Living in a Kleptocratic Nation

kleptocrat nation (klep te krat na shen), n. 1. a body of people ruled by thieves. 2. a government characterized by the practice of transferring money and power from the many to the few. 3. a ruling class of moneyed elites that usurps liberty, justice, sovereignty, and other democratic rights from the people. 4. the USA in 2003.

The Kleptocrats have taken over. Look at America’s leadership today–not just political, but corporate, too. Tell me you wouldn’t trade the whole mess of them for one good kindergarten teacher.

Forget George W. for a moment and sneak a peek at practically any big-deal CEO, congressional heavy, media baron, talk-show yakker, pompadoured TV preacher, and the other pushers of America’s new ethic of grab-it-and-go greed. In a crunch, would you want to be tied at the waist to any of them?

Yet, they’re in charge! Here we are, living in the wealthiest country in history, a country of boundless possibilities, a country made up of a people deeply committed to democratic ideals, a country with the potential for spectacular human achievement–but we find ourselves ruled (politically, economically, culturally, and ethically) by a confederacy of Kleptocrats.

When did you first realize or at least begin to suspect that America was lost? Not physically, of course–we’re right here.

Lost its way, is what I mean, having wandered from the brave and true path first pointed out by Tom Paine, T.J., Jimmy Madison, and several other good thinkers back around 1776–a path toward a society focused not on empire, but on enlightenment and egalitarianism.

We’ve never reached that glorious place, of course, but the important thing is that in our two-century sojourn we’ve been steadily striving to get there…and making progress. If any one thing really characterizes this big boiling pot of diversity dubbed “America,” it is that we’re a nation of strivers. Unfortunately, the cultural elites want to minimize this powerful virtue by reducing it to nothing more than individuals striving for material gain–”Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” “How to Get Rich in the Next Half Hour!” “You Might Already Be a Winner.”

Then they wonder why there’s such a gaping hole in America, an emptiness that can’t be filled by nonstop shopping, prepaid elections, more bunting, and reality TV. When the Powers That Be started defining a person’s value by the value of their stock portfolio, they lost America, for that’s not who we are. Don’t go calling us names like “Consumer” or “Stakeholder” when who we are is full-fledged, dyed-in-the-wool, unbridled, rambunctious citizens–indeed, we’re the ultimate sovereigns of this great land. We don’t merely strive for material gain, but also for the spiritual satisfaction of building community and reaping the deeper richness of the common good.

The idea of belonging to something larger than our own egos and bank accounts, the idea of caring, sharing, and participating as a public is the BIG IDEA of America itself. As a boy growing up in Denison, I was taught this unifying, moral concept by hard-working, Depression-era parents who ran a small business in our town. They knew from experience and from their hearts what America is all about: “Everybody does better when everybody does better,” is how my old Daddy used to put it.

The unforgivable transgression of today’s leaders is that they’ve abandoned this common wisdom of the common good and quit striving for that world of enlightenment and egalitarianism that the founders envisioned and that so many throughout our history have struggled to build. Instead, whether from the top executive suites or from the White House, the people in charge today are aggressively pushing a soulless ethic that shouts: “Everyone on your own, grab all you can, and if you’ve got enough money, secure yourself in a gated compound.”

Not only are the Kleptocrats stealing our country from us, they’re stealing our democratic ideals–the very idea of America. And it’s time to take them back.

How far have the elites moved from us? So far that even the moderates have lost their way. Take Sherwood Boehlert. He’s a Republican Congressman, but despite that, not a bad guy. Sherwood thinks of himself as “part of the enlightened middle.”

From central New York, he’s been in the House of Representatives for 21 years now. He says he loves the job, calling it the “ultimate aphrodisiac.” But Sherwood said something not long ago that made me think that maybe he’s been sniffing the perfumes of high office longer than is good for him:

It’s the people’s house,” he gushed about his side of the Capitol,”the one institution in the whole wide world that’s the personification of this great democracy of ours.

