The horror of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and the revelation that a deeply troubled 19-year-old had been able to legally buy a semi-automatic rifle and pick off 17 classmates and teachers was the last straw. A week later, the president went on national TV to announce a radical change in policy and that “‘thoughts and prayers’ are no longer enough.” In a display of leadership, he announced a halt in the sale of military-style rifles as well as all gun sales to customers younger than 21.
“Based on what’s happened and looking at those kids and those parents, it moved us all unimaginably,” the president said, “To think about the loss and the grief that those kids and those parents had, we said, ‘We need to do something,'”
Much of the nation applauded the bold move by the commander-in-chief … of Dick’s Sporting Goods, one of the nation’s largest retailers. The decisive action by Dick’s CEO Edward Stack triggered a wave of similar moves by mega-chains like Walmart and Kroger (AR-15s in supermarkets?… surprising) that was certainly a stark contrast to the clueless dithering in political capitals from Washington to Tallahassee.
The elected “president of all the people,” Donald Trump, was a bright orange spinning ball of sound and fury on the gun issue, signifying less than zero; the 45th POTUS ping-ponged from an inane push for armed teachers to shockingly liberal policy pronouncements in a nationally televised confab with congressional leaders, to tossing all that in the trash after dinner with the NRA lobbyists who’d pumped $30 million into Trump’s 2016 campaign. A few miles from the Parkland school, a humbled Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (NRA-related donations: $3.3 million) told angry shooting survivors he was reversing course on issues like raising the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles and maybe even a ban on high-capacity magazines, only to forget much of what he said when he got back to Washington. Florida lawmakers banned the sales of guns like the AR-15 this weekend in a voice vote — only to realize in a cold sweat that it had angered its masters in the gun lobby and quickly repealed the move.
In the 18 days since Parkland, the governmental response to school shootings has been next to nothing — even on gun safety measures that are overwhelmingly favored by the American people. You’d be hard-pressed to find an idea with greater public support than strengthening gun background checks — backed by at least 85 percent of voters and a mind-boggling 97 percent in one recent survey — yet even that, and the slaughter of 20 kindergartners and first-graders in Connecticut five years ago, didn’t convince Congress to act. Public support for stricter — and saner — gun laws has spiked to 66 percent since Parkland, yet our deer-in-the-headlights lawmakers stand numb, paralyzed. It’s the most powerful proof yet that democratic government in America is broken beyond repair.
You probably already knew that. But the Parkland aftermath has laid bare another fundamental change in modern American life that is truly stunning, with powerful implications for both the present and future of our fragile experiment in democracy. After seven decades of rampant post-war consumerism, in a world shaped by omnipresent marketing, where “corporations are people, my friend” with unlimited power to buy politicians with campaign contributions and to create enormous wealth at the expense of the middle class, the fundamental relationships have changed. Government of the people, by the people and for the people is dead. Corporations rule the land, and are now using that clout to eliminate the ineffective middlemen of politics and to set our policy. And citizens like you and me? It turns out we have some limited sway — not as voters but as consumers.
This has been happening all around us. In space exploration, for example, NASA’s budget has been halved (in real dollars) from the glory days of the 1960s, reducing the occasional vow from Trump or his predecessors to return to the moon to ridiculous babble; the field has been ceded to billionaire Elon Musk, whose privatized rocket launches have become what the Mercury and Gemini liftoffs were to my baby boomer generation. Likewise, government dithering on making the reforms of Obamacare work have prompted a bevy of corporate giants — Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway (owned by two of the wealthiest men in human history, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet) and J.P. Morgan Chase — to launch their own company to disrupt the way that health care is delivered. Mass transit not getting people where they need to go in the 21st century? Why fix mass transit, when you can launch the Google Bus? And those examples are just the tip of the iceberg.
What’s most interesting is the subtle way this dynamic has changed in the 2010s. Accumulating corporate power and privatization of government functions (like charter schools) has been going on since the Reagan years, but now the big firms are going beyond economic policy to take a leadership role on the social issues where Washington and many state capitals are out of step. The reasons are complicated and probably more worthy of a book than a newspaper column, but corporations realize the factors that have tilted government to the right of public opinion — extreme gerrymandering, the influence of Fox News and talk radio profiting off right-wing conspiracy theories, fear of groups like the NRA — have also created a growing disconnect in today’s America.
The American majority that concentrates in urban areas and on the two coasts — the people who gave Hillary Clinton roughly 3 million more votes in 2016 — that wants action on climate change, social equality and now gun control, tends to also have more disposable income, and money is the new vote in our sometimes-benign corporate oligarchy. That’s how you get most of our multi-national corporations — even fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, for God’s sake — taking global warming seriously, while the federal agency tasked with protecting our earth, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is run by a climate (and evolution) denier. But it took the fallout from Parkland — and the courageous teenage survivors who’ve kept the gun issue on the front burner — to bring it all into focus.
In 2012 after the Newtown shooting, angry voters turned their immediate attention to Congress and were flabbergasted when Congress did nothing. In 2017, energized by the power of social media to create consumer movements that weren’t possible in an earlier time, activists immediately looked for ways to target the NRA directly. Almost immediately, amid a volley of tweets promising to boycott any firm that does business with the gun lobby, a slew of rental-car companies and airlines immediately responded by cutting ties to the NRA. (Which prompted the only major governmental action so far, a retaliatory and possibly unconstitutional attack on Delta by gun-addled Georgia lawmakers.) When Dick’s Sporting Goods took the lead on restricting gun sales, it may have been a perfectly human response to a tragedy, but it was also an acknowledgement that most of its sales of nonlethal items like soccer balls and cleats are made to the teenagers (and their parents) who are taking the fight to the NRA.
So we should all welcome, in the infamous words of Simpsons newscaster Kent Brockman, our new insect overlords, the American corporation, right? Uh … not exactly. For one thing, Dick’s or Walmart ending the sale of assault rifles has a big impact, but it’s no substitute for the force of law when a determined but crazed gunman like the Florida gunman still can find a smaller gun shop that will sell him an AR-15.
But more importantly, the political agenda of Big Business isn’t really the public good — it’s where public goodwill can increase their profits. In other words, social responsibility on climate change or LGBTQ rights may on some level reflect what C-suite executives think is right, but the broader purpose is to keep people buying into a regime that has also spent 30 years promoting growing income inequality, runaway CEO paychecks and economic policies that have devastated the working class. It’s telling that the only time Congress and Trump showed the skill to actually pass something in 2017 was a massive tax giveaway for corporations and billionaires.
Government by corporate fiat is unequal, unfair, haphazard — and no substitute for the fundamentals of a participatory democracy that America was founded on. While our new system may occasionally “work” when it comes to large retailers and the assault rifles they never should have been marketing in the first place, the gigantic cracks in this system are starting to show. Look no farther than West Virginia, where the system led by a drunk-on-fossil-fuels state government created a world where schoolteachers had to work the cash register at Hardee’s to make ends meet — until they said enough is enough and shut down every school in the Mountaineer State. Now, workers in other areas of government and even other states are thinking about joining the West Virginia teachers in their dramatic walkout — because the average American is at her or his wit’s end about how we got to this sorry state and what to do about it.
Corporations aren’t the solution. No, the answer is for new, not-beholden candidates to get on the ballot for November and for a wave of new or re-energized voters to elect a new government that will enact the policies that are supported by the vast majority of the American people. We need to take back our government, reclaim democracy, and declare an end to this strange time of business oligarchy. Come 2019, we need to thank people like Edward Stack from Dick’s and rocket man Elon Musk for their service, and put the people back in the CEO’s corner office of making public policy.