “as easy to unionize, or to create a cooperative, as it is hard to merge goliaths.”

She closes with a reminder that: “the basic dream of America is the fight against illegitimate power. Money is not a legitimate source of political power. Race is not a legitimate source of political power. The only source of legitimate power over others—the power to imprison, the power to tax, the power to make decisions—flows from we the people.”


So where do we go from here? Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us points toward people-powered solutions that could address the root causes of both corporate power and structural racism, and builds on the analysis of corporate power and race embedded in both Reaganland and Break ‘Em Up.

McGhee starts by talking about her own journey from accepting “the unspoken conventional wisdom” that underpins most public policy - not calling out, or consciously avoiding, the racial unfairness or government’s racial policies that created a white middle class - to espousing the core argument she advances in The Sum of Us: that racism is driving inequality for everyone.

In doing so, McGhee takes the analysis laid out in Perlstein and Teachout’s arguments to the next level. The 1960s movements for equality and integration “tested many whites’ commitment to the public, in ways big and small,” McGhee explains. She continues,

When the people with power in a society see a portion of the populace as inferior and undeserving, their definition of “the public” becomes conditional. It’s often unconscious, but their perception of the Other as undeserving is so important to their perception of themselves as deserving that they’ll tear apart the web that supports everyone, including them. Public goods, in other words, are only for the public we perceive to be good.

McGhee then directly asks us a bold question. Are we, as individuals and as a society, ready to break with the racist bargain offered by the Right? The Sum of Us is filled with stories of people that McGhee found were no longer buying what corporations and the Right are selling:

Everywhere I went, I found that the people who had replaced the zero sum with a new formula of cross-racial solidarity had found the key to unlocking what I began to call a “Solidarity Dividend,” from higher wages to cleaner air, made possible through collective action.”

She continues to ask pointedly: “how much suffering and dysfunction the country’s white majority is willing to tolerate, and for how elusive a gain.”

If we are indeed ready to do this, white people in particular are going to have to start to talk about race and identity in explicit terms that may not feel comfortable at first, as McGhee does here: “racial hierarchy offered white people a reprieve from the class hierarchy and gave white women an escape valve from gender oppression.”

There is liberation - for everyone - if we can move white people to choose public goods over private interests, but it’s going to take a lot of listening and organizing, through vehicles like deep canvassing programs organized by Peoples’ Action and others, which engage people not only around issues, but also around their hopes, fears, dreams and aspirations. We are starting to see the dawn of a new culture of solidarity emerging over the horizon. Make no mistake, the plutocrats are going to fight tooth and nail to stop it, because as we saw in the legal battles of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma to avoid acknowledging they made billions by addicting a nation to prescription drugs - no one wants to get left holding the bag. “Today, the racial zero-sum story is resurgent because there is a political movement invested in ginning up white resentment toward lateral scapegoats (similarly or worse-situated people of color) to escape accountability for a massive redistribution of wealth from the many to the few,” explains McGhee.

What bonds these three books together is the authors’ shared understanding that what happened as Ronald Reagan’s administration began implementing the New Right’s corporate agenda was a tipping point for our nation, one from which we are only now - perhaps - turning the corner.

Reagan and his managers realized, McGhee says, that “northern white people could be sold the same explicitly antigovernment, implicitly pro-white story, with the protagonists as white taxpayers seeking defense from a government that wanted to give their money to undeserving and lazy people of color in the ghettos.” When white people bought that story, they turned away from public and collective solutions and gave their power to corporations who used it to maximize private gain.

McGhee makes the clear case that the New Right’s zero-sum game has disproportionately hurt people of color generally and Black people in particular, but the biggest group hurt along the way are poor and working-class people, including whites. In education, health care, housing, and other arenas, whites lose far more economically than they gain in perceived racial superiority can give. And the margin of loss is growing, leading McGhee to believe that a tipping point is near where what she calls the Solidarity Dividend might be able to attract the white working class back into a multiracial coalition.

If McGhee’s theory is true - and she has stories to back it up - then we have the opportunity to build our Bigger We at the same time that we dismantle the power of the Right and their corporate overlords. The wealthy, primarily white elites who control the corporate monopolies are terrified of this because, as McGhee notes, “The core philosophy that unites their economic aims with their attacks on a multiracial democracy is that a robust democracy will lead to the masses banding together to oppose property owners’ concentration of wealth and power.” In stories from Kansas City to Lewiston, Maine, McGhee finds people-powered organizations and campaigns that show the way forward for multiracial organizing.

The Sum of Us concludes with five discoveries about how we can prosper together that McGhee found in her travels and conversations, in summary:

  1. We have reached the productive and moral limit of the zero-sum economic model and have no choice but to start aiming for a Solidarity Dividend.
  2. The quickest way to get there is to refill the pool of public goods, for everyone.
  3. Our people are not all standing at the same depths today, so we must resist the temptation to use universal instruments to attain universal ends.
  4. Uprooting the zero sum is so essential, as is embedding in its place the value and knowledge that we truly do need each other.
  5. We’ve got to get on the same page before we can turn it. It’s time to tell the truth, with a nationwide process that enrolls all of us in setting the facts straight so that we can move forward with a new story, together.

McGhee calls all of us to move forward in greatness together in the conclusion of The Sum of Us, urging us to

...challenge ourselves to live our lives in solidarity across color, origin, and class; we must demand changes to the rules in order to disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and our economy...Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower, and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be. And if it were, all of us would prosper.

McGhee closes with one of the mantras that her friend George Goehl, head of the People’s Action national network of grassroots groups, likes to say: “We’ve found the enemy, and it’s not each other.”

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