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Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Fight for the Truth on an Uneven Playing Field

Marx very truly said that the greater the development of the contradiction between the growing productive forces and the existing order, the more does the ideology of the master class become imbued with hypocrisy. The more the falseness of this ideology is revealed by life, the more elevated and virtuous does the language of that class become. (Fundamental Problems of Marxism, p. 88, G. Plekhanov)

It bears noting that the last time that the media and officialdom have taken unidentified flying objects (UFOs) seriously was at the height of the 1950s Red Scare. With batches of military screen shots of objects flying at hyper-speed, darting mysteriously, and astounding experienced pilots, and with the habitually sober and circumspect former President Obama endorsing the sightings, something similar to the mass hysteria of the Anti-Communist inquisitions may be afoot today.

In the post-war period, UFO sightings were a barometer of gullibility. But more importantly, for the sponsors of the Cold War against Communism, accounts of UFOs, movies about space invaders, tales of aliens among us, and a variety of other-world threats offered near-perfect counterparts to the fears mustered about the Red threat. Moreover, they served to gin up fear and hostility to the novel, the different, the “alien.” Whether the “alien” was extraterrestrial or ideologically different, an atmosphere of anxiety, distrust, and terror ensued. The return of Marvel “superheroes” signals a similar return to the “good versus evil” mindset.

Without International Communism as an immediate threat, the purposeful manipulation of fear for political ends becomes a greater challenge to the US ruling class and its elite circle of influencers. Nonetheless, it has managed to draw on fear of Islam throughout the early decades of the twenty-first century, abandoning their erstwhile fundamentalist allies in the twentieth-century Cold War against the Soviet Union, particularly in the war to thwart the Soviet effort to defend a progressive, secular regime in Afghanistan.

Turning on a dime, US rulers unleashed the same crazed religious zealots who were painted as terrorists after September 11, this time in Syria and Libya, painting the mercenaries as freedom fighters. Thousands of these mercenary zealots sit idly in camps in Syria guarded by another opportunistic US ally, the Kurdish self-styled Syrian Defense Forces, awaiting the call to destabilize another independent, secular country.

Today, Chinese efforts to neutralize similar fundamentalist attacks on their secular state are portrayed as oppression of an entire population, the Uighurs.

Through the twists and turns, the massive and powerful US propaganda apparatus shows its mettle. It is easy to underestimate the power concentrated in the monopoly capitalist media and its dedication to a narrow, uniform set of ideas, especially regarding any and all challenges to the smooth operation and dominance of its corporate counterparts (See John LaDue’s insightful video).

Despite the realities of FBI, NSA, and CIA mischief, the media corporations create a fictionalized picture of youthful idealism, diversity, and devotion to justice through television and film. Network television offers the masses a host of shows depicting dedicated public servants relentlessly pursuing evil-- a picture that whitewashes the truth of ruthless service to capital and empire. In the US, an entertainment curtain effectively descends over the truth.

Of course, flipping the truth is nothing unusual for US opinion makers. The news factories line up dutifully behind the campaigns to make heroes out of marginal dissenters in distant lands that dare to defy the US. The US security services honed these skills by enlisting liberal academics to elevate dissatisfied Eastern Europeans to martyr status throughout the Cold War.

Alexi Novalny, a Russian now well known in the West, enjoys this special status, despite the fact that the vast majority of Russians pay little attention to him. Yet if upper-middle class US liberals bemoaning his treatment would steal an hour from listening to NPR and search the internet, they would find that Novalny’s actual political views are most illiberal, the kind of views that would end their brunches in a shouting match.

Roman Protasevich, the hero of the Belarus “resistance,” has an even more sordid biography. His penchant for violating his “journalistic” facade and joining with Ukrainian fascists is well established, though largely unmentioned in Western hagiography.

It’s a curious oversight; Western admirers never ask how it is that these persecuted figures are able to travel extensively, maintain staffs, organize, and establish “independent” media sites, though they have no discernable means of support. Could it be that Western media, should they be interested, might be embarrassed to discover where the money comes from?

