By John Whitehead
The countdown has begun.
We now have less than one year until the 2016 presidential election, and you can expect to be treated to an earful of carefully crafted, expensive sound bites and political spin about climate change, education, immigration, taxes and war.
Despite the dire state of our nation, however, you can rest assured that none of the problems that continue to undermine our freedoms will be addressed in any credible, helpful way by any of the so-called viable presidential candidates and certainly not if doing so might jeopardize their standing with the unions, corporations or the moneyed elite bankrolling their campaigns.
The following are just a few of the issues that should be front and center in every presidential debate. That they are not is a reflection of our willingness as citizens to have our political elections reduced to little more than popularity contests that are, in the words of Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The national debt. Why aren’t politicians talking about the whopping $18.1 trillion and rising that our government owes to foreign countries, private corporations and its retirement programs? Not only is the U.S. the largest debtor nation in the world, but according to Forbes, “the amount of interest on the national debt is estimated to be accumulating at a rate of over one million dollars per minute.” Shouldn’t the government being on the verge of bankruptcy be an issue worth talking about?
Black budget spending. It costs the American taxpayer $52.6 billion every year to be spied on by the sixteen or so intelligence agencies tasked with surveillance, data collection, counterintelligence and covert activities. The agencies operating with black budget (top secret) funds include the CIA, NSA and Justice Department. Clearly, our right to privacy seems to amount to nothing in the eyes of the government and those aspiring to office.
Government contractors. Despite all the talk about big and small government, what we have been saddled with is a government that is outsourcing much of its work to high-paid contractors at great expense to the taxpayer and with no competition, little transparency and dubious savings. According to the Washington Post, “By some estimates, there are twice as many people doing government work under contract than there are government workers.” These open-ended contracts, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, “now account for anywhere between one quarter and one half of all federal service contracting.” Moreover, any attempt to reform the system is “bitterly opposed by federal employee unions, who take it as their mission to prevent good employees from being rewarded and bad employees from being fired.”
Cost of war. Then there’s the detrimental impact the government’s endless wars (fueled by the profit-driven military industrial complex) is having on our communities, our budget and our police forces. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s largest employer, with more than 3.2 million employees. Since 9/11, we’ve spent more than $1.6 trillion to wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When you add in our military efforts in Pakistan, as well as the lifetime price of health care for disabled veterans and interest on the national debt, that cost rises to $4.4 trillion.
Education. Despite the fact that the U.S. spends more on education than any other developed nation, our students continue to lag significantly behind other advanced industrial nations. Incredibly, teenagers in the U.S. ranked 36th in the world in math, reading and science.
Civics knowledge. Americans know little to nothing about their rights or how the government is supposed to operate. This includes educators and politicians. For example, 27 percent of elected officials cannot name even one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment, while 54 percent do not know the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. As one law professor notes:
Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Fifty-eight percent of Americans can’t identify a single department in the United States Cabinet. Only 5% of high school seniors can identify checks on presidential power, only 43% could name the two major political parties, only 11% knew the length of a Senator’s term, and only 23% could name the first President of the United States.
A citizenry that does not know its rights will certainly not rebel while they are being systematically indoctrinated into compliance.
Asset forfeiture. Under the guise of fighting the war on drugs, government agents (usually the police) have been given broad leeway to seize billions of dollars’ worth of private property (money, cars, TVs, etc.) they “suspect” may be connected to criminal activity. Then—and here’s the kicker—whether or not any crime is actually proven to have taken place, the government keeps the citizen’s property, often divvying it up with the local police who did the initial seizure. The police are actually being trained in seminars on how to seize the “goodies” that are on police departments’ wish lists. According to the New York Times, seized monies have been used by police to “pay for sports tickets, office parties, a home security system and a $90,000 sports car.”
Surveillance. Not only is the government spying on Americans’ phone calls and emails, but police are also being equipped with technology such as Stingray devices that can track your cell phone, as well as record the content of your calls and the phone numbers dialed. That doesn’t even touch on what the government’s various aerial surveillance devices are tracking, or the dangers posed to the privacy and safety of those on the ground. Just recently, a 243-foot, multi-billion dollar military surveillance blimp drifted off, leaving a path of wreckage and power outages in its wake, before finally crash landing.
Police misconduct. Americans have no protection against police abuse. It is no longer unusual to hear about incidents in which police shoot unarmed individuals first and ask questions later. What is increasingly common, however, is the news that the officers involved in these incidents get off with little more than a slap on the hands. Moreover, while increasing attention has been paid to excessive police force, sexual misconduct by police has been largely overlooked. A year-long investigation by the Associated Press “uncovered about 1,000 officers who lost their badges in a six-year period” for sexual misconduct. “Victims included unsuspecting motorists, schoolchildren ordered to raise their shirts in a supposed search for drugs, police interns taken advantage of, women with legal troubles who succumbed to performing sex acts for promised help, and prison inmates forced to have sex with guards.” Yet the numbers are largely underreported, covered up by police departments that “stay quiet about improprieties to limit liability, allowing bad officers to quietly resign, keep their certification and sometimes jump to other jobs.”
