(RNS) The two most critical requirements for democracy are freedom of the press and an educated citizenry.
The one informs the people and brings government and power into the open. The other enables people to comprehend information and to discuss opinions without resorting to panic and violence.
Power elites have declared war on both requirements.
These include “big money” oligarchs, such as the people who gather around the Koch brothers, politicians who cater to the wealthy in exchange for campaign contributions and government officials who have come to identify with the corporate and financial interests they regulate.
Through acquisitions of newspapers and television outlets and intimidation of reporters, these power elites seek to turn the press into propaganda vehicles and to distort information.
Through deliberate underfunding of public schools, scapegoating of teachers and imposing “standards” unrelated to actual quality, the powerful subvert public education; paralyze the teaching of science, literature and history; and denigrate as elitist anyone who worries about a population that increasingly cannot read, reason, know its own history and manage basic tasks.
This war on the foundations of democracy sheds new light on other agenda items pursued by the powerful.
I had thought unrelenting opposition to the Affordable Care Act was about undermining a black president and serving heavy donors. Now I think it’s about making sure expendable and unimportant people don’t live too long.
I had thought legislators were simply afraid of the National Rifle Association. Now it seems they want people to start shooting each other, driving them indoors, stifling protest and public disagreements.
I had thought mindless denial of climate change was pandering to polluters like the Koch brothers. It does do that, but denial serves two larger purposes, as well. It calls science into question and thereby exalts superstition and ignorance, and it guarantees shortening of life.
Unleashing money into politics is partly about winning the next election, but even more it is about ushering in anti-democratic conditions such as campaigns dominated by one-sided messages employing the “Big Lie” tactic, as well as demonization of opponents, sanctification of allies and refusal to compromise.
Meanwhile, wealth consolidates into fewer and fewer hands, and an avaricious and scornful oligarchy ignores normal constraints like shame and civic-mindedness.
I had thought cozying up to fringe elements such as the Tea Party was a back door for inserting religion and blame into local and national politics. It has had that effect, but we also are seeing a great lie of deflection, which turns those hurt by oligarchy against each other, so that oligarchy has free rein. In the same way, Southern plantation owners turned poor whites against former slaves in order to prevent their making common cause against the wealthy.
Religion plays along, because churches are desperate for money and warm bodies and religious leaders like being courted. As a result, we have small and irrelevant debates over “religious freedom” that have nothing to do with religion or freedom, but simply stir alarm among the vulnerable, as well as entitlement bickering that turns churches into hothouses of privilege, rather than revolutionary voices.
People get pushed off center by phony “assaults on the Second Amendment.” As a result, our homes, malls, schools, restaurants and streets become battle zones populated by swaggering men and women brandishing automatic weapons.
This pervasive agenda isn’t just about winning elections. It is about ushering in a new era of division and repression, in which American citizens fundamentally distrust and loathe each other and thus are easily manipulated.
If power elites prevail, fearful people will welcome an autocratic leadership that promises to ensure safety and comfort and to keep the loathed other in line.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)