If UFOs and superheroes signal a new Cold War, there is no question who US rulers are targeting. The fact that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) escaped both the capitalist crisis of 2007-2008 and the pandemic relatively unscathed and now challenges or exceeds the US economically, has not gone unnoticed by the guardians of US capitalism. As the PRC economy surges ahead and the US economy is plagued by serious imbalances, the machinery of demonization churns out more and more outrageous charges.

Of the many absurdities-- technology theft, spying, aggression, human rights violations-- none shout hypocrisy more than the Great Covid Origin Turnaround. When the media sought to mock Trump’s outlandish claims, there was unanimity around Covid’s natural arrival; nearly all authorities attested to an animal-to-human transference of the virus. Trump was written off as a conspiracy theorist.

But with Trump gone, his “outlandish claim” has become a certainty; the US and its servile allies have now concluded that PRC irresponsibility, even perfidy, have created the Covid virus and endangered the whole world.

The mighty megaphone of elite propaganda can only engineer such a total turnaround in opinion by undermining the public’s capacity for independent, evidence-based thought. That they have done so is proven by the wild swing in popular attitudes towards the PRC. From 2002 to 2020, negative views of the PRC have shifted from 35% to 73% of those polled! In only three years (2018-2021), respondents who “feel ‘cold’ toward China” have leaped from 46% to 67% (Pew Research)! Cold War hysteria has successfully been reproduced.

Shamelessly, the liberal media denounce the sharp rise in anti-Asian hate, a product that they pretend they did not encourage.

Yet the ideological armor constructed by the media has weaknesses. Without Trump to embrace or despise, cable news television has suffered a collapse. May figures show that in the critical 25-54 demographic, Fox News fell 38%, CNN dropped 51%, and MSNBC slid 39% from a year ago. As former CBS CEO Les Moonves giddily said “It [the Trump phenomena] may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Consequently, media executives are trying to rekindle interest in Trump (he has his pants on backwards) or promote a new provocation.

One day, historians will recall, with some amusement and even greater disappointment, an image of Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, returning from a meeting with Elizabeth MacDonough. Ms MacDonough, a pleasant, youngish former Justice Department attorney, had just told the powerful Senate leader that the Democrats could not use a maneuver to bypass the archaic filibuster process and enable a straightforward vote to secure passage of the President’s tepidly progressive legislative agenda. 

Ms. MacDonough, the Senate “parliamentarian,” was never elected by the people; she bore no powers guaranteed by the Constitution, nor certified by the “Founding Fathers;” yet she could forestall one of the two or three most powerful leaders in the US and its highest legislative body from a democratic vote on a bill “...because it would change the culture of the institution…”

The media greets this outrage with a shrug, continuing to hail “our democracy.” As Marxist Eric Hobsbawn noted, the US is the only country in the world to make a fetish of the “Founding Fathers.” But the Founding Fathers never gave an iota of power or recognition to a parliamentarian. Instead, they granted the legislature the right to set (or change) their internal rules at will.

The picture of Schumer dejectedly accepting a decision by a petty bureaucrat would be hilarious, if not so tragic.

The fight against hypocrisy is an unequal fight, but a fight we must wage.

Greg Godels

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Chile, after nearly fifty years of despair

On May 15 and 16 of this year, the people of Chile began a process to overturn the nearly 50-year interruption of the nation’s social and economic development. With the election of a representative body to a forthcoming Constitutional Convention, Chilean voters may finally break away completely from the nightmare imposed by the military-fascist regime of Augusto Pinochet.

The Chilean military’s coup in 1973 broke what was then the longest streak of formal parliamentary rule in any South American country. The international left viewed the Popular Unity coalition government, led by the Socialist and Communist Parties and elected in 1970, as an experiment testing the viability of the parliamentary road to socialism. The Chilean ruling class and the US government also saw it the same way and were determined to crush it.

With the socialist experiment destroyed by the coup and fascist rule installed, Chile became a laboratory for the most aggressive policies of market fundamentalism: privatization, deregulation, and the absolute administration of economic life by profitability. Under the direction of the so-called Chicago School of political economy, Chile became the dream of die-hard free-marketeers: a veritable Hobbesian state-of-nature.

The experiment failed, by bourgeois measures and even more so as measured by every misery index of the people's well-being.

Tragically, the debt incurred in unwinding the worst aspects of the disastrous policy exceeded the debt incurred by the Allende government in expanding the social benefits of the people in 1970-1973.