Prison population. With more than 2 million Americans in prison, and close to 7 million adults in correctional care, the United States has the largest prison population in the world. Many of the nation’s privately run prisons—a $5 billion industry—require the state to keep the prisons at least 90 percent full at all times, “regardless of whether crime was rising or falling.” As Mother Jones reports, “private prison companies have supported and helped write ‘three-strike’ and ‘truth-in-sentencing’ laws that drive up prison populations. Their livelihoods depend on towns, cities, and states sending more people to prison and keeping them there.” Private prisons are also doling out harsher punishments for infractions by inmates in order to keep them locked up longer in order to “boost profits” at taxpayer expense. All the while, the prisoners are being forced to provide cheap labor for private corporations.
SWAT team raids. Over 80,000 SWAT team raids are conducted on American homes and businesses each year. Police agencies, already empowered to crash through your door if they suspect you’re up to no good, now have radars that allow them to “see” through the walls of your home.
Oligarchy. We are no longer a representative republic. The U.S. has become a corporate oligarchy. As a Princeton University survey indicates, our elected officials, especially those in the nation’s capital, represent the interests of the rich and powerful rather than the average citizen.
Young people. Nearly one out of every three American children live in poverty, ranking America among the worst countries in the developed world. Patrolled by police, our schools have become little more than quasi-prisons in which kids as young as age 4 are being handcuffed for “acting up,” subjected to body searches and lockdowns, and suspended for childish behavior.
Private property. Private property means little at a time when SWAT teams and other government agents can invade your home, break down your doors, kill your dog, wound or kill you, damage your furnishings and terrorize your family. Likewise, if government officials can fine and arrest you for growing vegetables in your front yard, praying with friends in your living room, installing solar panels on your roof, and raising chickens in your backyard, you’re no longer the owner of your property.
Strip searches. Court rulings undermining the Fourth Amendment and justifying invasive strip searches have left us powerless against police empowered to forcefully draw our blood, forcibly take our DNA, strip search us, and probe us intimately. Accounts are on the rise of individuals—men and women alike—being subjected to what is essentially government-sanctioned rape by police in the course of “routine” traffic stops.
Fiscal corruption. If there is any absolute maxim by which the federal government seems to operate, it is that the American taxpayer always gets ripped off. This is true, whether you’re talking about taxpayers being forced to fund high-priced weaponry that will be used against us, endless wars that do little for our safety or our freedoms, or bloated government agencies such as the National Security Agency with its secret budgets, covert agendas and clandestine activities. Rubbing salt in the wound, even monetary awards in lawsuits against government officials who are found guilty of wrongdoing are paid by the taxpayer.
Militarized police. Americans are powerless in the face of militarized police. In early America, government agents were not permitted to enter one’s home without permission or in a deceitful manner. And citizens could resist arrest when a police officer tried to restrain them without proper justification or a warrant. Daring to dispute a warrant with a police official today who is armed with high-tech military weapons would be nothing short of suicidal. Moreover, as police forces across the country continue to be transformed into extensions of the military, Americans are finding their once-peaceful communities transformed into military outposts, complete with tanks, weaponry, and other equipment designed for the battlefield.
These are not problems that can be glibly dismissed with a few well-chosen words, as most politicians are inclined to do. Nor will the 2016 elections do much to alter our present course towards a police state. Indeed, it is doubtful whether the popularity contest for the new occupant of the White House will significantly alter the day-to-day life of the average American greatly at all. Those life-changing decisions are made elsewhere, by nameless, unelected government officials who have turned bureaucracy into a full-time and profitable business.
As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, these problems will continue to plague our nation unless and until Americans wake up to the fact that we’re the only ones who can change things for the better and then do something about it.
This was a recurring theme for Martin Luther King Jr., who urged Americans to engage in militant nonviolent resistance in response to government corruption. In a speech delivered just a few months before his assassination, King called on Americans to march on Washington in order to take a stand against the growing problems facing the nation—problems that were being ignored by those in office because they were unpopular, not profitable or risky. “I don’t determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Nor do I determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion,” remarked King. “Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus.”
Guided by Gallup polls, influenced by corporate lobbyists, and molded by party politics, the 2016 presidential candidates are playing for high stakes, but they are not looking out for the best interests of “we the people.” As King reminds us:
“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”