A Stilted Age

Commentary on a politics in our times. A Stilted Age

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

June 30, 2010

Fear is an unflattering garment, but we still wear it whenever much is unknown about what lies ahead for us and our kids and grandkids. We live in such a time.

Producing even more anxiety is the lack of control we as citizens currently have over the ship of state. It’s hard not to notice how lawmakers regularly put the demands of wealthy interests ahead of the needs of the general public, and a great many people have lost faith that their elected representatives are actually representing them.

There’s good reason to feel this way. Wisconsin legislators, for example, get roughly $2 of every $3 they raise for their election campaigns from people who cannot vote for them because they live outside their districts. To put an even finer point on where state lawmakers are getting the money to fuel their election campaigns, more than three-quarters of the money raised by legislators in 2009 came from a pool of donors who amount to less than 1 percent of the state’s population.

That the ultra-rich already were doing most of the talking in elections didn’t stop the U.S. Supreme Court and the Federal Election Commission from offering them a helping hand in recent days. The nation’s highest court stepped into an ongoing election in Arizona and blocked the state from distributing public matching funds to candidates who forego big-money private fundraising. Meanwhile, the FEC treated the corporate advocacy group Citizens United as a media organization and gave the Republican Party surrogate a “press exemption” from federal disclosure requirements. This was second time in a matter of weeks that Citizens United and the FEC were in the news, coming on the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC giving corporations a free rein to spend as much as they want to influence elections.

To find a period in American history with a concentration of power, corporate influence and political corruption comparable to today’s you have to go back to the late 1800s. The days of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall and robber barons like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Mark Hanna, the Cleveland industrialist and politician who befriended Rockefeller at a young age, famously said: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” to describe that corrupt era.

It’s odd how our nation’s highest court now says corporations are people, yet today’s captains of industry have never been more faceless and the companies they run have never been more inanimate. Rockefeller, Carnegie and Vanderbilt became household names in the Gilded Age. Who can name the current CEO of Exxon Mobil or the investment bank Goldman Sachs or insurance giant AIG? Which top BP exec was that again who talked of caring about the “small people” whose lives are being ruined by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

No doubt remains that we are reliving the Gilded Age. The only question is what name the historians will finally settle on for this latest era of rampant materialism and blatant corruption. Maybe ours should be called the Stilted Age. The name fits a time when a comfortable few rest easily above the floodwaters while an afflicted many watch jobs and homes and savings and ways of life wash away. Or perhaps the Jaded Age, so named for a society overindulged, exhausted by overwork, dulled by excess. So named for a time when truth competes so poorly in the marketplace of ideas, when opinion is exalted over fact, when ugly propaganda becomes innocuous “spin.”

Light will appear one day at the end of the tunnel. But knowing that is small comfort when you’re feeling around in the dark. History is scariest when it is being made.