Since Pinochet’s departure, Chile has been in a limbo between the restraints on change imposed by the undemocratic 1980 Pinochet Constitution and the pressure for democracy and social advance pressed by the social movements.

Finally, with the May 15-16 election of a Constitutional Assembly, and the opportunity to construct a new, progressive Constitution and move beyond the 48 years of retarded development and backwardness, the future of Chile appears brighter. Especially significant in this election was the strong showing by the coalition led by the Chilean Communist Party, garnering the second-most delegates to the convention.

While this is a step forward, one must never forget the costs to the Chilean people of nearly half a century of the effects of fascist repression and unfettered economic exploitation. 

And one must never forget the ugly, brutal role of the US government in destroying the Popular Unity experiment, a role that the US continues to play in undermining independent developments in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, and virtually every other country in the Americas. 

Recently, a reminder of the sweeping, decisive, and unconscionable intervention of the US government and US institutions in Chile came from the records of a partisan of Chilean democracy, a first-hand observer and victim of the machinations of the shameful servants of US imperialism. 

Geoffrey Fox joined eleven other Chicagoans, including trade unionists Abe Feinglass, Ernie DeMaio, and Frank Teruggi, Sr (his son, Frank Jr was murdered by the Pinochet junta) on a fact-finding visit to Chile in February of 1974.  

Cramming interviews, meetings, and even clandestine contacts, the group experienced the full horror of the Pinochet butchery. As one military officer told them: “We have moved from the stage of mass slaughter to the stage of selective slaughter.” 

Upon his return, Fox penned a detailed, first-hand report of the findings. A vice-president of his own American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local, he naturally thought that the national union’s publication, The American Teacher, would be a ready recipient for an article chronicling the harsh fate of teachers under Pinochet.

And indeed, he was right. The editor, a long-standing defender of labor rights, David Elsila, gladly received Fox’s article and pressed for its publication. The article was typeset and all but printed.

But Fox and Elsila underestimated the reach of the Cold War anti-Communist consensus, from its core in the upper reaches of government through the security establishment, the educational system, the media, and the labor union leadership. The Cold War chill brought all of these institutions into compliance with US foreign policy goals (imperialist designs!). 

After purging the left from trade union work and expelling the left-led unions, the center-right labor leadership agreed to an unholy alliance with the US ruling class. In exchange for slavishly following, even promoting, US foreign policy, the labor chiefs sought to achieve an era of cooperation between capital and labor. It was a small price to pay for capital to grant nominal increases in wages and benefits, while getting labor subservience in quelling labor insurgencies in other regions of the world. Militancy and solidarity were surrendered for labor peace, a result satisfactory to both complacent labor leaders and the guardians of capitalism, but a shameful betrayal of the international working class.

No one personified this betrayal more than the assistant to the president of the AFT, Alfred Max Loewenthal. Nearly every AFL-CIO union and the Federation maintained gatekeepers to deny even a hint of radical ideology or militant action to appear within its bounds. More often than not, they were ex-Communists or Trotskyists, who bore extraordinary grudges against the Communist Parties and their left associates. They could be relied upon to vigilantly veto even a whisper of criticism of US imperial policy.

Most notorious of those was Jay Lovestone, an ex-Communist who parlayed his anti-Communism into the leading foreign policy advisor to the center-right in the labor movement and who constituted its conduit to the CIA. It is no exaggeration to view him as the leading Cold War organizer of the US labor movement’s role in its complicity with the CIA in resisting leftist labor movements throughout the world.

The AFT had its own gatekeeper in Al Loewenthal. He came into the labor movement as the leader of an anti-Communist local in the militant United Electrical Workers Union (UE). When a rival, anti-Communist union (IUE) was established to raid UE in the Cold War, Loewenthal enthusiastically joined, rising in the IUE hierarchy before escaping scandal and moving to AFT. 

Loewenthal became an important part of the AFL-CIO anti-Communist, pro-imperialist architecture, serving the notorious CIA collaborating AIFLD.

When Elsila dared to print Fox’s report in the AFT paper, Loewenthal was on it like the rabid watchdog that he was. 

