We the people of the United States find ourselves in a political crisis and resurgent tribalism that pits left against right, hard-left against moderate-left, and extreme-right against everyone else. The result is a political impasse that leaves us unable to address our own needs domestically and has stripped us of credibility globally.
The crisis has a simple explanation, and it didn’t start with the current occupant of the Oval Office. Irrespective of where we fall on the political spectrum, a great many of us don’t trust our own political system. Nor should we: It represents power that is captive to interests quite at odds with our own.
Two recent news stories brought this home to me in a way that might help us find common cause across the political spectrum.
The first story was about a meeting of the World Health Organization. Ecuador introduced a resolution calling on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and to restrict promotion of food products found to have deleterious effects on young children. Now what could be more unassailable than that?
Breastfeeding is a wholly natural process and scientific studies confirm that breast milk is the best food source for infants. While most all the national representatives rallied behind the initiative, the United States’ representatives stood firmly in opposition. They even threatened Ecuador with trade sanctions and a cutback in military aid.
Their stance surely did not represent the interests or preferences of the American people. The U.S. representatives left those present with no doubt that they were representing the interest of transnational corporations that sell infant formula.
Within days of the breastfeeding incident, President Trump was attacking the U.S.’s NATO allies in Europe for spending too little on their militaries. At first mention his argument seemed reasonable. Surely our allies should pay their fair share for our common defense.
But then a deeper reality hit home for me. Collapsing environmental and social systems are the greatest current threat to U.S. and world security. The more of Earth’s resources we use preparing for and conducting wars, the less we attend to the needs of our own people and the greater a burden humanity bears. That means we deprive more people of a means of living, more places on Earth become rendered uninhabitable, and a greater number of people are forced to flee their homes as desperate refugees, or are turned in fear and hatred to terrorism against real and imagined enemies.
The biggest share of U.S. military expenditure goes to preparing for war with another world power—specifically, Russia or China. Russia may tamper with our elections and China is beating our socks off as a global economic competitor, but both have much to lose and nothing to gain from starting a 20th century-style conventional war with the United States that would be fought with 21st century weapons. They are aware such a war would have devastating consequences for all—worst of all if it involved nuclear weapons.
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia has not threatened us and our interests nearly so much as we have threatened Russia’s interests. We’ve integrated former members of the Soviet Union into NATO right up to the borders of Russia. China’s economic expansion is simply following the U.S. example, but doing so far more competently.
Our military, however, has not been idle. We have wasted many lives and caused much damage to people, infrastructure, and nature pursuing pointless wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Our drone strikes inflict further pain and terror on helpless innocents in more countries than we know.
Our problem is not that we and our allies are spending too little on war, but that we are spending far too much. The parallel to the U.S. stance on breastfeeding is clear. The interests served by bloated military budgets and endless wars against sometimes wholly imagined enemies are corporations that profit from defense contracts.
The misguided corporatist loyalty of the U.S. political establishment did not begin with the Trump presidency. Defense contractors and infant formula corporations are just two examples of the abuse of unaccountable institutional power in which both Republican and Democratic parties have been complicit for decades. Not all Republican and Democratic politicians are willing corporate shills, but the dynamics of the political process force most of them to fall into line with corporate interests—especially at the national level.
The political establishment’s sellout to corporate interests is reflected in every aspect of policy from military, to health care, to financial regulation, to education, the environment and much else. And the sellout is not exclusive to the Republican Party. We experienced it as well with the Clinton and Obama administrations—which explains why so many didn’t trust Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
When two corrupt parties control the political system, debating which is the more corrupt simply diverts attention away from addressing the source of the corruption. In this case, the source is extreme inequality combined with a system of law that allows for a virtually unlimited concentration of corporate power. At the same time, corporations are granted more rights than people are, and are exempted from accountability to the communities in which they do business and from liability for the harm they cause.
The corporate establishment has been winning this battle for decades by keeping us divided between those who place the blame on business and the market and those who place the blame on government.
Responsible businesses and accountable governments are essential institutions, as are fair and ethical markets. All could be corrupted if the electorate allows for concentrations of unaccountable monopoly power. All institutions require an ethical frame and a clear order of accountability.
Government must be accountable to the electorate. Businesses must be accountable to accountable governments. And markets must function within an ethical framework and agreed rules that are fairly enforced by those accountable governments.
Unaccountable corporations protected from public accountability by unaccountable governments leads to certain disaster. And yet, here we are.
President Trump’s unintended gift to the nation and the world may be to awaken us to the reality that, far from being the global model for democracy and a community-centric market economy, the United States’ political system is fundamentally corrupt and destructive to the common good.
Our future depends on bridging the artificially cultivated political divide that serves only interests fundamentally contrary to our common well-being. In the short-term, only the richest of the rich are served by the concentration of wealth and power that in the long term serves none of us. We must all, including the principled wealthy, work to dismantle the institutional instruments of monopoly power while creating truly democratically accountable institutions and markets that advance the equitable redistribution of wealth.
United we stand, divided we fall is a rallying cry for our time. We must do this together.
David Korten is co-founder of YES! Media, president of the Living Economies Forum, a member of the Club of Rome, and the author of influential books, including “When Corporations Rule the World” and “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” His work builds on lessons from the 21 years he and his wife, Fran, lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty.