A Toxic Oligarchy: Why Citizens United must be overturned to end the War on American Democracy
The strongman dictator of Russia used 28 “Kamikaze” drones supplied by the theocratic dictators of Iran to attack the democracy of Ukraine’s capitol, Kyiv on October 17.
Some of my tragically misguided former colleagues and guests on the left are joining with the most virulent Trump-humpers and Orbán/Putin-lovers on the right in calling for Ukraine to simply surrender a fifth of their country to Russia in exchange for “peace.” As if giving other people’s sovereign land to violent dictators has ever led to peace.
What these people on both political sides are missing is the power of democracy itself to prevent wars, along with the certainty that oligarchy and autocracy, in their end-stages, so often lead to war.
“Nobody wants war,” goes the old refrain, almost always followed with a “but…” And there’s a deep truth buried in there: average citizens almost never want war, even in the face of serious atrocities being inflicted on nearby others.
Wars, in fact, are almost always initiated by autocrats grasping for more wealth and power or trying to neuter popular uprisings against them. Whether it was the British (1775/1812) or the Confederacy (1861) attacking the United States, Hitler attacking Poland, Japan against China in the 1940s, or Russia attacking Ukraine last year, it’s rare to find a major war that wasn’t started by oligarchs, dictators, or kings.
This is precisely why the last years of Putin’s reign; the unrestrained life-or-death power in the hands of Saudi dictator Mohammed bin Salman; and the Chinese Communist Party handing another five years of unparalleled power to President Xi are all so dangerous.
Strong-man or oligarchic coalition rule usually leads to hubris and arrogance; such rulers, unaccountable to the people, in their constant demand for more and more wealth and power, are unrestrained when they choose to attack other nations to get it. Even a cursory review of world or European history finds that kings have been doing this for millennia.
In a truly transparent and accountable democracy, however, the people themselves act as a restraining force on autocrats and oligarchs when they want to go to war.
It takes an extraordinary level of deception to convince the citizens of a functioning democracy to enter an unnecessary war and, when it happens, history does not remember those lying leaders well.
Putin has already started a war that could lead to WWIII (after destroying Syria), MBS has been waging a genocidal war against Yemen, and Xi repeated his intention to take Taiwan by force just this past weekend.
It’s almost as if the planet’s strongmen are trying to prove the point that they are the world’s greatest threats to peace.
America’s Founders knew how seductive war is to those who want to hang onto power in the face of popular unrest or even open revolt.
It reliably produces a rally-around-the-flag effect, as “Father of the Constitution” and 4th President James Madison noted:
“Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.”
It was a serious warning, written in his 1795 pamphlet Political Observations about the need to prepare for a military confrontation with Great Britain (which eventually happened in 1812) because the King was behaving in the belligerent manner despots with unrestrained power so often do when facing popular unrest.
While calling for 10,000 men to be added to the U.S. military to take on Britain (which was still suffering politically and economically from having lost the Revolutionary War), Madison also warned that, if we were to go to war, when the expected attack against America came we must have our eyes wide open:
“In war, too, the discretionary power of the [President] is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people.
“The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
If there was to be a 1795 war with the UK, Madison argued, it must be defensive, we must be prepared, and it must be won decisively to keep it short so it wouldn’t become “continual warfare.”
This power of war to elevate the popularity and power of political leaders was writ large during our generation in George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election — after he had previously lost the 2000 election by more than a half-million votes — on the single issue of his wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.
That simple reality — that democracies will never vote to enter a war unless they believe themselves to be under attack — demonstrates why Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara lied to LBJ about the Gulf of Tonkin “attack,” just as Bush and Cheney lied to America and the world about Iraq’s supposed involvement in 9/11 and weapons of mass destruction.
A nation can either have a transparent democracy or eventually end up in war promoted by oligarchs or autocrats seeking greater wealth and power.
In 1998, George W. Bush told the ghost writer his family had hired to author his autobiography, A Charge To Keep, that he’d have a “successful” presidency if he won in 2000 because he’d use that position to declare war on Iraq.