In denying publication to the Fox report on the ruthless repression in Chile, Loewenthal explained:

In essence, what I have written is a criticism-- perhaps also a protest--using the Fox article as a glaring example of the injection of an ideology into A.T. [The American Teacher] which is at variance with AFT and AFL-CIO policy on a current matter.... Even worse, its publication would have made the A.T. the dupe of a Communist strategy on Chile and opened AFT to ridicule.

Elsila mounted an admirable defense, though to no avail. Anti-Communist hysteria always won out in the eviscerated, post-war, Cold War labor movement, as it often does today. He wrote in his appeal:

Fox is a reputable sociologist who has written studies on Latin America; he speaks Spanish fluently; and his trade union credentials include having been elected vice president by his AFT local. The goal of the committee was to determine to what extent workers are suffering under the junta and to report its findings. The commission’s report and Fox’s article are based on interviews with the US ambassador to Chile, junta officials, trade unionists, rank-and-file workers, and others. It is about as comprehensive a report on the status of things today in Chile as one can get.

Of course, none of that mattered to staunch Cold Warriors. Thus, the AFT joined, unknown to its members, in propping up a fascist dictatorship and in taking a stand on the wrong side of the history of the workers’ movement. The members could not be trusted to make up their own minds on the butchery in Chile. 

In place of a report urging solidarity with workers in another land, AFT members got another Cold War saga about Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident. Years later, after Solzhenitsyn was no longer useful to the security services, we learned of his ultra-conservatism, his disdain for democracy, and his anti-Semitism. Truth was sacrificed in the interest of US imperial objectives.

Fox and Elsila fought the good fight. Elsila soon left AFT to edit Solidarity, the newspaper of the United Auto Workers (UAW), a union with its own unpleasant Cold War legacy, but a touch more tolerance. Fox continued teaching and writing about Latin America and addressing other progressive themes: his novel on the Paris Commune will be out later this year.

Their story is more than an anecdote about the Cold War. It is not a reminder of the past; rather, it exposes the unseen mechanisms that constantly mesh and turn, burnishing a false depiction of US foreign policy while undermining the bonds of our common humanity. The same institutions that surrendered their independence, sold their integrity for acceptance in ruling circles, and stained international solidarity operate today in enabling US rulers to undermine social progress from Venezuela to Afghanistan and many places in-between and beyond. 

The dishonesty and ideological corruption that drove Loewenthal to serve the forces destroying Chile after 1973 are still infecting the media, the NGOs, the CIA-funded front organizations, the public intellectuals, the security services, the foreign affairs establishment, and, sadly, the labor movement.

The cost to Chile has been incalculable.

Now, maybe, the Chilean people can move forward again.

Greg Godels

Monday, May 17, 2021

Sacrificed at the Altar of Democratic Party Fealty

The COVID pandemic called into question many of the deeply held, foundational beliefs of twenty-first century capitalism. “Universal truths” like the efficacy of just-in-time production, the sanctity of fiscal restraint, the necessity of balanced budgets, and the sin of direct cash handouts were either shattered or unceremoniously discarded. For those able to think beyond the reformist box, the global pandemic challenged the very legitimacy of capitalism.

But perhaps the greatest myth-busting consequence of COVID was the mirror it held up to the US healthcare system or, more accurately, the US health consumer/insurance industry. 

Of course, most US citizens have long expressed a preference, when properly asked, for a universal system shorn of private insurance, like the original Medicare or a publicly financed, executed, and administered system like the Veterans Administration healthcare system.

It is no secret that, despite widespread support, the US public has been denied its choice by politicians shamefully influenced by the campaign contributions, the intense lobbying, and out-and-out graft of profit and “non-profit” networks, insurance and drug companies, and the political heft of others parasitic on a profit-driven system. While the public surely deserves better, it is mired in a system of increasing complexity, blind, confusing choices, and unfettered cost increases. 

The hucksters of private initiative, competition, and choice never explain that profit-seeking always produces and reproduces deception, consumer uncertainty, and unequal outcomes. They have argued persistently against reform because it would reduce the choices available to the “consumer.” This free-market hocus-pocus remains the default argument of the healthcare industry. But they curiously abandon their commitment to real choice when it comes to the Medicare-for-All option. That choice is foreclosed.