Think about it: Congress, democracy. Do these two words fit together in your mind? America is a nation of nurses, office workers, cab drivers, school teachers, pharmacists, shop keepers, middle managers, truck drivers, shift workers, librarians, cleaning people, electricians, fruit pickers, struggling artists–how many of our ilk are sitting next to Sherwood in “the people’s house”?

The great majority of Americans make less than $50,000 a year–half make under $32,000. How many members of Congress come from such modest backgrounds? Today’s Congress is made up of business executives, lawyers, and former political operatives (which Boehlert was). The Public Interest Research Group reports that nearly half of the people newly elected to Congress last year are millionaires. This is the personification of democracy?

Not only do the members tend to descend into Congress from the economic heights, but they also spend practically all of their substantive and social time with others from the heights. Congress’ real constituency is no longer you and me, but the people who “matter.” These are your top-floor corporate executives and the moneyed elites who have full-time lobbyists and who make the $1,000-and-higher campaign donations (only 0.12 percent of Americans are in this class) that grease the wheels of congressional incumbency. They are the privileged few who know members by their first names, who get every one of their phone calls returned–and who get their agenda adopted.

Perhaps this gaping economic chasm between those on the inside and all the rest of us on the outside explains why our strumpets of state never get around to dealing with little matters like assuring health care for all families, passing living-wage legislation, and making sure everyone gets a decent retirement. Members of the congressional club feel no urgency because, hey, it’s not them–they have no personal anxiety about such matters because (one) they’re well off and (two) they’re covered on all this by us taxpayers. Yes, even the multimillionaires in Congress get:

Full platinum-level health coverage for themselves and their families, including choosing their own docs, seeing the specialists they need, dental care, and cosmetic surgery for their pets. (Just kidding about that last one–but don’t put it past them!)A rosy retirement, with pensions that can rise higher than the pay they got while in office. Just the starting pensions are sweet–Phil Gramm, who finally did something for the people of Texas by leaving the Senate last year, starts out drawing retirement pay of $78,534 a year. He’ll be paid more for doing nothing than 80-plus percent of us Americans are paid for working full time.Regular cost-of-living pay raises. While Congress has not seen fit to increase the minimum wage (still $5.15 an hour) since 1996, the members did give themselves four $5,000 pay raises during the past five years. This $20,000 “adjustment” in each of their own annual pay packets is $8,000 more than the gross pay that a full-time minimum-wage worker would get if Congress ever gets around to the one-dollar wage hike they’ve been “talking” about for years.Excellent job security. Did you know that a member of Congress is four times more likely to die in office than to lose an election? This is not only because of the special-interest money they’re stuffed with, but also because the GOP and Democrats conspire to divide the turf in each state, gerrymandering districts to assure that 96 percent of them are “safe” for the incumbents. There’s not much democracy in a rigged system that now allows only about 20 of the 435 House seats to be competitive in each election cycle.

A couple of years ago, Japanese police discovered more than 400 pieces of women’s underwear in the home of Sadao Ushimura, a fellow who was a prominent official in Japan’s finance ministry at the time. Mr. Ushimura proclaimed total innocence of any possible scandal or perversion, explaining: “I picked up all lingerie on the streets by pure chance.”

We still have our underwear in America, but we’ve been stripped of a garment far more delicate and precious: our democracy. On this sprawling continent with its cacophony of voices, we’ve been able to hold it all together through the years because of our people’s instinctive and tenacious belief in the sanctity of democratic principles.

But something has gone terribly wrong. The essence of democracy–our power to control decisions that affect us–has steadily and quietly been pilfered by corporate Kleptocrats. They have collected up our democratic powers piece by piece, hoarding them in the privacy of their own fiefdoms. These elites (fully abetted by the governmental elites they have bought) now effectively control the decisions that affect We The People–everything from public-spending priorities to environmental degradation, from wages to war, from what’s on the “news” to who gets elected.