Reporter Russ Baker interviewed Mickey Herskowitz for his book Family of Secrets, and wrote:
“‘He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999,’ Herskowitz told me in our 2004 interview, leaning in a little to make sure I could hear him properly. ‘It was on his mind. He [Bush] said to me: “One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander in chief.”
“‘And he said, “My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait, and he wasted it.” He said, “If I have a chance to invade, if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed, and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”’”
If I have a chance to invade. Bush, like his father, knew that if the American people were fully informed about the situation in Iraq they would never vote for somebody who tried to take them to war.
Once LBJ realized he had been lied to it was too late to pull out, at least in his mind. Bush Sr., knowing he was lying, brought in PR specialists and Kuwaiti royal family members to lie to America on live television about babies being thrown out of incubators; Bush Jr. and Dick Cheney tweaked intelligence and lied to America about WMD and Saddam’s supposed involvement in 9/11.
These well-known lies in our past make it even easier for Americans today to cynically dismiss support for Ukraine. Nobody wants to get lied into a war, which is why both Bushs’ are treated so poorly by historians and so skeptically even by Republicans.
The most enthusiastic cheerleader for both wars was billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s Fox “News,” an open advocate for Orbán/Putin style oligarchy and skeptic of democracy. He was helped by other corporate media behemoths looking for eyeballs and the revenue they bring, and a defense industry fielding a PR blitz.
Reflecting on this dynamic, former President Jimmy Carter said in July 2015 that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which turned our elections over to the wealthiest Americans:
“…violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. … So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”
Because that’s ultimately the choice: you can have oligarchy or democracy, but you can’t have both for very long. And when a militarily powerful nation chooses oligarchy, they’re ultimately choosing war.
When five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court decided to officially and legally turn America into an oligarchy with Citizens United and its predecessors, they were choosing to end our democracy. While they were probably just trying to please the billionaire ideologues who’d put them on the Court, they were also setting up the death of our republic on the foundation of lied-into-wars.
Abraham Lincoln called out the oligarchs who attacked America in the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt called out the oligarchs who fought against his efforts to establish an American middle class. Today both President Biden and Senator Sanders (among others, particularly members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus) regularly call out the oligarchs who fund the Republican Party’s attacks on democracy.
Most troubling, though, the autocrats and oligarchs of the world — including many here in the U.S. — know well that Americans want a functioning democracy and prefer peace to war. That’s why Russia and China, along with rightwing billionaires in America, have launched an army of social media trolls and media shills to argue that we should just let Putin take Ukraine and give Taiwan to Xi.
The message behind all of that was — just like the message of the America First movement in the 1930s, as Rachel Maddow is so brilliantly documenting — simple:
“We shouldn’t challenge aggressive military powers run by strongmen,” these so-called pacifists say, “because they may drag us into a terrible war.”
History, though, shows that letting dictators get away with land grabs and genocidal attacks on nearby nations leads not to peace but to even worse wars than stopping that activity early would have done.
If antiwar pundits across the political spectrum were truly interested in world peace rather than simply fearful of strongman governments, they would be promoting world democracy rather than trying to restrain Europe and the U.S. from challenging Putin’s genocidal attack on Ukraine or calling for appeasement of Xi on Taiwan.
As On Tyranny author Timothy Snyder writes at his Thinking About newsletter on Substack:
“[D]emocracy can succeed when those who support it are aware of history, are aware of their own historical predicaments, and choose to act.
“In this sense, Ukrainian resistance is a model. If we believe that democracy will be brought to us by structural factors, then we will get more fascism, more genocide, more imperialism.
“But we do not have to believe that. We can believe instead that democracy is always a struggle, but that the struggle is worth it.”
Finally, promoting democracy starts at home. If we are to truly act out the values we profess, we must “struggle” to overturn Citizens United and begin the process of ending the hold a toxic oligarchy currently has on the GOP and the United States.
© Thom Hartmann, used with permission. Originally published on The Hartmann Report as We Must Choose: Democracy or War
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