So, when the COVID virus struck the US, the ensuing rapid spread of cases, the shortage of hospital facilities, staff, and equipment, and the obscene rise in deaths exposed the lack of a comprehensive, universal, people-first public health system. States scrambled to find individual solutions to common problems; political calculations overrode human suffering; finger-pointing abounded; and states, municipalities, and systems hoarded scarce resources. Waves of new infections overwhelmed the patchwork, disorganized, and incoherent free-market approach.

Thus, a great opportunity was presented by the catastrophic COVID response of the richest country in the world, an opportunity to popularize the advantages of alternatives to an unpopular, failed system clung to by corrupted politicians and profiteers. 

Indeed, many in the single-payer, Medicare-for-All movement seized this tragic, but instructive moment. Many wrote, spoke, and organized around the devastating failure of private, competitive, profit-driven healthcare options. If anything good could come out of an embarrassing systemic failure, they argued, it would be that it underscored the need to move to a national system of universal and comprehensive healthcare delivered equally to all.

But political opportunism infected far too many who saw a chance to link the COVID catastrophe solely to Donald Trump, rather than lay it at the doorstep of a failed system. Of course, it is possible to heap some blame, a lot of blame on Donald Trump while indicting the system as well. Unfortunately, the crushing imperatives of the two-party system and the emotionally unhinged determination to eliminate Trump at all costs came at a price: the systemic failure of the existing, profit-before-people model and its needed replacement were pushed to the neverland of empty promises. The failure to combat COVID was firmly attached to Donald Trump. 

Blind loyalty to the Democratic Party has overshadowed any commitment to principle. Similarly, the fetish of personality, of form over content, has disabled the advancement of issues. Insofar as Trump was a creep, it was more important to heap blame on him for any and every failure of the system. The movement for single-payer was one of many casualties of this everything-and-everybody up against Trump. 

It is a lazy opportunism to attribute long-standing policy failures, like that of the Rube Goldberg US healthcare system, solely to an unhinged blowhard like Donald Trump. A conventional Democrat (like Andrew Cuomo) would (and did!) fare little better within the disastrous US model. 

Thus, any momentum gained by the COVID catastrophe’s discrediting of the US health-service industry is lost to the exigencies of the Democratic Party. We’ve gotten rid of Trump, but we’re stuck with a President who has declared that there will be no change to a universal system on his watch.

Meanwhile, capitalism’s champions are tirelessly carrying forward the fight to defend the for-profit system. Niall Ferguson, the popular conservative public intellectual known for his staunch defense of the British Empire, has written an essay published in The Wall Street Journal, arguing that had only the politicians taken the same tact as their counterparts did with the 1957 “Asian” flu, the US would have had far better outcomes (Ferguson is famous or infamous for his counterfactual histories).

Buried among a barrage of seemingly disconnected data and slippery comparisons is his thesis: “In 1957, the U.S. rose to the challenge of the ‘Asian flu’ with stoicism and a high tolerance for risk, offering a stark contrast with our approach to Covid-19.” 

Ferguson’s recipe of benign neglect (“Eisenhower did not declare a state emergency. There were no state lockdowns and… school closures.”) stands in stark contrast to his detailed touting of the speedy, efficient development of a vaccine in 1957. He feels no logical discomfort in hailing personal risk-taking and institutional diffidence while, at the same time, praising the government’s speedy, effective vaccine development as significant for success in 1957!

We learn that the hospital-beds-per-thousand-people ratio was at an all-time high (9.18 per 1000) in 1957, over three times greater than in 2020. Ferguson also credits this far-greater capacity decisively to the ‘success’ of 1957. Yet he surely knows that it was his beloved Thatcher (and Reagan) who fueled the market fundamentalism behind the shrinkage of available hospital beds in the interest of capitalist ‘efficiency’ and profit. 

Bathed in nostalgia for the fifties (Elvis, teenage boomer affluence, the Beat generation), Ferguson constructs an idealized world of minimal government, stolid Republican leadership, Cold War smugness, and ethnic hierarchies fearlessly confronting a pandemic and offering an alternative (counterfactually) to our own COVID experience.

If Ferguson’s fantastic, idealized model for confronting a deadly pandemic is the best that the left has to fear, then it has little to fear from his conservative ideological corner.

