If the U.S. is an Oligarchy, What Does that Make Canada?

This is a guest post by author and filmmaker Michael Harris. It was originally published on iPolitics.

Why do I know that Stephen Harper would hate these guys?

You have probably never heard of Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page but their message just might wake up dozing Canadians oblivious to the decline of our democracy.

They are professors from Princeton and Northwestern universities and they have just pronounced American democracy dead. Some have already called this the “Duh Report because the ugly truth has been apparent for quite some time: The United States is now the land of the rich and the home of the knave; an oligarchy.

I know. Stephen Harper would say the professors are perpetrating sociology. Perhaps. But sociology beats the ongoing Big Brother impersonation that this prime minister passes off as democracy.

Harper’s grip on power is based on ignorance being strength. As poll after poll confirms, his strongest support is from people who know the least about public issues, the bumper-sticker crowd. What could be wrong with Bill C-23? It’s called the Fair Elections Act, right?

Conversely, the more people learn about Harper policy, the less they like it. Hence the need for all those commercials aimed at the ill-informed and disengaged — paid for by taxpayers. The prime minister now reports on himself in a weekly video. It wastes the time of up to four officials from the PCO and other staff members from the PMO. It is a raging success; 21 viewers for the French language version in Quebec. Of course, Harper cannot share with us how much it costs to produce. We are the piggy-bank, the government is the pig.

Back to the professors. In a democracy, the will of the people is supposed to be paramount. But in an America built by too many Republican administrations, where government and business are one in the same, the average citizen has all the power of a small animal going over Niagara Falls. The way the professors see it, the rich few dominate policy, the plankton people have no influence. That is not democracy.

“A proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favour) is adopted only about 18% of the time”, the professors write, “while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five elites in favour) is adopted about 45% of the time.”

The professors found that when a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or “organized interests” they generally lose. Worse, even when “fairly large majorities of Americans” favour policy change, they generally don’t get it if it collides with the status quo that elite interest groups are constantly lobbying to maintain.

As reported by the BBC, the professors arrived at their conclusion by breaking down answers to 1,179 survey questions asked over a twenty-year period from 1981 forward. They separated the responses by income level and then connected how often various income levels and organized groups saw their policy choices realized.

The road to oligarchy in the United States ran through the U.S. Supreme Court. In two major, and I would argue disastrous decisions, the court extended personhood to corporations and lifted campaign funding limits during elections. As a result, government of the many has become government of the money.

Since the Supreme Court has also granted political speech to corporations, the people with the most money will now also have the most free speech. Big money drowns out little voices. As U.S. neo-conservative consultant Arthur Finkelstein has always said, money is important because it determines who gets heard. It was exactly what bothered Thomas Jefferson when he warned against the dangers to American democracy posed by “the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations.”

Corporations already had special legal protection and advantageous tax status before these latest U.S. Supreme Court decisions. What have they done with those advantages that now include “personhood”? Enriched themselves, and cheated their country.

Consider this: Up until 1947, corporate tax contributions tracked contributions by individuals. After all tax breaks and relief, both sides paid 9 per cent of what they earned to the government. After business-friendly tax legislation was enacted in the United States in 1947, the ratio changed dramatically: Citizens still paid their 9 per cent, but the corporate contribution fell to a measly 1 per cent. Today, some of the biggest corporations like General Electric and Microsoft have zeroed out their taxes completely.

These deadbeat multinationals are the death knell of democracy. According to Bloomberg News, U.S. multinationals have loopholed their way into booking more and more of their profits offshore and leaving it there — nearly two trillion dollars. (Canadian corporations are not reinvesting the cash windfalls from Harper tax cuts but stashing them — a practice that drew the criticism of outgoing Bank of Canada chairman Mark Carney.)

The big loser south of the border is the U.S. government, with lost tax revenue from the accounting chicanery of offshoring profits set at a minimum of $30 billion and maybe as high as $90 billion. The U.S. Senate scrutinized one unit of Apple Inc. “that’s incorporated in Ireland, controlled by a board in California, and doesn’t pay taxes in either place.” How much profit did it book? A cool $30 billion, tax free. That doesn’t build many bridges or fix many roads State-side.

These corporations and their political mouthpiece, the Republican Party, are Stephen Harper’s heroes. He has spent his entire political career marching Canada down the same corporate road that leads to oligarchy. He is less the prime minister of a country, than a super-salesman of corporate interests. That’s why his policies often look so wacky but aren’t. They do exactly what they are intended to do.

They are not designed for the country’s benefit, but for corporate interests. That’s what Nexen and Northern Gateway are about. That’s what Harper’s revenue-losing corporate tax cuts are all about. The corporations get break after break, and the public loses its mail service, veterans lose their service centres, and public servants get their pink slips.

Like his Republican brethren, Harper too went to court to lift spending limits in political campaigns. Like his Republican brethren, he too argued it was a free speech issue and wanted no spending limits on so-called third parties during elections. He went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where he lost in 2004. The judges decided that setting limits on third-party political contributions during the writ period was not a free speech but a fair play issue.

What did Harper do? He spent taxpayers money to campaign between elections, risibly disguising party advertising as public service announcements. He satisfied himself with pre-writ spending until he got a chance to increase spending limits during the writ period by others means.

Those other means are to be found in the democracy killing provisions of Bill C-23, a piece of legislation that suppresses voting, politicizes the electoral process, weakens Elections Canada, and yes, exempts fundraising as a campaign expense if someone has donated before — even though it is obviously an expense.

If this intolerable piece of legislation passes without amendment, Canada will have followed a course that professors Gilens and Page say has turned the United States into an oligarchy.

We haven’t got far to go; 86 families in this country, representing .002 percent of the population, have accumulated more wealth than the poorest 11.4 million Canadians.

If it can be said that Stephen Harper has a vision at all, it is to keep it that way.

Image Credit: Ross via Flickr

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