There seems to exist a pervasive apathy among ordinary American’s today – and that apathy is not without merit. The vast majority of Americans are impotent in the face of an ossified political structure where the individual can do little in the face of billion dollar corporate contributions. Beyond this stark political reality, progressive Americans seem to be trapped in a surreal theater of the absurd. In the rare instance one volunteers their political opinion, they do so at the risk of setting off that one crazy uncle, who seems to think the Federal government is building concentration camps in Utah, or that the Crypto-Nazi Pan-African Socialist who resides in the White House is secretly plotting to disarm us all in the middle of the night. In short, something is terribly wrong with the state of American politics. I hope to shed some light on what went wrong – in the vain hope we can fix it.

There are three issues which need to be addressed in contemporary American politics. The first is the overwhelming feeling of political intransigence felt by millions of disaffected Americans. The second is the billionaire cadre who seem to have co-opted our democracy through unlimited campaign contributions and relentless lobbying. The third is the violent anti-intellectual anti-government strain that permeates our political culture. These three issues are critically interrelated, although one may not immediately see the connection between them. If there is any hope of reshaping the American political landscape, these phenomena must first be understood.

So what does massive political apathy, a billionaire corporate class, and the delusions of everyone’s uncle-once-removed, have to do with the subversion of American democracy? To make sense of this, one needs to understand some recent political history.  Our story begins in the late 1970s, when conservative ideologues devised a plan to ensure control of America’s political fortunes. What they envisioned was no less than an unfettered corporate state. American businesses would profit handsomely from overseas markets and a new globalized economic order, while at home the working poor would be condemned to lower wages and longer hours. Eventually, these same ideologues would work to dismantle the New Deal political consensus which brought social-democracy to the United States. For them, the objective was the continued economic supremacy of a corporate elite. Welfare was not on the agenda.

The success of this ideological project would be astonishing. In a matter of a few short decades the New Deal consensus, a fixture of the post-war establishment, would be broken. The heart of American labour shattered. From Kansas and Wisconsin to Ohio and Nebraska, states that once lauded their progressive credentials were now firmly in the conservative voting bloc. It was a political revolution, but not in the traditional sense, for it was not the people who had changed – they were still the same proud and hard-working men and women of Middle America – it was the issues themselves that had changed. The elite had managed to pervert the nature of American political discourse.

Seemingly overnight ‘the culture wars’ were born, and issues previously thought long-settled like abortion and civil rights were once again up for debate. There emerged a new and perplexing phenomenon – the single issue voter. En masse these voters fled the ranks of the moderate Democrats and pledged allegiance to an evangelical political cadre which promised to protect ‘traditional family values’ and ‘the American way of life’. These were reactionaries in the most dangerous sense of the word and they were winning with significant margins. They prayed on the fear of big government, East Coast academics, and dangerous foreigners.  They spoke in messianic language and harboured an unquestioned zeal to ‘take back the country’.

The secret behind the success of the culture wars is as simple as it is Machiavellian. The conservative elites who engineered a political revolution against gay rights, abortion, and affirmative action actually cared very little about these social issues. To them, the whole charade was a kabuki theater. They generously funded Congressional foot soldier from Waco to Wichita, gave them a platform to spew their rhetoric and when elected demanded their obedience. The assorted entrée of xenophobia and misinformation had worked perfectly. It effectively disguised an agenda of economic deregulation and massive financial fraud, implemented at the expense of the public sector. Once achieved, America was dazed, forced to grapple with raided pensions, busted unions, and a non-existing social safety net.

Today, the effects of this political project are complete. People feel helpless in the face of a corporate sector which inundates Washington with money. All the while, the only meaningful political dissent in the country seems to be focused on non-issues. Gay marriage has nothing to do with a homosexual agenda, but does have everything to do with the aspirational claims of our Constitution, namely that all men are created equal before the law. Abortion was settled by the Supreme Court in 1973 and should stay that way. Climate change is incontrovertible and Jesus did not walk with dinosaurs.  The joke – I am afraid – is on us.

There are a litany of issues which urgently need the attention of Congress and the American people, but they are easily obfuscated. The danger is not a Federal government which snatches our guns, but a Federal government that spies domestically on its own citizens. The best defense against overzealous federal agents is not your Remington rifle, but the fourth amendment clause against unreasonable search and seizure. Some intellectual integrity would be nice from those who think the Federal government cannot mandate healthcare, but can intercept our most intimate communications.

Perhaps the issue of greatest concern is economic inequality and the emergence of a billionaire cadre who runs Washington. A political and business elite with unlimited influence poses a significant threat to our democracy. Let us stop fighting monsters that do not exist and focus on those that do – before it is too late.