But the opportunism of the center-left is a huge barrier to securing a rational, universal healthcare system. Indeed, crass calculation infects the behavior of the ‘practical’ left on all issues. By answering every call of the Democratic establishment to put aside a burning issue in order to secure the victory of a ‘winning’ candidate, they guarantee that the burning issue becomes a forgotten issue.

Understandably, mass sentiment may run counter to majority interests, given that the masses are constantly bombarded with fast-food news and conformist commentary on media networks. But there is nothing understandable about liberals and ersatz socialists who willingly defer pressing vital initiatives to the service of a soulless Democratic Party. 

With Trump, it was the politics of tone that captured the attention of the center-left and drew its scorn. Beneath his outrageousness and his dismissive violation of political etiquette, there was little more than another pamper-the-rich tax scheme and bilious rhetoric. The ship of state continued on course, serving the rich and powerful, overfeeding the military-industrial complex, and terrorizing any country that defies US dominance. 

And now with Biden, the ship continues with a new pilot, but essentially on the same course. Certainly, there are adjustments, less bluster, less vulgarity. But that only boosts the politics of tone.

Yes, Biden has projected some ambitious, useful, and large-scale initiatives, but with the condition that he must achieve agreement from some of his Republican counterparts. The belief in such a rapprochement is either naive or a calculated ruse. As fear of inflation mounts, the retreat from ambitious action will accelerate. Biden is the new Obama, not the new FDR.

Allowing the Democratic Party to hold good, power-shifting, life-changing initiatives hostage to electoral success is a strategy that has not and will not work for the good of the people. 

History teaches many lessons; we can’t afford to continue to ignore them.

Greg Godels


Thursday, April 29, 2021



A few months ago, a colleague, Pat Cummings, and I started a podcast entitled Coming from Left Field, a commentary on all things Left. We will bring guests, books, and issues of immediate importance to our followers.



Our three most recent podcasts should be of special interest to readers of ZZ's blog.
  • an interview with Roger Keeran, author of The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions, a pioneering work on the militant, class partisan origins of the UAW and the CIO.
  • a discussion with the dynamic Jennifer Berkshire, co-author of The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, a devastating critique of the destructive, anti-education, pro-for profit movement for public school "reform"
  • An exchange with Toni Gilpin, author of The Long, Deep Grudge, a powerful book about what was once perhaps our most feisty, uncompromisingly anti-capitalist, multi-racial union, The United Farm Equipment Workers Union (FE).

Please feel free to sample our podcasts on the many available platforms, share your thoughts with us, and consider subscribing to future podcasts.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

The People Speak (and They are Angry!)

If you sometimes think that US politicians are aliens descended from another galaxy, you are not alone. A recent Pew poll conducted in November/December 2020 shows that 67% of those surveyed agreed that “most politicians are corrupt.” While the media and the two-party system have done their best to divide citizens into two warring tribes standing before an unbridgeable chasm, scorn for corrupt politicians transcends that divide.

Oddly, this opinion, held by two out of three of our neighbors does not square with the “respected” indices periodically trotted out by Transparency International or Freedom House that place the US in the upper ranks of corruption-free countries. On the other hand, these indices invariably find rampant corruption in the poorer countries of Africa, Asia, and South America. Whoever is on the US or Europe’s enemies list (Russia, PRC) also gets tarred with the corruption label.

Why the difference?

First, the indices are based upon elite opinion. They survey a sample of business people, academics and other professionals for their perceptions, experiences or anecdotes.

Second, they do not distinguish between the minor graft of a poorly paid customs official or a restaurant manager and the massive million- or billion-dollar transactions between lobbyists, contractors, and the politically powerful. Where one may be technically legal and the other a minor illegality, they are weighed the same. Nor are the vast effects on public morale and the political fate of a country weighed against the triviality of a bribe to get a better seat in a concert. 

Apparently, the US public, in its wisdom, is more indignant over millionaire politicians filling their campaign coffers and their bank accounts than with a twenty-peso note slipped into a passport.

From the same Pew poll, we learn that 56% of the US respondents think that “elected officials care what ordinary people think” does not describe their country well. In other words, most people in the US think that politicians do not care about their concerns or priorities. Further, the results suggest that politicians only care about what people other than ordinary folks think.