This has not taken place by “pure chance,” but through deliberate filching, and the filching now has reached the level of wholesale looting. The elites have pulled off a slow-motion coup, radically wrenching America’s power balance from a people’s democracy to Kleptocrat Nation.

This would be terribly depressing except for one thing, which is that one basic has definitely NOT changed in our land: The people (you rascals!) still have that instinctive and tenacious belief in our historic democratic principles. The antidote to kleptocracy is the age-old medicine of democratic struggle, agitation, and organization–and all across our country, the rebellion is on!

As happened in the rebellion of 1776, as happened in the populist revolt against the robber barons of the 19th century, and as is already happening in community after community today, America’s historic democratic yearnings will not be long suppressed. Despite our present leadership (with their autocratic, plutocratic, and imperialistic ambitions), this is a nation of irrepressible democrats, and their spirit will out.

Come on, America! Don’t let BushCo, the Wobblycrats, and the Kleptocrats steal our country and trivialize We The People as being nothing more substantial than passive consumers who can even be made to cower in duct-taped “safe rooms” whenever the governing authorities shout “Code Orange!” out their windows. America wasn’t built by conformists, but by mutineers–we’re a big brawling, boisterous, bucking people, and now is our time!

Our democracy is being dismantled right in front of our eyes–not by crazed foreign terrorists, but by our own ruling elites. America desperately needs you and me to stand as full citizens, asserting the bold and proud radicalism of America’s democratic ideals.

Consider these words:

It is not that we see democracy through the haze of optimism. We know that democracy is a jewel that must be polished constantly to maintain its luster. To prevent it from being damaged or stolen, democracy must be guarded with unremitting vigilance.

That’s not Patrick Henry or Abe Lincoln, but Aung San Suu Kyi, the courageous and inspirational fighter for democracy in Burma. Her life literally is on the line every day, for she’s the leader of the popular opposition to the ruthless military dictatorship that usurped this beautiful country’s democracy in a bloody coup. In 1990, her National League for Democracy won 82 percent of the vote in a democratic election, but the military and the economic elites stepped in and invalidated the people’s choice, and they have ruled through iron-fisted repression, murder, and armed force ever since.

You think democracy asks a lot of us–too many meetings, too much risk of getting your name on Ashcroft’s database, too much confrontation with authority? Try walking a few miles in her shoes. Burma’s military thugs would love to kill her, but for now they know that they could not withstand the popular explosion that would follow such a murder, for she’s the symbol of the people’s suppressed democratic yearnings. Instead, they held her under house arrest for seven and a half years, and though she was officially released last year, she is hounded, harassed, monitored, and followed everywhere she goes in an effort to intimidate her and Burma’s other democracy activists. They wish she would leave, but she wouldn’t even go to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 because she feared she would not be allowed to reenter her country.

Maybe you’re thinking: “Well, Hightower, sure, if a dictatorship was imposed here in the US of A, then, by golly, you can bet your boots that I’d stand up!”

A military coup is not the only way to slip the plush rug of America’s democracy from beneath your motionless feet. A few tugs here and a couple of hard yanks there… and it’s gone. And they’ve been tugging and yanking furiously of late, taking scores of actions that would cause Paul Revere to mount up again, including: Ashcroft’s ruling that the FBI can secretly infiltrate and spy on political and church meetings without a warrant; the federal judge’s ruling that New Yorkers could be denied their constitutional right to march in protest of Bush’s war plans, instead, relegating them to a 10,000-person “rally pen” where they “could be adequately policed”; Ash-croft’s PATRIOT ACT II, which would provide advance immunity for federal agents who conduct illegal surveillance at the behest of top executive branch officials (a provision that would have protected Nixon’s illegal wiretappers).

