Politicians aren’t as Incompetent as They Seem
August 28, 2011
Just who’s pulling the strings?
I’m all tied up in you
But, where’s it leading me to?
–“Puppet on a String
” (1967) by Bill Martin & Phil Coulter. Performed by Sandie Shaw.
American voters disagree on many issues but nearly all agree that government’s performance has been abysmal.
Americans’ satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States has fallen back to 11%, the lowest level
since December 2008 and just four percentage points above the all-time low recorded in October 2008…The all-time low of
7% came in an Oct. 10-12, 2008, poll, conducted shortly after stock values plummeted following Congress’ passage of the
TARP legislation in response to the September 2008 financial crisis. (Gallup.com, August 18, 2011)
The data show that public confidence fell most sharply when the President and Congress rejected majority public opinion
on economic issues, namely bank bailouts
and federal debt reduction
. Those were not the only disappointments, by any means. On a variety of issues, from healthcare reform to credit card
legislation, government officials have given lip service to the wishes of their constituents.
Political commentators and candidates for political office regularly attack government officials as inept. President
Bush was labeled incompetent
. President Obama is criticized as a poor negotiator
. Democrats, in general, are described as weak
while Republicans are viewed as cold-hearted
. Unsurprisingly, that is how voters perceive
the parties, also.
Few of these politicians were really incompetent. Many failed to produce the results voters said they wanted. But, that
may be because the politicians were serving a different constituency: a wealthy corporate elite. With a coterie of lobbyists
constantly tugging on their strings, political puppets are bound to appear clumsy. They know how to get what they want,
though. Most freshman members of Congress are millionaires
, after all.
The only downside for political puppets is the possibility of voter backlash at election time. Economically, however,
politicians are well-insulated from public displeasure. Whether they are booted from office or decide to retire, they
can look forward to cushy jobs with corporations
, corporate lobbies,
and corporate-funded think tanks
Elected officials have another incentive to be responsive to corporate lobbying: their stock portfolios. For example,
eight members of Congress hold $50,000 or more in Apple stock, reports OpenSecrets.org (August 25, 2011), and one of the
eight (Nancy Pelosi) reportedly has Apple stock worth $1 million or more. Observers have noticed that Congressional
the stock market and even out-perform investments held by corporate insiders
Some outraged citizens have called for mass demonstrations. But, demonstrations against government policies tend to fail
when the policies are profitable for corporations, observes psychologist Bruce Levine. In his book, Get Up, Stand Up, Levine writes:
Major corporate interests were at stake in the Iraq invasion, especially those of the energy-industrial complex and the
military-industrial complex. Another role of the US government—along with deflecting criticism from corporations and
putting down uprisings—is to wage wars deemed useful to the corporate elite. Despite the large demonstrations against
the Iraq War, the resistance offered was not disruptive to a government that is dependent on the corporate elite rather
than on the people it supposedly represents. (Levine, p. 184)
Some activists are taking their grievances straight to the corporations. When “done intelligently,” says Levine, even
small protests have been effective (Levine, p. 186). But, most voters still don’t see beyond the smokescreen that
protects the string-pullers from accountability.
The corporatocracy is most delighted to see demonstrations against government policies in which there are no corporate
interests at stake—issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage. These are issues that divide Americans into
distrusting camps so that they can be easily conquered on the issues that the corporatocracy does care about. (Levine,
What corporations care about, of course, is making a profit. Americans hoping to regain control of government therefore
need to find ways to influence corporations through the power of their collective purses. But, most Americans still
think of political power only in terms of the ballots they cast on election day. And, anyway, the puppet shows are a
Linda Lewis is a policy analyst with degrees in emergency management and geosciences. Her experience includes 13 years
as a policy analyst and planner for the U.S. government. During that time, she brought attention to serious deficiencies
in government preparedness prior to the disasters that confirmed her analyses. Those included emergency communications
(9/11 terrorist attacks), federal assistance (hurricane Katrina) and decision making (Columbia shuttle disaster).