Why Conservatives Want Government To Fail Everywhere

Will the oligarchs and their useful idiots win? The stakes have never been higher...

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A study by the Peace Research Institute in Norway and the University of Aarhus that polled 6,000 adults from the United States, Denmark, Italy, and Hungary found that the Covid pandemic has further eroded faith in government among people all across Europe and the US.

This is the capstone of “conservative” or neoliberal efforts to destroy faith in democratic governance in developed countries, an effort that goes back 50 years.

In the 1950s and 1960s Americans had a lot of trust in government — around 80 percent of Americans said they trusted government — as did the citizens of virtually all the western European countries. Today, the Pew Research Center says, only 17 percent of Americans say they trust their government.

For the very rich and big corporations back in the 1970s, this trust in a government that was then maintaining high tax rates and starting to aggressively hold corporations accountable for their pollution and dangerous products was, they believed, an existential threat.

Thus, in response to the growing environmental and consumer movements kicked off by Rachel Carson’s 1961 book Silent Spring and Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, giant corporations and the morbidly rich people they created set out to destroy Americans’ faith in a tax-and-regulate form of government.

As Lewis Powell wrote in his infamous 1971 memo arguing that businesses and very wealthy individuals needed to mobilize to stop this “assault” on American business, “Perhaps the single most effective antagonist of American business is Ralph Nader who - thanks largely to the media - has become a legend in his own time and an idol of millions of Americans.”

Powell then quoted a May 1971 article profiling Nader in Fortune magazine:

''The passion that rules in him - and he is a passionate man - is aimed at smashing utterly the target of his hatted, which is corporate power. He thinks, and says quite bluntly, that a great many corporate executives belong in prison - for defrauding the consumer with shoddy merchandise, poisoning the food supply with chemical additives, and willfully manufacturing unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer. He emphasizes that be is not talking just about 'fly-by-night hucksters' but the top management of blue-chip business.”

This was no less, Powell declared in his next paragraph, “A frontal assault … on our government, our system of justice, and the free enterprise system…”

His solution, as history shows, was for big corporations and the morbidly rich to create a network of think tanks to change public opinion, a filtering organization to help stack the courts, to create rightwing media empires, and to place “business-friendly” professors in schools and colleges.

After Nixon put Powell on the Supreme Court and they then legalized political bribery in a decision Powell himself authored (Bellotti), billionaires and corporations began sponsoring politicians willing to put deregulation and tax cuts at the top of their agenda in exchange for large campaign contributions and other forms of support like cushy jobs after leaving office.

The key to the entire thing was destroying citizens’ faith in government, because Powell and the tobacco oligarchs who owned him believed government was taking far too much of their taxes (at that time the top income tax rate was 74% and corporate taxes could max out at nearly 50%) and regulations to protect consumers, workers and the environment were cutting into profits.  

If they could get the people to reject government and instead embrace corporations “sponsoring” public goods like stadiums, hospitals and civic centers, and have schools and other institutions turn to billionaires for charity instead of depending on tax dollars, then they could eventually get their taxes lowered and their regulations loosened.

The Powell Memo brought into being a plethora of rightwing think tanks, radio and news networks and advocacy organizations that today litter the top hits on any google search of government-mediated topics from free trade to tax policy to “right to work” assaults on organized labor.  

Their work shows up regularly in news stories, college textbooks and courses, and thousands of opinion pieces published across the internet and on social media every day. And rightwing talk radio — with some hosts getting over a million dollars a year in subsidies — has provided a steady drumbeat of “government can’t do anything right” for over thirty years.

Powell’s work also set the stage for the 1981 Reagan presidency, which lowered income taxes to 25% and radically cut the corporate tax rate while defunding the IRS and slashing regulations, particularly on behalf of the fossil fuel and chemical industries.

He famously said, in 1986, that “The nine most frightening words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Don’t trust government: instead, appeal to your friendly local corporation or billionaire for help.

Reagan also kicked off the modern neoliberal era by negotiating the GATT (leading to the WTO) and his VP, GHW Bush, negotiating the NAFTA agreement that began the process of moving over 50,000 mostly unionized factories out of the US and into low-wage countries.

Every president since him has continued the process, which, as unionization and wages have collapsed as a result, has further eroded Americans’ faith in their government. And throughout the 1990s this neoliberal anti-government ideology went viral, infecting other democracies around the world, starting with the UK and Australia.

While destroying faith in government has worked out well for transnational corporations and the morbidly rich, its main side-effect has been to empower demagogues and enemies of democracy like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Tucker Carlson and Viktor Orbán. Half of Republican voters now say they’re ready to reject democracy altogether.

Progressives in Congress and the Biden administration have done a good job of bringing America back from the brink of both Covid and Trump’s economic disaster, and the American Rescue Plan was a major accomplishment done, as it was, without a single Republican vote. Other democracies are moving in a similar direction.

The GOP is nonetheless doing everything they can — up to and including banning mask mandates in schools as the Delta variant is putting hundreds of children in hospitals fighting for their lives — to use Covid to crash the American economy heading into the 2022 midterm elections. 

Consider that for a moment. Republican governors like Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis are, like democracy opponents Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán, willing to let children die to further their own political careers.

Republicans are also blocking any legislative attempts to put America back together after 40 years of Reaganism, including raising taxes on the rich or cutting our dependence on the fossil fuel industry, all while they double down on the racism and misogyny they’ve used to win elections ever since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in 1968.

Progressives seem to be ahead at the moment, but there’s an election coming and the billionaires who own and fund the GOP are relentless, pushing both Republicans and “conservative” Democrats in Congress and the states. Billionaires and transnational corporations are similarly organizing anti-democracy movements around the world.

The question for America going forward is whether Biden and Congress’ mostly progressive coalition can continue to build Americans’ confidence and trust in democratic governance, what our founders called “a republican form of government.” It’s also the question for much of the rest of the developed world.

Progressives here and in other Murdoch-infected countries are doing their best to create functioning “will of the people” governments in the face of daily over-the-top and often based-on-total-lies attacks from elected “conservatives,” news networks owned by rightwing oligarchs, and online trolls funded by several foreign governments who all are heavily invested in seeing our form of government fail.

Will the oligarchs and their useful idiots win? The stakes have never been higher.