These underminings of our basic civil liberties and imposition of anti-democratic police power are in addition to other maneuvers that are steadily strangling our people’s democracy:

The Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling that campaign money is “speech” effectively negates the value of your vote and electoral participation, while giving a handful of corporations and wealthy interests far more “speech” than the rest of us, and also puts the possibility of holding public office beyond the reach of ordinary Americans. Nothing has been so destructive of our nation’s promise of democratic representation as has this totally un-American decree–which neither political party challenges.

The unheralded provisions of NAFTA, the WTO, the forthcoming FTAA, and other arcane trade schemes allow global corporations to wield veto power over your local, state, and national laws, usurping our people’s right to self-government–a theft of power that has been pulled off without the people knowing it, much less agreeing to it.

With a massive infusion of campaign donations, a half-dozen conglomerates have gotten Congress and the FCC to rush through a radical rewriting of the rules so that they now control our public airwaves, making a mockery of our “Freedom of the Press” and restricting the mass-media debate to corporate-approved topics and viewpoints.

Don’t expect these political, corporate, media, and other money powers to alert you to the fact that big chunks of your democracy, right here in the US of A, already have been seriously damaged or stolen–and they’re certainly not going to rally us to the essential cause of repairing and retaking our democracy. That’s up to us.

Of course, BushCo is hoping we’re idio
s, and to help keep our minds from wandering to what’s going on with democracy here in The Homeland, they have us riveted on color-coded threats from afar, warning sternly that millions of the world’s people hate us–indeed, as George so eloquently put it, “They hate our freedoms.”

What they hate is that our government, corporations, and military storm around the world in betrayal of every democratic value that the American people hold dear. Bush poses grandly as the noble spear carrier for democracy, yet he (as were his predecessors) is a willing accomplice of brutal dictators and global corporate powers that oppress the world’s people, impoverish them, and plunder their resources. Through his perpetual war agenda, his oil buddies, the World Bank, the arms dealers, his defiance of environmental and human rights treaties, and dozens of other actions, George W. (and our Congress) is an enthusiastic supporter of global-scale theft and thuggery.

Perhaps it doesn’t cross his mind that the people who are being run over can clearly see America’s economic, governmental, and military might behind the thievery and thuggery. Aung San Suu Kyi damned sure saw it. When the generals threw out Burma’s elected government and installed themselves in power, the United States did nothing in support of democracy. Worse, our government turned its back as Unocal, Texaco, and Halliburton cut deals with the new junta (which had given itself the Orwellian moniker of SLORC, the State Law and Order Restoration Council) to develop gas fields there and build the billion-dollar Yadana pipeline across the country. The pipeline partnership stole land from farmers, displaced entire villages, uprooted sections of rain forests, and conscripted locals who were forced at gunpoint to help construct the pipeline. Unocal is still in partnership with these dictators, who daily hound and harass Suu Kyi.

Such upstanding American corporations as Disney, Eddie Bauer, Levi Strauss, Liz Claiborne, Macy’s, and PepsiCo also made business deals with the devils of Burma–though grass roots boycotts and political pressure back here in the United States and elsewhere finally forced them to withdraw (

It is this investment by our oil giants and other corporations that has given the generals the wherewithal to build and maintain a police state that boasts of 300,000 armed forces deployed to stifle democracy and keep the dictatorship in power. This is the face of America that much of the world sees–the face of executives from Unocal, Halliburton, Disney, and others, standing side by side with the SLORCs of the world.

Yet, Suu Kyi does not hate you and me. She knows the difference between us and our corrupt leadership. She is sacrificing her comfort, happiness, and quite possibly her life to try to extend to her country the very values that you and I cherish. She and oppressed people throughout the world love freedom, and they look to the American people as a beacon of the democracy that they seek.

The irony is that she is more aware of what we’re at serious risk of losing here than most Americans are.

Author and columnist Jim Hightower is a former Observer editor. This article is excerpted from his new book, Thieves in High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country and It’s Time To Take It Back (Viking Press, September 2003) and is printed here with permission from Viking Press.

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Published at 12:00 am CST