Then, whose thoughts do our politicians care about?

Clearly, the implication is that the “extraordinary” people who politicians listen to are the rich and powerful, the same people who corrupt politicians.

Consequently, most people have little confidence in the existing political system in the US. Fewer than half (45%) are somewhat (36%) or very (9%) “satisfied with the way democracy is working in their country.” Twenty-four percent-- nearly one in four-- of those polled were not at all satisfied, while 29% are not too satisfied with US “democracy.” 

If our understanding of democracy has something to do with the will of the people, then surely the Pew poll casts a long shadow over the popular notion that the USA is a democracy, indeed, the fullest flowering of democracy. While this finding may be discomforting for some, it expresses the sense of most people. For those talking heads who fretted over losing “our” democracy to the scurrilous Donald Trump, they may actually be concerned about something that is already gone.

The low popular opinion of how well democracy is working leads naturally to the question of its sustainability. On this question, the Pew researchers found that only 7% of those queried felt that the political system, as it exists, doesn’t need change. Another 28% maintain that it only needs minor change. Thus, a solid third of the people are relatively satisfied with the political system in the US.

But nearly two out of three are not! 

Forty-seven percent-- nearly half-- of those polled believe that the political system needs major change. And 18%-- nearly one in five-- think that the current system needs to be “completely reformed”!

Some will say that these results are ambiguous because the questions and terms are elastic. Many meanings can be attached to “major change” or “completely reformed.” Even “democracy” and “political system” are slippery. While this is true, it is true of virtually every poll; we draw conclusions based on our own, often biased, interpretation of the questions asked.

Nonetheless, the fact that nearly two-thirds of the sample express a need for at least major change-- whether that change is the electoral system, the structure of government, or the broad political-economic system-- counts as a powerful, profound expression of dissatisfaction.

Moreover, the dissatisfaction is somewhat nuanced. While respondents are cynical about politicians and their corruption, alienated from elected officials, skeptical about US democracy, and highly critical of the political system, they have a growing trust in government.

Democratic and Republican Party think-tankers may be befuddled by this distinction, puzzled that the public is inconsistent by trusting the government, but not politicians. Yet the distinction makes all the sense in the world-- the government is there to help people and, without the corruption and opportunism of the politicians, can do so. Contrary to the media and the two-party onslaught on “big” government sustained since the Reagan administration, 54% of the people trust the government to “do what is right for the country.” In fact, the percentage has risen over the last 3 years.

The Pew researchers took a further step to determine what kind of changes people would like to see become features of effective, democratic governance. 

One suggestion-- citizen assemblies-- was thought to be an action important for the national government to take. Forty-three percent agreed very much, while another 36% agreed somewhat. As the Pew pollsters noted:

“Citizen assemblies, or forums where citizens chosen at random debate issues of national importance and make recommendations about what should be done, are overwhelmingly popular.”
Respondents were almost equally enthusiastic for another democratic, but even more radical measure: “Allow citizens, and not members of the national legislature, to vote directly to decide what becomes law for some key issues.” Forty-two percent agreed very much and 31% somewhat on such a measure. Again the US public discerns the difference between government and the elected officials and prefer to keep government, while ditching their “representatives.”

The strong support for both citizen assemblies and referenda demonstrates a hunger for a political system that is both more democratic and more connected with the interests of the public than what exists.

Like earlier polls that expressed a decided retreat on the part of the public from the Cold War-imposed unthinking hostility to socialism, this poll shows that the image of the ignorant, backward, conservative masses disseminated by smug elites and media hacks is a myth. Instead, the thinking of the majority is far more advanced, more progressive, dare I say, more radical than that of its “enlightened” betters.

And there is a lesson here for the US left. Shattered into a thousand identity groups, collected around single-issue NGOs, and clinging to the tail of the Democratic Party, most of what calls itself the left is out of touch with the radical, even revolutionary potential simmering under the placid surface of daily US life.

Disillusioned by the decades of rightward drift by the two corporate parties and long since giving up any grand vision, the broad left foresees little and settles for even less.

A left that runs far ahead of mass sentiment is foolish, but a left that misses the opportunities afforded by an angry public, hungry for change, is tragically irrelevant.

Greg Godels